Category Archives: Roland Barthes

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.

Bibliography

Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (2000) Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. London: Vintage Classics.
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Phillip Prodger – Views on Portraiture

A Lensculture interview with Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and curator of the recent William Eggleston exhibition.

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/national-portrait-gallery-fleeting-truths-thoughts-on-portrait-photography?utm_source=General+List&utm_campaign=33d9b3b63e-2-28-17-ED+Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f1724e682d-33d9b3b63e-89187821

Prodger argues that portraiture can actually be a very poor means of capturing ‘identity’ in that the photograph can only ever capture us at a brief moment in time while our identities are not fixed – they change throughout our lives as we evolve, learn and experience life.

Further, he goes on to say that less skilled photographers can make work that is superficial by focusing on key features that have strong semiotic correspondences.  He draws parallels with a writer making a ‘tireless nurse compassionate or an evil villain dastardly’, for example.

Fundamentally I agree with this in the sense that the changing character of people in response to their life experiences is what makes us who we are.  Without this we would all be much the same or doomed to never changing our lot through striving to improve ourselves.  We are never a ‘finished product’ in personality terms.

At one level we all know this and accept it from photography.  A cringeworthy example of this might be when mum shows their offspring’s boyfriend/girlfriend the family photo album and a very different (younger) side to the current beloved is exposed to teasing and embarrassment!  Apart from crazy teenage haircuts there are more significant issues too: a person suffering physical disability through accident or illness is bound to be a different identity in a portrait to who they were before it happened.  At a physical level the cells in our body renew after a period of weeks or months, meaning that, quite literally, none of us are the same person we were last year.

Given that we accept that the human character, or identity, is not set in stone a photographic portrait can only ever hope to capture the essence of that person right here and now.  I think this is where Barthes was coming from in Camera Lucida when he says ”

Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the “intention” according to which I look at it) is Death” (Barthes, 1980: P15).  That moment has gone.  That particular aspect of the subject has gone.  That fact that is cannot be recreated exactly is what makes the photograph so special, and if skilfully done, represents identity at that particular time.

 

Barethes, R.  1980 Camera Lucida,  London, Random House.