Notes on: Barthes, R.  (1993) Camera Lucida.  London: Vintage

Dave Harris

[This is a strange little book in a way, very easy to read, written in the first person.  Roland spends the first part of the book trying to explain why some photographs have an effect on him and others don't.  And the course of this, he introduces the famous concepts studium and punctum.  Neither of these are very easy to describe, because they seem to be subjective and unpredictable, especially punctum.  The second part tries to generalize a bit more and is based on a particular attempt to explain the appeal of a photograph of his recently dead mother as a young child.  This leads him to speculate about the authenticity or realism of photographs, using different terminology, especially noeme.  I first came across this term when reading phenomenology, when Husserl uses it to refer to the qualities of the object that is being thought of, rather than noesis, which refers to the qualities of the ideas about objects.  However, some commentaries on Barthes saying he uses the term just to refer to the essence or essential quality of the photograph.  As he insists that we must see an immediate unity between the photograph and the object, it is possible to reconcile these two understandings.  Anyway, what matters is what he says the noeme of the photograph is— the quality of a 'that has been']

[Note that Barthes says he is not a photographer or operator, which might explain a certain naivety about how photographs are actually composed?].  It is clear that he does not like having his photograph taken, because the snapshots can never be typical, and he worries about the uses to which the image might be put.  Photographs only mimic, not very subtly usually.  As a result, 'the portrait - photograph is a closed field of forces.  Four image - repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other.  In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art' (13).  He already notes that photographs have some connection with the idea of death.  He has simple likes and dislikes, but he wants to explore these, especially the way in which some photographs leave him indifferent and say nothing, while the others appear to be animated, conveying a sense of adventure.  He did not want to explore aesthetics or a formal ontology, since he wanted to preserve the notion of subjective impact, 'a wound' (21). 

Some photographs makes sense because he can bring his knowledge and culture to bear when he reads it.  This is studium—'application to have thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity' (26).  Such knowledge helps people participate to some extent in the action in the photograph.  By contrast, punctum is something which comes out of the scene, and 'peirces me'.  It disturbs the studium.  It is a 'sting, speck, little hole—and also cast of the dice [an] accident which 'is poignant to me'(27).  It is different from a general polite interest or liking. 

Studium involves looking at the photographer's intention, as a kind of 'knowledge and civility', recognizing the social or mythical intentions: 'to inform, to represent, to surprise, to cause, to signify, to provoke desire' (28).  This explains the use of photographs in ethnography, drawing on the 'infra knowledge' of the spectator.  It flatters the spectator because it delivers knowledge.  [And pictures of people are seen as particularly likely to do this].  This can be socially dangerous, and has led to censorship, producing too much reflection—such is the 'pensive' photograph (38).

The punctum offers us something different. The 'unary photograph' (40), is one which generates a transformative series, transforming reality, but without any duality or disturbance.  It is banal, it has a unified composition, according to photographic conventions.  Pornographic photographs, not erotic ones, are also homogeneous, naive, presenting only one thing.  However, in this unified composition, a detail can act as a punctum, a chance inclusion, not composed, not capable of analysis.  It is often a detail or 'partial object' (43) [the Freudian reference is intended?].  Examples given are the belts worn by a particular person in a photograph, or their shoes.  A punctum 'arouses great sympathy and me, almost a kind of tenderness', regardless of taste or morality.  The punctum has 'a power of expansion'(45) often through metonymy, allowing for the forms of recognition ['Proustian'says our man].

The detail does not provoke if the photographer includes it deliberately, say as some rhetorical contrast.  It must be rather 'a  supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful' (47).  It simply shows that the photographer was there [much more important later] and could not do other than record the punctum.  Detail can also produce 'a satori, the passage of a void' (49) [apparently, satori is a sudden flash of enlightenment, where one can perceive an essence].  There is 'an intense immobility' in the photograph. 

