It was suggested that I should read Camera Lucida (1), the last work of French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes. I had previously heard of “studium and punctum” but had not read the original book.
I think of myself as an avid reader, fiction, history, photography, sport, even literature but I found this short book difficult to break into, in fact, often quite impenetrable. Taking the man’s cleverness as a given I can only assume that this book was written for himself or for people skilled at translating the philosopher’s thoughts. I find his style rambling and confusing and his key ideas appear hidden behind a fog of words that, in fairness, might have lost sometime in translation.
At the outset Barthes tells us that he wants to learn, at all costs, what photography was in itself and he goes in search of the fundamental feature that is the basis of all photography. He questions whether photography has a “genius” of its own, something that would set it apart from, what he calls, the community of images. His tone might be interpreted as generally one of disappointment with photography, a medium that he feels “crushes all other images by its tyranny” and that fails to capture the essence of his dead mother.
Perhaps the genius of photography lies hidden amid his criticisms. If in 1980 he sensed that photography was overwhelming other art what might he think in 2014 when photography has become so overwhelming that we have invented on-line galleries that probably have more images uploaded per day than there are paintings on display in all of galleries in Britain or maybe even Europe yet has it really crushed the other communities of images? The genius of the medium might lie in this accessibility . According to Digitrends (2) every fifteen minutes users of Facebook upload the same number of photographs as are stored in the New York public photo archives. One might argue that the ordinary is swamping the extra-ordinary but this is true of any art form, just travel any distance in a taxi playing Euro pop, or listen to piped music in a shopping centre car park. Barthes appears to argue that quantity, in itself, diminishes an art form and that the quantity in one art form threatens to crush other forms. I do not accept this argument. Graham Clarke (3) in describing the development of the modern camera describes photography as “the most mobile and the most available of visual forms” and the “most democratic art form” and I subscribe to this view. By making photography possible from a telephone, an instrument designed for verbal communication people with no particular technical skills can communicate through images, even moving images. A biscuit tin of dog-eared, black and white family photographs has been replaced by an ever expanding library of photos of family, friends, places and events. The many can now document their lives to a level of detail that was once the preserve of the very few. Some of these pictures will match someone’s expectation of art – Ai Weiwei’s iPhone photo of the Forbidden City springs to mind – and many will not but this should neither diminish their role as a diary of memories, nor as an expression of current emotions, nor as a form of communication. “Look,” “See,” “Here it is,” as Barthes puts it, has value in its own right and who is to say that a cave painting of a bison ever meant more or that Holbein’s portraits say more than “Look,” “See,” “Here he is.”
Henri Cartier Bresson is famous for his “decisive moment” (4) and this is an idea that feels right to many photographers. It is the answer to Barthes’ question as to why we photograph an object at this moment rather than some other because this is the other genius of photography. The art of photography lies in, selection versus exclusion both in terms of subject and time. Stephen Shore, in The Nature of Photographs (5) discusses how we create order out of disorder by selecting a tiny moment in time and freezing it in a photograph. What we select as our subject and what we exclude from our frame is a hard, learnt skill for many of us.
There are clearly many insightful ideas in Camera Lucida , none more so than his much discussed concept of the studium and punctum of a photograph, but there are other truths here that are worth considering. He points out that all photographic portraits are posed because we adjust ourselves in some way when a camera is pointed in our direction and that, to manage this, the photographer becomes involved with manipulating the subject, using props, choosing meaningful backgrounds and that these actions move the portrait even further from the truth. It is of course an equally valid argument to say that the subject manipulates the photographer and the image by posing. He therefore believes that, if the subject is a person, no photograph is a true image capturing inner emotions and feelings. His argument contains some truth but not enough truth to make it a absolute. At one extreme we could look at a selection of Don McCullin’s (6) war photos where the subject is so deeply submerged in their private horror as to be oblivious to the camera, in “A Grunt Suffering Severe Shell Shock” I believe we see in his face a fleeting sense, of what he is feeling. McCullin offers many similar examples that could be categorised as people being so overwhelmed by their circumstances that the photographer is all but invisible to them. On the other extreme we could look at the work of David Bailey whose minimalistic portraits are repeatedly described as capturing the essence of his subjects. If Barthes was to visit the Stardust exhibition (7) would he agree with this view or would he say that the photographer was only capturing what Lennon or Caine or Beuys wanted him to see and that their pose hides the inner man? With Bailey’s portraits I believe there are nearly always two inputs, the visual document as put before us by the collaborative efforts of the subject and the photographer and all the other knowledge or perceived knowledge we have of the subject outside of the photograph, we put these together and might say that he has captured the true image but perhaps only the subject can say whether we are right.
