I have heard some of fellow students ask; “What relevance does Barthes have?” and I confess to feeling the same way when I first began to read him during Positions and Practice. It is easy to be put off by his esoteric language and the occasional diversionary tactic and to get hung up on a couple of his ideas that in the end, in my opinion, have nothing really to do with essential relevance of Barthes. I have just finished carefully and thoughtfully re-reading Camera Lucida, taking lots of notes and trying to sift through Barthes’ philosophical, rambling musings and to distil to the essence what was most important and relevant to me as a photographer.
I think it is important first to understand the question Barthes sets out to answer, and the perspective from which Barthes approaches the question. Barthes intent is to identify what about Photography is its distinguishing feature, and he, as a non-photographer, can only approach the problem from the perspective of the consumer, or in his term the Spectator’s point of view. The virtual entirety of his treatise and exploration is based on peeling back the layers to determine what is it about a photograph that in Walter Benjamin’s term “stirs a tiny spark of contingency” (Benjamin 1931: 510) and why.
It is easy to get distracted by Barthes’ regular referrals to Death. Death seems to me a red herring as there are other places where he seems to offer counter arguments. “Every photograph is a certificate of presence” (1981: 87) “…it is still mortal, like a living organism.” (Barthes 1981: 93) It would be just as easy to argue the photograph is proof of life. In the end the discussion of death doesn’t make or break what is important about Camera Lucida.
The majority of photographs in the world are banal and they pass before our eyes as if we never saw them, ephemeral enough so as to appear non-existent. “I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking; they are only ‘images, their mode of appearance is heterogeneous. Yet, among those which have been selected, evaluated, approved, collected in albums or magazines and which had thereby passed through the filter of culture, I realized that some provoked tiny jubilations, as if they referred to a still center, and erotic or lacerating value buried in myself; …and that others, on the contrary, were so indifferent to me that by dint of seeing them multiply, …I felt a kind of aversion toward them…” (Barthes 1981: 16) ’“The principle of adventure allows me to make Photography exist. Conversely, without adventure, no photograph.” (Barthes 1981: 19) “Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze.” (Barthes 1981: 27) We are subjected to an ever-increasing amount of visual media and I think few would disagree with the idea that much of what is produced remains unseen to any individual and much of what is seen by that individual passes by quite unnoticed. Barthes asks what is it that causes a photograph to be noticed?
A small number of the world’s photographs catch the interest of some viewers, enough to hold their gaze and perhaps to even remember something about the photo. “…in these photographs I can, of course, take a kind of general interest, one that is even stirred sometimes, but in regard to them my emotion requires the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture. …it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least immediately, ‘study,’ but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, without special acuity.” (Barthes 1981: 26) “…for culture, (from which the studium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers.” (Barthes 1981: 28) Studium, is the characteristic of the photo that cause one’s gaze to linger and to engage with the photograph. This, by the way, will be a completely different set of photographs from one individual to the next.
A very precious few of the world’s photographs will have something more, a detail generally unintentional and often not on the primary subject itself that expands for that viewer the photograph into something more than its studium reveals. This is the prick, the wound, the punctum that makes that photograph for that viewer more meaningful and unforgettable. “The studium is always coded, the punctum is not.” “What I can name cannot prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.” (Barthes 1981: 51) “Very often the Punctum is a ‘detail,” i.e., a partial object.” (Barthes 1981: 43) “However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion…which makes me add something to the photograph.” (Barthes 1981: 45) “Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful…” (Barthes 1981: 47)
Excellent examples for me of both studium and punctum are pieces from Nick Brandt’s work, Inherit the Dust. There is an immediate tension which the viewer must decode about what is out of place in this photo. The conclusion will be drawn based on the ethical, political, and cultural proclivities of the viewer. While this may not ‘wound’ someone else, these are photos that grab me by the heart, photos I can never un-see, photos I will never forget. The counterpoint of the resting giraffe expelled from this place by the diggers whose profile mimics that of the giraffe to make way for a quarry is undeniably poignant.
And finally, Barthes concludes that what distinguishes Photography from other forms of visual media is the intractability between the photograph and the referent. “I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, and without which there would be no photograph.” “…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography.” “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again: the Intractable.” (Barthes 1981: 76-77) Whether it communicates or is judged to be artistic is in the power of the viewer not the photographer. And so quite contrary to Barthes earlier assertion that Photography represented Death, he is saying here that instead it represents proof of existence in a way no other form, painting, sculpting, or writing can. It is the single most unique characteristic of Photography.
The noeme, That-has-been, leads Barthes to one final significant conclusion and it is here again that I think he argues against himself on the idea of the photograph being death. He states: “I now know that there exists another punctum than the detail. This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (’that-has-been), its pure representation.” (Barthes 1981: 96) Time is the pure representation of what has been, and in this punctum can lie in the knowledge that something has happened before or will happen in the future. This says to me that Barthes herein abandons the certainty that the photograph is death, because in that model there could be no future that is implied in the punctum. A particularly effective example of this element of punctum is September 11, 2001 photograph by Richard Drew of the Falling Man.
There is the punctum of the detail in this photograph, the perfect alignment of the axes of the body and the building and the bisection of the light and dark. There is also the punctum of time, the certainty of the man having come from somewhere above, and the certainty of what will occur at the bottom of his fall.
In conclusion, it is clear that as a photographer, I am not in control of who likes or dislikes, or notices or ignores my work, judges it as art or whether it communicates, as that is in the hands of the viewer. We photograph and by doing so provide irrefutable evidence that something existed at a point in time, a reference to that which has been. Studium and punctum are not purely concrete but can be loosely translated into that which makes one think and that which makes one feel when looking at a photograph, but neither can be forced into a photograph by the photographer, and a photograph will carry different effects to its viewers depending on their personal and cultural biases. We can only, as photographers, photograph those things that make us think and feel with the hope the resulting photograph will elicit similar reactions in others. And, as we edit and curate our work, we can be sensitive to the intended audience’s cultural predispositions and use that knowledge to influence our selections. These are the things I find as the essence of Barthes Camera Lucida and its universal relevance to photographers.
BARTHES, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.
BENJAMIN, Walter. 1931. Selected Writings 2, Part 2 1931-1934. Edited by G. Eiland, H., Jennings, M.W., and Smith. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press.