Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


Camera Lucida (1980)

When he wrote Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes had little time left to him. It is one of the ironies of his ironic life that his last book–an extended act of mourning–would be his last before his ironic death. For Barthes, attending the lectures of Jacques Lacan and hearing of the Oedipal struggle between the Law of the Father for the body of the Mother, an agon that would traumatically wound the son with a castration complex, would have been like listening to fiction. As he said, “No father to kill, no family to hate, no milieu to reject: great Oedipal frustration.” Because his father had been one of the millions who died in the Great War, he had no father to rebel against and he lived his entire life with his mother, always fused into the warmth of her love. Her death in 1977 ended that fusion as traumatically as the intervention of the Father but out of that long delayed primal wound came one of the most widely read of his books, a book–not on photography but on photographs and their power. Barthes was very interested in film but he seemed to have little interest in photography as an art and he probably came to write this book, not as an expert but as a grieving son.

All his life Barthes had been the outsider, hampered by bouts of tuberculous, which kept him from serving in the Second World War, indeed he spent the Occupation in a sanatorium in the Alpines. Due to the constant interruptions to his formal education, Barthes never completed his intellectual training at the higher levels and for years he was on the fringes of the university community. But being outside worked to his advantage: by not being part of the establishment, Barthes owed no allegiance to the institutions of knowledge. He was close enough to the center and smart enough to be aware of the currents and could read the trends. He worked his way in, largely by positioning himself on the edge of a waning tradition, Existentialism, and at the beginning of structuralism, which he approached through semiotics. Unlike philosophy which required extensive education and training, literary criticism was a more accessible avenue for Barthes.

Once again turning an disadvantage into a disadvantage, Barthes focused on a neglected area of society, the consumer culture or the popular culture, which he saw as the main site of ideology and social control. Just as the main trope of his writing was the “third term,” Barthes himself was an in between person, never “in” but associated with the “in crowd,” celebrated and successful, accepted late in life into the university system. He lived in the gap, a closeted but active homosexual who lived with his mother, and wrote of the body in a profoundly erotic way, as though literature was a substitute. Reading was an act of sublimated pleasure and the place where he could work his will and have his way–something that society would never allow. The death of his mother upset him profoundly and drove him to write Camera Lucida a book hated by the critics of the time, a book that could be published only because he was famous and because French publishers are indulgent towards their public intellectuals.

This moment in his life must have seemed like the ultimate state of “in between:” one phase of his life was ended and, with the younger generation adopting his ideas and his approach to critique, he was no longer unique. But his eminence won him an invitation to lunch with François Mitterand on a Monday, February 25 in 1980. As Brion Dillon of The Guardian wrote in “Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes,”

It may well have been exasperation or boredom (for he was often bored) that made him decide, when the lunch concluded, to clear his head and walk home alone to his apartment on the rue Servandoni. At about 3.45pm, witnesses recalled, Barthes paused before crossing the street at 44 rue des Écoles; he looked left and right, but failed to spot an advancing laundry van, which knocked him down. Unconscious and bleeding from the nose, he was taken to the Salpêtrière hospital, where it took several hours to establish his identity.

Although he died before Camera Lucida became a classic, Barthes had entered into a nascent field, the history and criticism of photography. It was only during the 1970s that the disciplines began to emerge as separate fields, coincidentally with the increased presence of photography in the field of fine arts, with important photographers such as Christian Boltanksi and Cindy Sherman. Most of the writing on photography had been done by a scattering of scholars, such as Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, photographer, Gisèle Freund in France, curators Beaumont Newhall and Peter Brunell, but most of what was being written was laying the historical foundations for the field and the critique of photography, with the exception of the American counterpart of Barthes, the writer Susan Sontag, was still in development. While Camera Lucida was a totally personal book, Barthes developed a new vocabulary for the theory of photography by simply by looking at an album of old photographs and a random selection of portrait and documentary images. In his hands, a rambling commentary on a scattering of images became a elegiac meditation on the latent power of the photograph.

As with all his work, Barthes took something and made it strange. But for the historian of photography (full disclosure I was the graduate assistant for Helmut Gernsheim), the limitations of Camera Lucida are interesting: Barthes was apparently interested in photography of the real or the actual. If he was aware of the previous decade’s concern with photography-as-theory and with self-reflexivity of visual culture, Barthes kept his gaze focused on portraiture with occasional forays into documents of events or places. Despite the rather general history of photography he provides the reader, this short book is a search for a way to talk about photography, that ubiquitous condition of contemporary society, so common that it hard to analyze or to understand them. But despite their ordinariness, the photograph is mystified by Barthes, who finds the uncanny even in the banal. The book begins with a spectral statement, hinting at the them of haunting that will come: “One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photography of Napoléon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am now looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.'”

The first half of the book is taken up with Barthes attempting to establish a criteria beyond “I like” for his attraction or lack of attraction to a certain photograph. As always the position of Barthes to Formalism is ambiguous: he wanted to locate the “essence” or noeme of photography, that which was intrinsic and unique to the image made by a camera. The term noeme came from phenomenology, meaning that for Barthes, the photograph was the object seen or perceived. But far from seeking the materiality of the photography as he looked for the materiality of language, Barthes, all through the book, tied the photograph to Death. By gazing into the eyes of Jerome Bonaparte who had gazed into the eyes of his brother, Napoléon, Barthes “sees” the long dead Emperor through a palimpsest of glances. For Barthes, photography is characterized by “fatality” and “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photography: the return of the dead.” “Death is the eidos of that photograph.”

