Category Archives: A picture says it all

Camera Lucida — Barthes on Photography I

I absolutely loved Barthes’ Camera Lucida, it was an unexpected feeling and rather fierce. Perhaps because it challenged me to love photography again after Susan Sontag had picked apart everything that was wrong, everything that has troubled me so much with certain exhibitions I have seen. There is more to photography than appropriation and vain strivings to control time and space — an opening she leaves I know, but doesn’t explore. My partner said off-hand, ‘oh, that’s the book about death and photography’, which surprised me greatly, but then going back over it I realised just how much he does talk about death. Still, it seemed very much an affirmation of life to me. Barthes begins:

My interest in Photography took a more cultural turn. I decided I liked Photography in opposition to the Cinema, from which I nonetheless failed to separate it. This question grew insistent. 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. … I wasn’t sure that Photography existed, that it had a “genius” of its own. (3)

I love puzzling between a photograph as an object but also a point in time, a subject.

The first thing I found was this. What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially. In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something else: the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This (this photograph, and not Photography), in short, what Lacan calls the Tuché, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression. (4)

I don’t really have much idea exactly what all of this means, but I like to think about it and it inspires multiple different thoughts.

Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences; it aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign, which would afford it access to the dignity of a language; but for there to be a sign there must be a mark; deprived of a principle of marking, photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does. Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. (6)

It gets easier after this, and I like how Barthes attempts to walk this line between the expressive and the critical, attempts to keep things open and meanings ambiguous, drawing on all kinds of things (and none) to try and understand what photographs do to us, mean to us.

the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical; and at the heart of this critical language, between several discourses, those of sociology, of semiology, and of psychoanalysis—but that, by ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naive it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system. (8)

He breaks down the photograph into three:

What does my body know of Photography? I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs—in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives . . . And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object which I should like to call the spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. (9)

Death, it is about death, I didn’t even really catch this last powerful sentence when I first read it — ‘that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.’ There is an offhand remark a few pages on, the use of the word ‘mortiferous’:

(apology of this mortiferous power: certain Communards paid with their lives for their willingness or even their eagerness to pose on the barricades: defeated, they were recognized by Thiers’s police and shot, almost every one) (11)

But what is it about certain photographs that leaves a mark on us? Where does a photograph’s power lie? Because some of them have an immense power, it fascinates me, and it is a fascinating journey to follow along with someone so very different from myself as they try and understand just how this might work.

I decided then to take as a guide for my new analysis the attraction I felt for certain photographs. For of this attraction, at least, I was certain. (18)

A refreshing approach. A liberating one. My own idiom.

The principle of adventure allows me to make Photography exist. Conversely, without adventure, no photograph. (19)

I like this sentence, because I like adventure. This is part of my mode of being an Operator — which Barthes confesses he is not. It puzzles me that someone who simply looks at photographs should find it an adventure, but I like it. He continues:

In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it. So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation. The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in “lifelike” photographs), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure. (20)

It turns out everything I am liking best in theory at the moment returns to phenomenology. I have more reading to do. Heidegger is still a Nazi, there’s been a lot about them in the news recently because of the horror at Charlottesville. I know my facebook feed is privileged, in that all my friends feel as I do that it is just fine to punch a Nazi when you see one, but I am really appreciating how it has suddenly become a national debate.

 

This means I am down with a vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology, though perhaps in a slightly different sense.

In this investigation of Photography, I borrowed something from phenomenology’s project and something from its language. But it was a vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology, so readily did it agree to distort or to evade its principles according to the whim of my analysis. First of all, I did not escape, or try to escape, from a paradox: on the one hand the desire to give a name to Photography’s essence and then to sketch an eidetic science of the Photograph; and on the other the intractable feeling that Photography is essentially (a contradiction in terms) only contingency, singularity, risk… (20)

I love this sentence.

As Spectator I was interested in Photography only for “sentimental” reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound; I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think. (21)

I love too this distinction between things that interest us, and things that knock us over.

What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training . I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs,| whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes…

“The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This ti me it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick…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). (27)

There’s a hell of a lot of erotic language going on in that sentence. Seems to me that sometimes that is what is going on when a photograph really ‘pierces’ us, but not always. There is so much more to the world, no? Unless you’re a male psychoanalyst. It’s what I appreciated most about Elizabeth Grosz’s article on the gaze, and Barthes acknowledges this perhaps with the words bruise, poignant. Even more with this:

the editors of Life rejected Kertesz’s photographs when he arrived in the United States in 1937 because, they said, his images “spoke too much”; they made us reflect, suggested a meaning — a different meaning from the literal one. Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks. (38)

This resonated with me so much as well, opens up a whole new way of thinking about home and landscape:

An old house, a shadowy porch, tiles, a crumbling Arab decoration, a man sitting against the wall, a deserted street, a Mediterranean tree (Charles Clifford’s “Alhambra”): this old photograph (1854) touches me: it is quite simply there that I should like to live. This desire affects me at a depth and according to roots which I do not know: warmth of the climate? Mediterranean myth? Apollinism? Defection? Withdrawal? Anonymity? Nobility? Whatever the case (with regard to myself, my motives, my fantasy), I want to live there, en finesse — and the tourist photograph never satisfies that esprit de finesse. For me, photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable. (38)

Charles Clifford: The Alhambra, Granada, 1854-1856

A sense of all the things we cannot know…

What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance. … 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)

I love that sentence, and this, and what it means for photography as a way of communication in how it opens up the space between operator and spectator across space and time:

Last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.

This is one of the things that differentiates the photograph from cinema and its parade of photographs — one stops you in your tracks, one moves you along:

I am constrained to a continuous voracity; a host of other qualities, but not pensiveness; whence the interest, for me, of the photogram. (55)

What they inspire within is very different, it has made me think of the moment that will forever be the same, even as live itself continued before and after as if this photograph had never been taken. But it was.

Next, Barthes writes about his mother (in a way that immediately made me call mine…)

[Barthes, Roland ([1980] 2000) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books.]

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