It is hard to explain exactly what it is about detail that produces a punctum.  The effect is often revealed when reflecting upon a photograph, afterwards: 'I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at', since the act of looking is connected to simple description and 'in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes'(53).  This helps us avoid any obvious messages.  This addition of meaning is not possible in the movies because 'I am not free to shut my eyes; otherwise, opening them again, I would not discover the same image'.  This is why the cinema does not induce pensiveness.

Nevertheless, contemplating the cinema, we realize that people being films continue to live outside.  Photographs by contrast seen motionless, pinning down the figures.  Yet the punctum opens things up again, raises questions [one question is who is the Scotsman in a picture of Queen Victoria—it is John Brown, you clot!].  This is 'the blind field' (57), the field alluded to by thinking of life outside the photograph.  This is one difference between the pornographic and the erotic—the latter 'takes the spectator outside its frame' (59) into 'a kind of subtle beyond', a whole being.

Then we move on to Part Two, going beyond subjective pleasure, to unleash a 'palinode'[a retraction of a statement, a poem recanting an earlier one] [his subsequent meditation on looking through photographs of his recently dead mother makes him realize that his mother is in history, an existence before he was alive, a history that excluded him.].  Looking through the photographs brought about the painful effort to try to define his mother's essential identity, reconstituting it from parts and fragments.  [This seems to be some anxiety that he's not possible to recall her that easily—very common when thinking of the dead, of course].  One photograph is particularly meaningful—his mother at the age of five years old.  The image contains familiar signs of the later face and body, and displays an innocent expression, asserting gentleness and kindness.  These seem to be excessive, not produced by her own family relations.  It was particularly suitable to assist the processes of grief, just and accurate.  He experienced Proustian remembrance, and realized that this is something more than just a technical photograph, somehow uniting 'both my mother's being and my grief at her death' (70).  This particular photograph seemed to display the essence of his mother.

The trawl through the photographs to get back to this particularly early one corresponds to his experiences in reality, thinking of his mother's last stages when she was very weak, and when she regressed to being a child, something that he could understand: 'ultimately I experienced her, strong as she had been, my inner law, as my feminine child.  Which was my way of resolving Death' (72).  He gained a new particularity himself [partly because he had no children], and he was able to experience this vicarious universalization.  He realized that this would never happen again and that his own mundanely individual death awaited.

Is it possible to generalize about photography on the basis of this experience?  He realized that photography could be understood 'in relation to what we romantically call love and death' (73) [and it was to relate to singularity too, so that using social conventions to understand photographs simply would 'reduce myself - as - subject' (74)].  Theoretical approaches like Freud also reduce singularities—the 'family to the Family…  My mother to the Mother'..  He could see that his mother did partake of all the standard functions and qualities of mothers, but 'she had added that grace of being an individual soul' (75).  Even though time has moderated his emotion of loss, everything else remains, because he has lost not a figure 'but a being…  a quality (a soul)…  The irreplaceable'.

The implication is 'that every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent…  The truth of the image' (76).  The banal is combined with the singular.  The particular referent of photography is not like the optional real thing to which a sign refers, but 'the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph'.  Paintings can paint things that are not real, discourses can link together signs that may not have referents, but photography makes it impossible to 'deny that the thing has been there' [a bit naive here, especially with modern electronic photographs, of course].  The reality and the past are superimposed.  This is the noeme of photography ['the very essence', 76].  Photographs should not be understood as either art or communication, but as reference.  The noeme is '"That - has - been", or again: the Intractable' (77), something linking infinity and the subject, 'irrefutably present, and yet already deferred'[other bits of Latin, which he sees as 'a pedantry necessary because it illuminates certain nuances', include interfuit and intersum].  Sometimes we experience these noeme with indifference, but some photographs provide 'a unique emotion' making one aware of the nature of photography: to 'compel me to believe its referent had really existed'.