Unlike his other books, there is a sense of floundering in Camera Lucida with Barthes obsessed with death and the photograph, while attempting to corral his subjective feelings into his normal structure of a pair of binaries. The binaries that Barthes found in photography are the most famous part of this essay but although they drift across the chapters, it is the author’s mourning that spills over into the pages. Barthes wasn’t particularly interested in photography as an art form and there were no photographs that he particularly liked. Although he was attempting to define what “attracted” him or what “fascinated” him, the images he selected seemed quite arbitrary. Indeed, he seemed to be quite unaware of the power of news photographs, an astonishing absence in the wake of the Viet Nam War, a war which was brought into question by Malcolm Browne and Nick Ut and Eddie Adams. In fact Barthes dismissed most photojournalism as banal or uninteresting. The term for uninteresting was borrowed from Latin: studium, which for photography was the equivalent of “readerly” in literature or what he called “the average effect.” The opposite of the studium is what Barthes called the punctum which is the surprise or the adventure in the photograph–the detail that interested the viewer.

It is important to understand that Barthes is a formalist who presented a pair of formalist codes which are the very opposite of objectivity, for the judgment of what is a studium or a punctum is purely individual and subjective. The stadium for Barthes applies to the “inert” photograph which belong to the “order of liking” and reflect the photographer’s intentions and “a certain training.” The studium then is the photograph as a sentence, but the punctum is the punctuation: “this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me..this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument..” The studium is also the “unary” in photography, such as, Barthes said, the average news photograph or pornography, which is undisturbed by the “detail” that is the punctum. Even these pairings are quite well known, to the historian of photography or for the historian who knows photography, the linguistic method used by Barthes was strangely inadequate in its adherence to the Formalism which is locked into only what is seen.


James van der Zee

What was fascinating about James van der Zee’s photograph of a black family in Harlem in 1926 is not the “strapped pump” that pricked Barthes, but the cultural knowledge that these individuals could well have been slaves or the children of slaves who had fled the South for the freedom of the North. Barthes was touched by the presence of the “Scotsman” holding the horse of Queen Victoria, but the historian knows that this man was John Brown, who was frequently photographed holding the reins of the stalwart horse with the tiny queen perched on its back. Coming into the picture, so to speak, after the death of Prince Albert, Brown was considered to have far too much influence on the Queen and his firm hand on the reins is the real punctum that Barthes seemed to sense but could not locate. The importance of the man rests on the simple fact that he was never cropped out of the Queen’s equestrian portraits. This inability of Barthes to go further with photography is due to his repeated insistence that “Since every photograph is contingent (and thereby outside of meaning). Photography cannot signify (aim at generality) except by assuming a mask.” “In photography, the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric..” “The photograph was literally an emanation of the referent.” “Every photograph is a certificate of presence.”

Having divided photography into the voice of banality and the voice of singularity, the second half of the book is taken up by the search of a son for his mother who is to be “found” only in family photographs. “Now one November evening shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of finding her.” Barthes regarded the photograph not as a conveyer of memory but as an anti-memory, an image the fixed a place and time and replaced reminiscences with the insistence of presence. And then Barthes stumbled upon (trébuchet) what he called “the Winter Garden photograph:” “There I was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I loved. And I found it.” Like the Greeks, Barthes entered into the death of his mother backwards, from an image taken of her just a year before she died to this photograph, which is not in Camera Lucida, taken when she was five years old and already in possession of her intrinsic kindness.

“Here again is the Winter Garden Photograph. I am alone with it, in front of it. The circle is closed, there is no escape, I suffer, motionless. Cruel, sterile deficiency: I cannot transform my grief, I cannot let my gaze drift; no culture will help me utter this suffering which I experience entirely on the level of the image’s finitude..the Photograph–my Photograph–is without culture: when it is painful, nothing in it an transform grief into mourning.” In this paragraph, Barthes seemed to sum up his refusal to grant meaning–“despite its codes, I cannot read a photograph”–to photography, a refusal which is bound up with his grief at the loss of his mother. The photograph, for Barthes, “blocks memory” and “becomes a counter-memory.”

Barthes was best when he examined the correlation of photography with death. A photograph stopped time and reduced it to a frozen instant. Life went on, the subject changed but the photography stayed the same, even when the person died, the image was left behind. The photograph is both the sole remaining relic of the individual and the most inadequate record imaginable. But it is also dangerous because, like a simulacrum, it could replace the loved one and become more real than the memory. Towards the end of the Camera Lucida, Barthes wrote, “Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print. With the Photograph, we enter into flat Death.” It is here, in the region of a piece of slick paper that the image is captured and the Photograph becomes Death. In reading the Winter Garden Photograph, Barthes realized that he, who had never “procreated” had somehow “engendered” his own mother as she reverted to a childlike state where he nursed her with tenderness. Once she died, he had little reason to go on and towards the middle of the book, Barthes wrote,

From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death.

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