Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Book Review: Camera Lucida: Roland Barthes

One of two books I thought I’d tackle after running out of steam with the Liz Wells book. At first sight it has the benefit of being slim – but don’t let that fool you – there’s plenty to chew on inside. The book is basically Barthes philosophical search for the true essence of photography. We may reasonably ask what insight can someone who admits to never having taken a photograph offer to a photographer – but Barthes neatly sidesteps this because he pays little attention to photography – just ‘The Photograph’.

A couple of other general points – the language of the book is very florid and in parts reads as a ‘brain dump’. Whether this is an artefact of the translation, or the nature of mid-20th century French philosophical writing I’m not qualified to say. whatever – it does add a certain quaint charm, even if it sometimes makes meaning a bit difficult to discern.

Also – the book was written not long after the death of Barthes’ mother. He was clearly quite devoted to her and I found myself wondering if the perpetual links between the photograph and death were not more a sign of the authors state of mind rather than anything to do with the real essence of photography. In any case while I understand the idea that if the subject matter is long dead a photo essentially brings home that death to us it is debatable at best that the same logic could be applied to a photo of say Stonehenge – so where does that leave death and the photo?

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. He starts with a reasonable observation, that there can be no photograph without ‘something’ to photograph and from that concludes that we don’t see the photograph, only the subject of the photograph. Interesting thought experiment occurs – is it possible to take a photo of nothing?

He also notes that there is a vast range of photographs, and it is difficult to deduce anything general from the whole body because you cannot separate out the like/dislike element – so he decides to concentrate on just those photos that move him as the subject for his investigation.

At this point he introduces the ideas of stadium and punctum. To my reading the first is what makes pictures simply informative – largely because of the social baggage they and I carry – they provide information, they provide news, in general they provide data that I can read and interpret – but they are not interesting. The punctum, on the other hand, is a detail (in Barthes’ view an unintended detail) which disturbs the studium. A personal example perhaps: Adam’s Clearing Winter Storm is a well known photo  - the studium to me is the general landscape, the mix of mountains and trees that speak of a particular ecosystem, and its associated tourism – but what makes it stand out for me is the waterfall mid-right. For me it somehow disturbs the equilibrium of the photo – makes me want to keep looking at it – makes me want to see this particular mountainous landscape over a zillion others just like it. Now we can argue whether its intended that way by the photographer or not – but for me it’s an easy example of studium/punctum.

He goes on to suggest that any detail , the effect of which you can describe or classify, is not really a punctum – simply more studium. I would maintain that I don’t know why I keep coming back to the waterfall – it’s scarcely an unexpected feature of that landscape – it’s just something that seeks me out every time I look at the picture.

Unfortunately, just as I thought I was beginning to understand what was happening he concludes that studium/punctum is not the essence of photography, simply a description of how desire for a particular image might work. This seems entirely reasonable to me, because unless you hold that the punctum has to be non-deliberate (and I’m not sure I do) then you could apply the theory equally to paintings or sculpture.

Armed with this knowledge Barthes then discusses his search for a photo that captures the true essence of his recently deceased mother. |In the process of this discussion he develops the idea that the true essence of a photo is that it contains, as a subject ‘that which has been’. In order for the optics and chemistry to do their stuff the subject must have been in front of the camera at some time. This clearly holds true for animate and inanimate subjects and may well be a useful distinction between digital imaging and photography, as well as between photography and other more traditional visual arts.

I was comfortable at this point that he had reached a general conclusion, but unfortunately I think he lets his personal grief intrude, and as a result restricts his result to photos of people – concluding that when we see photos of people we are inevitably drawn to the idea that this person was, but no longer is, and that the photograph reminds us of this fate for ourselves. While I don’t disagree with this conclusion – although I find it a bit melodramatic – I do think it’s a shame that having arrived at what seemed like a workable definition of the defining factor of a photograph he then wanders down an alley that applies really only to photos of animate or disposable objects.

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