His analysis of why we like or dislike a photograph is at the heart of this book and he takes this thought forward to look at why some photographs have no impact on us at all, leave us so unmoved that we neither like nor dislike them, we are simply unmoved. This was obviously true for Barthes forty odd years ago and is true for us today. We are exposed to countless photographs every day, the internet is so image heavy we are shocked to see a page with more text than pictures, no television news item can just be described, a photograph must be displayed over the newsreader’s shoulder, they arrive unsolicited on our phones, in our email, on every page of the newspaper both in paper and on-line, they adorn every billboard and many shop windows; our world is wallpapered with photographs, so many that it is far too exhausting to take a position on even a small percentage and certainly not all of them so we subconsciously categorise photographs into “like” (a few), “dislike” (a few) and completely ignore all the rest (the many) – the wallpaper? Bizarrely, in a world of too many, I go seeking more, buying photo books, hunting down websites, scouring the bookshelves of every charity shop I pass and in my work for assignment 3 I am even seeking out and photographing photographs; it’s bird spotting in an aviary, or looking for a square inch of art on the wallpaper. Barthes is looking for “adventure”, to be “animated”, to decide whether a photograph “exists” for him and this is his far more elegant way of expressing my “like”, “dislike”, “ignore”.
Barthes is searching for logical rules that explain why we make these choices. He recognises that many photographs are generally interesting and have, what he calls “an average effect” when we look at them in the context of what else we already know. He calls this the studium of a photograph, the photograph is of value, the viewer will have some enthusiasm for it because it documents a subject in way that seems “all right” and communicates, or provides an insight into the intent of the photographer. Beyond that it passes information, we learn something we didn’t know and in that we see that studium is related to study. He points out, that in journalism, the photograph can be interesting without any specific detail interrupting our reading. In effect the studium of a photograph provides a background, in many cases there is only this background but in some cases there is the punctum.
The punctum is the sharp point that pricks our attention and lifts a photograph to another level above just interesting. Barthes describes many examples of photographs that include a punctum and from this analysis we can readily see that, for him, it is a very personal response. In Barthes’ view the photographer cannot insert a punctum, if he or she does he rejects it. “I refuse to inherit something from another eye than my own”. This idea challenges the photographer to capture a subject with enough studium to hold the viewer’s initial interest and to unintentionally include a punctum, not an easy rule to follow. If we believe that the punctum is only ever a highly personal point of detail we, the photographer, will probably search for it in vain. If we believe that it is a point of detail that lifts the photograph to another level and that will be identified and recognised by most viewers we will fail his test but might have succeeded in creating a better or more exciting photograph that stands out from the crowd.
On finishing the book and after writing up my notes I remain a little frustrated by Barthes. I still think that he is very selective in the evidence he submits to prove his arguments and that he looks for rules when perhaps the whole point is that there are non. However, he offers a number of valuable insights that have a practical bearing on the study of photography and beyond that his writing is provocative and demands argument and this alone makes Camera Lucida a worthwhile read.
(1) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books
(3) Clarke, Graham. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(4) Cartier-Bresson, Henri. (1999), The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture Foundation.
(5) Shore, Stephen, (2007) The Nature of Photographs: Second Edition. New York: Phaidon Press.
(6) McCullin, Don, (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: 1992 Edition. London: Vintage.
(7) Bailey, David. (2014) Bailey’s Stardust: Published to accompany the exhibition Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 6th February to 1st June 2014, London, National Portrait Gallery