The photograph makes us think of an instant in which a real thing happened and is depicted immobile.  This is lost in cinema.  In photography, something that appears is there for ever rather than something passing before the lens.  Photographs never offer metaphors.  Everything appears alive, even photographs of corpses which are 'the living image of a dead thing'.  The notion of 'the Real and the Live' are confused (79): the referent is taken to be real, but the moment of taking the photograph is passed, which 'suggests that it is already dead'.  However, the photograph testifies that someone has actually seen the referent in life.  A photograph of the face of a slave indicates these qualities—the man has been a slave, and can certify that slavery existed, he can offer an 'experiential order of proof', something direct not merely inferred, or mediated by history—'the fact was established without method' (80).

Of course painterly conventions have affected photography, but so has chemistry.  The noeme depends on 'the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light'.  The luminous rays emitted from a body are literally recorded: 'The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent'.  The actual 'carnal medium' (81) of light connects the photographed body to the spectator's gaze.  Images are revealed by light and recorded on precious metals.  The photographing 'has really touched the surface which in its turn my gaze will touch'—the photograph of his mother as a child is 'the treasury of rays which emanated from my mother…  on that day' (82).  We do not need to rely on memory or imagination, as we do with art: we can experience 'reality in the past state: at once the past and the real' (82).  This assists meditation on life and death, and makes one ask 'why is it that I am alive here and now?'.  In this sense, photography raises 'questions which derive from a "stupid" or simple metaphysics' (85).

In another example, we might see a photograph of ourselves even though we cannot remember it having been taken -- again an inevitable and undeniable reality.  Language cannot provide a sense of authenticity like this.  It is 'by nature fictional' (87), and if we want to make it under fictional, we need all sorts of special efforts including logic and sworn oaths.  Photography by contrast 'does not invent; it is authentication itself'.  There are some artifices involved, and it is possible to fake pictures, but this is laborious.  Photography can lie about the meanings of a thing, but 'never as to its existence'.  In this way 'its force is nonetheless superior to everything the human mind can or can have conceded to assure us of reality—but also this reality is never anything but a contingency'.  It demythologises the past, and in this sense, the invention of the photograph 'divides the history of the world' (88).

There is a great deal of scorn these days about realism, since the photograph is always coded, says sociologists and semiologists [and Barthes was to change his mind about this, of course].  It is true that there is always 'Albertian perspective', and conventional ways of turning three dimensional objects into a two dimensional plane.  Of course the photograph is analogical in this sense, but 'This argument is futile', because the noeme has nothing to do with analogy, it is 'an image without code', even though codes are required to read it.  The important thing about it is its possession of 'an evidential force' and its ability to testify about the operation of time.  Overall, at least 'from a phenomenological viewpoint', 'the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation' (89).  [Later, page 99, we are told that it's the amateur who gets closer to the noeme of photography]

The photographic image is already 'full', while in the cinema the reference is shifting, depicting a flow of experience.  The photograph breaks this flow, and is 'without future' (90).  The reality it depicts cannot be transformed.  It is 'without culture'.  It can not be transformed by a ritual.  It depicts immobilized time, 'the stasis of an arrest' (91). It is an alternative to memory.  It blocks memory.  In this sense it is 'violent...  Because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed'.  Photographs can decay and be thrown away, however.

Photography therefore can be seen as an agent of Death, and it has emerged with changing notions of death as something nonsymbolic, out of religion, 'flat Death' (92).  Eventually 'the astonishment of "that-has-been" will also disappear' (94).  Moments of the past in photographs will disappear once the reader of the photograph dies.

Overall, there is not only studium and punctum, but another kind of punctum, not just a matter of the eternal form 'but of intensity', the impact of time, 'the lacerating emphasis of the noeme, its pure representation'.  The example is the photograph of the condemned assassin [also discussed in Rancière].  It is possible to see a future in which this assassin will be dead.  All photographs of people involve the shock that they will die or that they have already died.  We see people who have their whole lives in front of them but who are also dead from the perspective of today.  This produces a 'vertigo of time defeated'(97), and layers of time, all three tenses mixed together, and all depicted 'under the instants of "reality"—and no longer through the elaborations of the text'.

