“The realists do not take the: photograph for a “copy” of reality, but for an emanatior of past reality: a magic, not an art. To ask whether a photograph is analogical or coded is not a good means of analysis. The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation”
(Barthes and Howard, 2006)
In Barthes Camera Lucida, a poetic journey through the development of imagery is played out. Barthes journey focuses on his own emotional undertaking, trying to gain an understanding of emotional context following the death of his mother.
Her image, not seen within the work, is the hinge to which his own emotional turmoil hangs. The French text, re-translated into old English gives the impression of a man on a journey of expectant discovery. Someone looking for answers within an image, answers that he can not quite grasp.
The concept of death and loss is evident, Barthes explains:
“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”
(Barthes and Howard, 2006)
I see this as confirmation of emotional context being translated into a hope that the photographic image can bring. Barthes sees such imagery as confirmation of death – that being the image of his mother was taken once and as such exists only once and can not be reproduced.
Whilst such images can convey great emotional connection, Barthes concern seems to sit with the realistic grounding of what an image is and the truth that is portrayed in such images.
The very idea that the image is indeed the context and the photographer simply a tourist and a camera a tool to reproduce the photographer’s experience is one that I do often agree with – in this context.
We are, after all, simply reproducing scenes and events at will for an audience that is often – in this environment – superficial.
The selfie generation is an example of this study going too far. The saturation of the self-image that is shown in a controlled, almost narcissistic context, leads to mass-produced photographs that speak only of that moment. A moment in time that is an action brought about to raise self-presents, facing an audience that is, more often than not, doing exactly the same thing.
The body portrays what it wants and the meaning of this is often different from how we really are. This is the objectification of the self in its true visual form. The spectre of the self to feed the appetite of the camera. I am what I want you to see me as – not who I really am.
Barthes describes this as studium:
“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, without special acuity”
(Barthes and Howard, 2006)
Effectively Barthes is focusing on the cultural here. That being the rational, controllable and predictable line that most images follow. A study of humanity and all its connotations through the eye of the lens, the photographer simply the operator.
Think of this another way – take a camera to a party and start taking pictures. These images are almost certainly studium – or representation if you will.
The camera points at a subject and they immediately, and often without realisation, adopt a pose. This could be a standard pose, one they have practised or one they reproduce from seeing images of others. Regardless, its a self presents that is controlled and coerced into something it is not – it is not you in that image, it’s just a version of you.
It is this objectification of self that often is a lie, one we can either control or have controlled by others.
In Barthes search for answers, he takes a much deeper step into the photographic practice. One that seeks to immortalise, understand and address the issues of death and the loss it heralds in his own mind.
Effectively Barthes argues that this deeper, more elusive part of photography is evidence of something that once was. It is a capture of time that proves existence, even if that existence is no longer.
I feel this is very much a factor directed at the loss of his mother. The image that is never shown represents a longing and feeling of loss for someone that he knows once existed, but now is only evident in a photograph. One that could – if he were to admit it – represent a shadow of the person she once was. Thus arguing with his own memory of how and who she really was.
One example of this could be – If seven people are all at the same dinner party and all take an image from where they are sitting, each will have a different view of that party. In time the people’s memory will fade and all that is left is the image each person has taken. Each image would show an objective view of the scene and would have no comment on the wider event itself. It would, therefore, show only what was wanted to be shown. The emotive memory faded.
I feel his arguments do indeed indicate that any such images are in fact a connotation of death itself. Images to him (in this context) show what is lost, leaving him with just a shadow of memories for someone long since passed.
He is, to all degree, searching for his mother (emotions thereof) in photographs.
It is this notion of death as a way of describing an image of someone that I do not agree with.
I see images, regardless of their context as a representation of time, a slice of a story that may meander on for years. Images of friends, loved ones etc. are just that, reminders of who they once were, memories of a favourite time or just a keepsake that helps us adjust and move on.
Death itself does not factor. The benefits of the photograph, regardless of the ability of the photographer, or technical standing of the camera are simply tools to record moments we want to keep. How we choose to portray ourselves in such images is down to the context to which they are taken and are then later used.
Having lost my best friend to breast cancer (she was 39) I see images I took of her as a grounding. In them, I see her smile and I can then hear her laugh. Without such images, I would struggle to remember details that made her who she was.
Where Barthes sees a ghost, I see evidence of life, love and a memory that lives on.
Interestingly it was once felt by some, that to have your picture taken resulted in your sole being captured. This view was most apparent in developing worlds and in many religious understandings. It was also so with an old farming friend of mine. He point blank refused to be photographed for such a reason.
Barthes journey does not end here, he goes on to explore an alternative photographic element. One that could give him the answers he seeks.
The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time 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 mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points.
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).
(Barthes and Howard, 2006)
I believe that the punctum represents that which he was most keen to find. The images that give the emotional connection that stays with you. It’s these images that, to Barthes, represent his emotions felt for a mother figure. It is such images that Barthes sees as being the connection to what he once lost.
I see this as the true power of the image and its ability to show authentication. Images that go beyond the pale of photography and move into the realms of that X factor.
We have often seen how style makes a statement, the endless images of models on the cover of magazines, adverts and television. To me, this is not evidence of anything other than representation.
Punctum is that deeper connection to the image, its own story and context. It’s that style that you suddenly connect with, but can’t always explain why. The image that sticks in your mind, ignites emotions and brings forward a change in direction.
It could be anything from desire, will, hatred, love or just feelings that resonate within.
It is this power that Barthes seeks and it is such power that proves the most elusive. The images ability to speak in such ways, in my view, goes beyond the ability of the photographer and hands itself over to the viewer.
Within my own practice, I choose to study wildlife. This raises an interesting point when looked at within this context.
If humans, when photographed, often objectify themselves either knowingly or unknowingly to be someone they are not. Could this be the case for wildlife?
I feel not. Any none human species may be aware of its own existence, but it does not have the desire to appear in any way other than what it is. An image of an otter is just that, an otter. It can not be anything else.
It is only the way in which the image is framed and the quality of such an image that I see has resonance with Punctum. Szarkowski’s five elements of photography do indeed resonate here.
Images of wildlife and landscapes are a representation of true authentication. It is the quality of the image and the context in which it is presented that then impacts the emotional connectivity to the work.
My conclusion here is that: Barthes work represents one of the photography greats and has resonance across a wide genre. It is, however, capable of contradiction and its relevance attached to specific styles of images and not always photography as a whole.
- Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (2006). Camera lucida. 1st ed. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, p.4.
- Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (2006). Camera lucida. 1st ed. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, pp.26 27.
- Barthes, R. and Howard, R. (2006). Camera lucida. 1st ed. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, pp.88 89.
- Kutz, D. (2019). Sontag: On Photography & Barthes: Camera Lucida « David Kutz. [online] Davidkutz.com. Available at: http://davidkutz.com/blog/sontag-on-photography-camera-lucida/ [Accessed 1 Feb. 2019].
- Szarkowski, J. (2007). The photographer’s eye. 1st ed. New York: Museum of modern art.