Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes

Widely recognised as Barthes’ last and most accessible work, Camera Lucida has become essential reading in photography despite its diminutive size of some 119 pages.

It is as much an exploration of Barthes’ own mind as it is of photography per se.  It looks at the relationship between the photograph, death and the theatre.  As part of my feedback for Assignment 1 my tutor suggested I particularly focus on what Barthes has to say about the theatre and how it feels to be photographed.

Barthes starts by recollecting a memory of a photograph of Napoleon’s brother, being astonished at being able to look ‘at the eyes that looked at the Emperor’. Sometimes I have stopped myself to pause over a similar wonder about photography – we can see legendary moments from history.  This simple fact can be easily overlooked as we delve deeper into the meanings, semiotics and psychology of photography, but worth pausing to reflect on as ‘the photograph reproduces to infinity what has occurred only once’ (Barthes,  1980, p4).  He notes that there are three fundamental aspects to photography: to take photographs, to undergo being photographed and to view photographs, pointing out that the majority of books on the subject educate on how to perform only the first of these.

Regarding the experience of being photographed, Barthes notes how this can never be a passive experience because as soon as he notices that he is receiving the attention of the lens he instinctively engages ‘in the process of posing’.  ‘This transformation is an active one: I feel that the photograph creates by body or mortifies it’ (ibid, p11).  He feels engaged in the process of how he will ‘come out’ on the paper at the end. So it is not just the photographer who is engaged in the process of taking the portrait, Barthes himself as the subject is too.  He refers to it as ‘the photographic ritual’ ‘the social game’.  He wants us to know that he is posing consciously yet he also still wants to be authentic with ‘the precious essence of my individuality’ shiny through.

But what is this individuality? He notes that, however hard he tries in countless photographs, he never finds ‘its ground zero’ (ibid. p12) and some form of expression is evident.  I have noted in the previous post how this individual identity is not fixed but evolves over time.  Because it is so fleeting, so malleable, so locked in the past, we can never truly look at the photograph and declare it be be who I am right now.

He goes on to analyse how four characteristics come in to play, constantly changing in influence and proportionality, photograph by photograph:

  • The one I think I am
  • The one I want others to think I am
  • The one the photographer thinks I am
  • The one he makes use of to exhibit his art.
It is clear from this that the subject is only actively engaged in the first two, both of which may themselves come into conflict (we may want to appear thin when we feel fat, for example).  Efforts to appear thin (holding in the tummy, perhaps!) could count for nought if the photographer sees us as fat and chooses to exploit that characteristic in his work.
Before subjugating himself completely to the will of the photographer, he observes that there is a moment where he ceases to exist purely as subject or object, but is a subject in the process of becoming on object.  Therefore, in an interim state of neither one thing nor the other, he is essentially dead, or a ‘spectre’ (ibid. p14).  He muses how hard the photographer works to prevent him becoming ‘dead’ in this way through the use of contextual backgrounds and props to keep him ‘alive’ (if just for commercial reasons).  But he is effectively already passed over into being just an object, fearful of how his captured image might be perceived in external context. He asserts that he ‘has a political right to be a subject’, and must fight to protect that right.
Ultimately the subject becomes dead, just an object, once the image is taken.  It no longer has life of its own, is static and frozen in time (curiously, we ‘shoot’ our victim at the point of this death by pulling the trigger known as the shutter).
Barthes draws a parallel of this idea of death with theatre, arguing that theatre and photography are closely aligned.  Theatre has a tradition of making the actors appear dead – Indian Kathikali for example – in order to separate them form mainstream society with whitened faces.
Later in the book Barthes sets out to explain the concepts of studium and punctum which have been covered more fully in my learning blog for Context and Narrative and so shall not repeat here.  He then illustrates this through an account of seeking the essence of his late mother’s personality in a photograph.  In most photographs she was ‘dead’, an object as set out earlier in the book.  But one photograph of her as a younger girl carries a punctum which triggers him to declare it to be a likeness of her.  I wonder how much of the thinking behind the book reflects a personal quest to come to terms with the loss of his mother and to explore why a single photograph can have such a powerful effect on personal memory.
In addition to introducing the academic concepts of eidos, studium and punctum, this book has Led me to consider the different perspectives of Operator, Subject (referent) and Viewer in different ways.  In practice, the gaze of the subject must be selected and considered in light of Barthes’ observations – if I were to summarise the key message of the book into one phrase it would be empathise with the subject before the camera in order to be able to photograph them.


Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (2000) Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. London: Vintage Classics.

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