The Other Reality

Camera Lucida

Posted in Annotation, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 4, 2008

Camera Lucida- Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981)

Camera Lucida- Reflections on Photography is just that, Roland Barthes’ reflections on photography.  Initially, Barthes starts writing because there are aspects of photography that draw him in and he wants to “learn at all cost what photography [is] ‘in itself’” (3). By collecting images he tries to understand what draws him to them.  Later, his study turns to photographs of his dead mother, looking for her true image.

Barthes’ attempts to understand the essence of photography lead him to find a means of categorizing photographs.  Terms like amateur, landscape and portrait convey the genre and are used by all forms of visual art but are not able to describe anything specific to photography.  Instead he uses two words that relate to the experience of viewing photographs, studium and punctum.  Studium expresses the interest taken by the viewer of the photograph because of its historical or cultural significance; this makes the picture interesting but does not affect the viewer.  The studium allows the viewer to like the image but it “is an idle gesture” (49).

The punctum is harder to describe because its source can be unclear and can come from many aspects of a photograph.  Simply, the punctum relates to the thing in the image that ‘wounds,’ the detail that pricks the viewer and causes them to become interested in the image outside of academic or cultural inclinations.  The punctum may not be logical, “The effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself; it is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence.  Odd contradiction: a floating flash”(53).  The punctum allows the viewer to add something personal to the photograph; a photograph becomes ‘alive’ because of what is invested in it.  “It is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless is already there” (55).

The punctum can result from a specific detail in the image, someone’s shoes, fingernails, gesture etc.  It can also be related to time. Photography’s distinctive quality, the one that makes it different from other arts, is that it renders a specific place and time immobile. The nature—or genius—of  photography, as Barthes sees it, is that unlike painting the referent is necessary.  You can paint from memory but you cannot photograph from memory, therefore no other art compels the viewer to believe that the subject actually existed as photography does.  It says, “that-has-been,” it existed; the photograph is evidence to that.  Because of this it has a unique tense; the subject was there in actuality when the photo was taken and it is here in front of us but at the same time it may not physically exist anymore.

Barthes comes to understand this acutely as he seeks to find a true image of his mother after she died.  Though he recognizes her in the photographs he does not find her “straining toward the essence of her identity, [he] was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false,” (66).  He finally finds what he is looking for in The Winter Garden, a picture of his mother as a child.  Finding her essence in this photograph paralleled his last moments with her as she became his ‘little girl’ while he cared for her in her illness.

Looking for his mother’s true image made his photographic inquiry very personal.  Viewing photography in a personal light is necessary to understanding photography, each person brings a different history and context to the images they view and this requires that it be a personal experience. The most we can hope for is to come to an understanding of our own relationship with images that move and affect us.  Finding images that universally affect everyone in the same way is impossible.

Unlike Barthes I am able to experience photography as the operator, the photographer.  Despite this the very things he wants in photographs are the same concerns I have in producing them.  I want images that are not mere likenesses of the people or places I photograph; I want photographs that capture their essence and transcend the two-dimensional flatness of the physical photograph.  To be able to look at the image and feel as if I have not really lost that experience is my goal as a photographer. I do not expect that others viewing my images will have the same interaction with them.  Barthes would not reproduce The Winter Garden in his book because he said it would “be nothing but an indifferent picture” to others (73), I am afraid that my photographs might receive the same response, and thus continually strive to find the place where I can meet my viewers in a mutual appreciate of my work.  My goals aside, the question of a universal nature of photography and its effect on viewers remain unanswered outside of a personal connection.

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