Friday, March 20, 2015

Camera Lucida

In French, it's "La Chambre Claire" -- the clear (or empty) chamber. The term was originally coined to describe an optical device invented in 1807, which reflected and refracted the image of a solid object onto paper. But for Barthes, it's a metaphor for the larger re-arrangement of our ways of seeing ushered in by the invention and popularization of photography.

When first announced by Daguerre, photography was claimed as the "pencil of nature," with photographs the work of the Sun itself. And yet, were that true, where could art possibly enter in -- one is reminded of Joshua Reynold's reassurance to Robert Barker that his newfangled "Panorama," though very realistic in its effect, was still "within the purview of Art." There must, then, be some human agency in how a photograph is "taken" (what a curious verb we use!), how it is developed, edited, printed, and reproduced, and how then received by its viewers.

This is what Barthes sets out to investigate, beginning with his own, seemingly subjective, responses to a series of photographs. He uses, at first, the classical French structuralist terms: the photograph is the "signifier," its seeming subject the "signified," the actual source in reality the "referent." And yet, in order to account for the experience of seeing a photograph, he finds he must introduce two new terms, the punctum and the studium. The studium simpy put, is what the photograph "says" it is about -- which might be "I am a photograph of some poor people," or "This is the Sphinx at Gizeh." There are, doubtless, illustrations in textbooks and works of reference that are, in essence, nothing more. But then there is something else, something which Barthes sees as "piercing" the viewer, the punctum. It might be a crooked tooth in a boy's mouth, or the glint in one eye of a man about to be hanged. Once seen, it shatters the distance that the studium can only gesture towards, and hurls us into the immediacy of the scene: we cannot look away.


  1. I am interested in Barthes' need to define photography and his experience with it. I was surprised that he was trying to define the art based on the photographer and not the work itself. I also think that the opinions and experiences change based on the viewer. The image of Mayday, Moscow struck me differently. The look the old woman gives the camera is more of a punctum for me, whereas he could only admire the image for what he observed and it's historic value.

    These are my first thoughts after reading part one of Camera Lucida. I think after we discuss, I might be able to formulate more defined impressions but that's what I have so far....

    1. Rachel, good thoughts here. In some ways, Barthes takes up the mantle of art critics such as Ruskin, who famously judged paintings on how they made him feel, rather than on the artist's intent or the painting's supposed subject. Phenomenological criticism generally takes this same view.

      Barthes, of course, goes further -- he takes his own subjective response and turns it into a complete terminological system! -- but it's at least a system that others can use -- as you have -- to describe responses quite different from his.

      We should have a lively discussion in class today!

  2. Tatevik MartirosyanMarch 23, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    I enjoyed reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes for several reasons. First, Barthes text is centered on photography, and his love for photography. Photography is a part of each and every one of our lives. Everyday, sometimes several times a day whether it is with our phones, or with our iPads, and cameras we are taking pictures of those around us, of nature, of ourselves, and for Barthes photography is much more than capturing images, he finds so much meaning in not just the picture itself, but the act of taking photographs and the person themselves who is capturing that moments. Specifically, chapter five of the text was the most interesting to read, because Barthes discusses how when we know that a picture of us is being taken, we instantly change. We pose in a certain way, maybe our facial expression changes, and so on, thus, we becomes not who we are, but who we want other people to think we are. Especially with the increase in social media and sites such as Facebook and Instagram, people post pictures of themselves for others to see, and as Barthes discusses they transform from subjects to objects.

    I appreciated the way Barthes incorporated his mother into the text as well. He claims that a photograph does not automatically become "meaningful" simply because of the person in the photo, for example his mother. I myself have photographs that I like better than others, and the reason for that is the photo contains people that are very dear to me, nevertheless, I have never taken the time to think about the photograph itself, but rather the memories that are contained in that picture.

    Camera Lucida was an interesting read that certainly transformed by thoughts on photography.

  3. Here's one rough comment, one of the millions that could be made about the text:

    With all Barthes' sort-of-grand descriptions of the moment at which he recognizes what is "there in the image"–this moment of "satori," which he calls it at times–there seems to be something mystical about the assertions of Camera Lucida. It surprises me; I don't know very much about Barthes himself at all, but I certainly did not expect Barthes to be searching for the (pseudo-spiritual) essence of the photograph. Rather, I thought, in his breed of intellectual circle, such a search was done away with as futile and confused (and I think Barthes might acknowledge this outmodedness of the nature of his endeavor at certain points in the essay). I definitely do not at this point know the Walter Benjamin completely, but, with Benjamin's point about the loss of "genius" and "authenticity" in the photograph through its thorough reproducibility, I associate the loss of a metaphysical essence supporting such traditional concepts applied to artistic mediums–the sort of thing Benjamin seems to be getting at is the loss of valid appeal to the traditional metaphysical essence in analysis of contemporary artistic works. But, nevertheless, Barthes comes along (roughly 50 years later I think) and sets out to grasp the artistic authenticity of the photographic image, its essence.

    Now, it's perhaps the case that the kind of "essence" he's talking about is in no way traditional, and in fact it may be those seemingly nontraditional qualities of the kind of essence he's describing which entail his mysticism. Evidence for its nontraditionalness is maybe foreseeable in his important distinction between the photograph and language: language is interpretive and metaphorical, and that means any essence of a thing which is revealed within the language itself is purely fictional. On the other hand, what the photograph reveals within itself is the very thing (I think that's what he's saying?). Barthes' references once or twice Nietzsche's derision of Western metaphysics, Nietzsche's contention that all truths, all philosophical concepts and essences are merely "fictions," that they reveal no absolute truth about nature. But perhaps it's fair to say that Barthes' is talking about a different kind of essence than the traditional philosophical essence Nietzsche & his postmodern descendants wanted to do away with (after all, even if you do away with the absoluteness of truth's conceptual revelation of nature, have you not still maintained the absoluteness of the concept of nature itself?). That traditional essence is to be associated with the "reductive" one of "critical" discourse (in Barthes' terms) as opposed to Barthes' attempts to be not critical but "expressive," true to himself in some way. The essence of photography Barthes' describes is not entailed by the revelation of a set of ideal attributes embedded within a natural thing; instead, the essence of photography seems entailed by the revelation of the natural thing itself.

    This seems somehow postmodern and mystical at the same time. To my still-only-partially understanding of Camera Lucida, Barthes' distinction between language and photography is really quite relevant.