Nov 17, 2011

REVIEW | Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, La Chambre Claire, 1980

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.
"I was overcome by an "ontological" desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was 'in itself,' by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images."

That is the spark that set Roland Barthes' book, Camera Lucida, into motion.  The book, published in 1980, the same year he died, is subtitled "Reflections on Photography" and dives deep into the nature of the art and practice of photography, searching for an understanding of what intrinsically sets photography apart from another medium, such as cinema.  Full of rambling, run-on sentences that put you right in the mind of Barthes, you feel his intense reverence for the photograph while driven by his need to understand it.

The book consists of 48 essays - each essay birthing out of the last and lending to the next.  You can only find the titles of each essay in the table of contents. He simply leaves a number to identify individual essays in the content of the book, most likely in order to have a more seamless and uninterrupted stream of consciousness, for the essays read as if you are in Barthes' babbling brain and many times you are unaware that you have gone from one essay to the next.

As a photography student, I was searching for a book that would stretch and tease my interest in the art of the photograph.  The "contemporary" books I found in the library frustrated, all seeming to focus on different aspects of How or Who but what I was looking for was a book that turned to the What of photography. What is photography, exactly?  Because I feel that is a question, and, therefore, an answer, that is more contemporary than even the latest artist with their latest spectacle.  This is essential for understanding and relating to contemporary art (especially contemporary photography) because it is part of the essence of being contemporary (I mean this in approach and not in relation) to take the inherent qualities of your medium and stretch, twist, break or ignore them in a way that has not been done.  To do this or even to understand this first requires examination at those qualities of the medium, in this case photography.

I've been doing photography for only a year now. Nonetheless, I felt that I had an understanding of what photography is and it's qualities, for I am also the product of 21 years of American media exposure, no doubt familiar with our nations favorite medium.  But as Barthes begins his journey to discover the intrinsic nature of photography, I realized more and more how unaware and at a loss I was to explain what set photography apart from cinema or any other art medium.  So I followed Barthes with much interest as he rambled, reading like a man filled with curiosity slowly turning mad as he flips through old family snapshots in his attic looking for that thing, that characteristic inherent and unique to photography.

Along the way, Barthes makes many small discoveries, or rather realizations, about the traits of photography.  He first finds, and is frustrated by the apparent fact that photographs seem to be inescapably linked to their referent - whatever the thing or person is that a specific photograph points to, and therefore is identified by.  Then he realizes two essential elements of a photograph (though, not all photographs contain both, he proposes): the studium and the punctum. The studium is all of the collective knowledge contained in the photograph - cultural, historical, etc. This is the level on which two people can converse about the same photograph. But the second, and no doubt the element Barthes gives more importance to, is the punctum. "This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole--and also a cast of the dice. A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)." (Student video study on punctum.) Barthes mentions dozens of photographs, many of which he includes in the pages of the book, and points out their studium and punctum, spending most of his time on the latter, for he is intrigued by what makes for a good "prick" and how can that be anticipated, or can it?

Barthes looks at and describes many of his family photographs in pursuit of a photograph that he feels captures his recently deceased mother. Finally, he finds the one - the Winter Garden photograph. (He does not include this image in the book, saying that it would be pointless because the punctum would be different for the reader than what it is for him.)  He claims that this is his ultimate photograph, the one that will guide his quest to an understanding of photography.  As he studies this photograph (over a number of essays) he is taken by the relation photography has to death and time.  At once, a photograph can take you back in time to the existence of that thing or person when it was in that particular moment, yet it is also a sign of death - the moment has gone and will never be again.

Most of where Barthes travels, I can, and willingly, follow.  But he makes a point that, while I understand, also disagree with, partly because it jeopardizes four years of my life (and the thousands of dollars I am paying a university).  He argues that the amateur photographer has the upper hand when it comes to highlighting the intrinsic nature of photography.  I agree, amateur photographers tend to have little idea of what they want to produce or how to manipulate a photograph, therefore making their photographs more a true, objective representation.  But I believe the true professional has the same ability and more because of their knowledge, skill and awareness of how to capture the studium and punctum in a way that intentionally pricks the viewer.  I believe it is this very intentionality that repels Barthes because it allows the photographer (or what he calls the Operator) to manipulate the Spectator in whichever direction they please - what I believe is a necessary, and even useful property of art.  There is a place for both the amateur and professional.

Finally, Barthes comes to see what it is he thinks he is looking for.  He calls this the noeme of photography. "The noeme of Photography is simple, banal; no depth: "that has been." I know our critics: What! a whole book (even a short one) to discover something I know at first glance? Yes, but such evidence can be a sibling of madness." I have to admit, at first my reaction was that which he supposed his critics would hold: all of this fuss for what?  But I am beginning (or at least attempting) to see what it is Barthes saw as such a worthwhile conclusion to 48 essays of searching.

I do believe it true that the "that-has-been" characteristic is completely unique to photography, which was Barthes main objective when setting out on his search.  But is it surprising or inciting? Not particularly.  Until you understand the choice that this fact leaves you with: Barthes claims that this puts us at a fork in the road where we have to chose to tame photography or allow it to make us mad.  This, I believe, to be the key.  It is customary today, so much so that we hardly are aware of it, to tame photographs to be relative to what they are referencing, mere symbols but not showing us the real.  If we were to take a photograph and sit with it, letting the reality that "this has been" wash over us, would that drive us to madness?  I'm not to the point where I am in the same enlivened, mad boat as Barthes, but I am beginning to see his excitement.

And this is the starting point for photography - especially contemporary photography.  If the essence of photography is its ability to point to something, it's referent, and say "that has been", then this becomes the spring board for photographic creation, discussion, critique, etc. To be contemporary means to take this fact, this trait, and twist it in a new way, present it in a new light, highlight or darken this quality in a way that pushes photography forward.  Let me propose that I believe the hardest part about understanding this fact is now trying to solve the problem that most people, when faced with the (many times subconscious) decision to tame a photograph or let it lead you to madness, chose the well worn path of tameness. How does a photographer enlighten then enable their viewer to go mad?  This is the question that contemporaries need to be asking, thanks to Barthes.

"Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits...; mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the love and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time... Such are the two ways of the PHotograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of interactable reality."

- Brandon Hill

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, thank you for reviewing this book! I had to buy it for History of Photography last semester, but never sat down to actually read it. I do remember Barthe's language to be a little difficult to follow, so reading this review (in plain, contemporary English) was awesome. Very interesting! Being a photographer, I think it's important to reflect on the founding concepts. I'm going to have to read it myself now!

    - Kerri Pearson

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