This is what makes photographs of people challenging.  It leads towards a necessary solitariness in being a spectator.  Photography emerged at the same time as the 'explosion of the private into the public'(98), but the private is also the only place 'where my image is free…  The condition of an interiority which I believe is identified with my truth'.

In private, one tries to change the meaning of a photograph, examining detail, enlarging or decomposing the image, scrutinizing it, trying to enter into its depth.  But nothing is discovered, although sometimes we think we get closer and perceive truth.  When we notice resemblance for example, we think of conformity of the image to an identity, but the identity itself is imprecise or even imaginary, false.  When we look at our own photographs, we can only compare one with the other, and none of them look like us.  Photographs that resemble people often are the least satisfying, and in his case, it was 'the lost, or remote photograph, one which does not look "like" her, the photograph of the child I never knew' (103) which provokes the understanding.  [Incidentally, we are told that it is wrong to think the camera obscura should be associated with photography—it is rather camera lucida, 'that apparatus, anterior to Photography, which permitted drawing an object through a prism, one eye on the model, the other on the paper' (106).] 

It is the certainty of the image, unlike that of a text, which permits observations with intensity, but the paradox is that the very certainty of the photograph serves to stop interpretation, asking us only to express 'fundamental belief' in its reality (107). That photograph allowed him to discover his mother, outside of mere likeness, in a way where words fail [satori again].  Photographs of faces also feature an 'air (the expression, the look)'.  This cannot be analysed without moving away from the photograph itself.  It is not an intellectual construction nor an analogy.  Rather it is something that 'induces from body to soul' (109), a 'sudden awakening', 'a kind of intractable supplement of identity', appearing as something unimportant for the subjects.  The early photograph reveals his mother beneath all those masks, a soul.  'Perhaps the air is ultimately something moral, mysteriously contributing to the faith of reflection of a life value?'(110).  The air is 'the luminous shadow which accompanies the body'.  Photographs often miss this air, and this is painful in photographs of loved ones, leaving only an effigy.  The preservation of an air in this particular photograph was just a matter of luck.

Photographic looks are paradoxical.  The subject often seems to look directly at the spectator, but without seeing them.  We become aware that they have thoughts without targets, but this is what produces the air, a sense of intelligence 'without thinking about anything intelligent, just by looking into this piece of black plastic' (113), demonstrating pensiveness.  The problem is that it also conveys madness—'whoever looks you straight in the eye is mad'.  Yet this is still an example of where 'affect...  is a guarantee of Being'.  This suggests the possibility of the true total photograph, 'the unheard of identification of reality ("that-has-been") with truth (" there-she-is!")'

Photography has this special noeme, producing certainty that objects have existed.  Photographs become 'a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time' (115) because we know that something is not there [now] , but it has been.  Hallucination describes well the intensity that one can feel when looking at photographs which produce emotional intensity.  There is a link between photography, madness and 'the pangs of love' (116). We can also experience vicarious ['mad'] pity, for what is dead and what is going to die.

Photographs are domesticated by 'society', because of this threatening madness.  First, photography can be made into an art, but only by abandoning its noeme and the shock that can be produced.  The photographic image becomes 'simply an illusion' (117).  Secondly, photography can be generalized and banalized, until it lacks anything special or scandalous, often for example when photographs appear all over the world and are drawn from 'the generalized image - repertoire'(118) [a hint of the notion of the spectacle].  Here photography claims to illustrate the world, but actually de-realizes it.  The images get consumed and they can be less authentic, we deal with them with 'nauseated boredom' and in difference.

So photography can be mad or tame.  The latter if its realism is 'tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits' (119), mad if its 'realism is absolute and, so to speak, original', forcing us to contemplate the moment of time, in 'photographic ecstasy'.  We can choose either route.

[Generally, definite shades of the Bourdieuvian 'high aesthetic' here,  emotional engagement but at the highest level of 'love' and philosophy, disdain for anything deliberate or contrived. It is all ineffable -- but people of good taste will know what he means because they share the same habitus?]

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