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Barthes: Camera Lucida

Posted on November 6, 2009 in Reading Project

Like The Pleasure of the Text, Camera Lucida is really, really fruity. In it Barthes starts by making an investigation into what he finds compelling about photography, and from there proceeds to outline broader insights gained by this investigation. The personal origin continues to exert its hold throughout, with an element that “wounds” the viewer (referred to as a punctum) being the criteria for a great photograph.

Photography criticism feels a little weird to me because I’m ambivalent about its remarkably-consistent central trope. The technophobia that a photograph seems to instill in its viewers probably dates all the way back to the point when a smudge became a spoon under the watchful eye of Niepce. Camera Lucida is beautiful and full of insights about culture and meaning, but even Barthes can’t quite convince me that the relation between the photograph and death isn’t basically shooting the messenger.

Barthes was brutally structuralist enough to write a book called The Death of the Author, but he still makes something alterior out of the indelible stillness of the photograph. When he observes that one thing that distinguishes writing from photography is the latter’s capacity for self-authentication I have to shake my head. “Joaquin,” you might say, “Adobe didn’t release the program that would define creature feep forever until ten years after Barthes’ death!”*

But a true technophile knows in her or his black little heart that there is precious little “new.” Falsifying photographs may, in fact, be slightly older than reacting to them technophobically. The exposure times required by early film makes the majority of photography’s corpus a lie. Thinking of the photographic image as self-authenticating is inherently naive (although, like all technology-related naivete, photographic expertise offers no buffer against these misunderstandings.)

The slightly more worldly (languidly taps ash off end of cigarette) understanding of the “reality” of the photograph is to notice that it is precisely as self-authenticating as any experience. The flimsiness of photography’s apparent authority provides substantial insight into the flimsiness of experience’s apparent authority. To obfuscate this with a bunch of haute-romantique drivel about death is bupkus, even from the pen of Roland Barthes.

* A friend of mine had, once upon a time, gotten it into his head that the truck that struck Barthes down was carrying books to a library. A hilarious and romantic image. The truth, that it was a laundry truck, is not as literary, but truly beautiful in its own way.