‘Camera Lucida’ by Roland Barthes

Book 12 of 45 Days of Book Stories


Title: “Camera Lucida’
Author: Roland Barthes
Date of Publishing: 1980 (1981 in English)
Publisher: Éditions du Seuil ( Hill & Wang)
The first English translation of the book was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Hill & Wang is a division of the prior and was founded in 1956. They would then go on to translate multiple works by the author as well as publish seminal works within the field of the American war, politics, law and history.

Why This Book?

First Let’s Talk About Another Book

There are two books by Barthes that are my go-to books whenever I’m looking to ponder and revisit the connections we have as humans, between technology and the self. The first is a collection of his essays that he wrote for the French magazine Les Lettres nouvelles, which were written in 1954 and 1956, (if I’m not mistaken) and then they were published in one book under the title Mythologies, in 1957. Barthes here is in his avatar as a journalist, with a voice that was much needed in a post-war France. He is equal parts intellectual questioning the obvious and revealing truths that are staring at our faces, as he is a satirist, humoured by this modern existence of media and recording all that happens in our world.

In these examinations of the sign and signifier, (taking much from the work of Saussure) and in the popular culture of the time, he expounds on how modern myths get created and sustained. Through cinema, toys, art and more, Barthes takes us on a journey of questioning who we have become, as Humans, and where do we want to go. Thereby asking a very important question – Do Myths serve us in our evolutionary journey? One must remember that when he was writing these, they were for a left-wing political magazine. When taken in that context, especially his theories on myths as serving political power, his findings are even more relevant today.

Now to Focus on Camera Lucida

The second book by Barthes that has held my attention, ever since I read it for the first time in the summer of 2004 (exactly 16 years ago), is his work Camera Lucida. The book that is our focus for today is markedly different from any other writing by Barthes. It’s most striking element or feature is the personal voice we find, yes there is analysis, but more than that there is a sharing of experience and observation. A great example of this is the entirety of No.3 (there are no chapters, simply fragments of thought) titled “Emotion as Departure”, but I shall quote just a few lines here,

” So I resolved to start my inquiry with no more than a few photographs, the ones I was sure existed for me. Nothing to do with a corpus: only some bodies. In this (after all) conventional debate between science and subjectivity, I had arrived at this curious notion: why mightn’t there be, somehow, a new science for each object? A mathesis singularis ( and no longer universalis)? So I decided to take myself as mediator for all Photography. Starting from a few personal impulses, I would try to formulate the fundamental feature, the universal without which there would be no Photography.”

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Pg. 8-9

These words are just one small example of how we – the readers are invited into his world. In comparison to the earlier commentary and writing by Barthes, this very much feels like we are part of Barthes’ journey. It is true that in his earlier writings we are given a personal perspective, a personal account, in particular, his 1975 autobiography Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and in 1977, A Lover’s Discourse, but both of these by subject, theme and title are absolutely to do with the personal. It is one could say, unavoidable. With Camera Lucida, the subject, title and theme do not immediately seem personal. And this is why many of the early readers came to it with an expectation to receive a technical text, deconstructed with theory and philosophy. They were confused I would imagine, for Barthes gives us his personal philosophies, and allows us to sit with him and gaze and explore all Photography, image after image, by looking at the ones that – exist only for him! He gives us a new Philosophy and Theory of how to approach, understand and dismantle the photograph and all photography, albeit it unintentionally. For he is simply sharing his musings, one after the other, jumping from one moment to another – taking us with him.

Barthes’ Inspiration

The text was born out of the tragic loss of Barthes’ mother – Henriette Barthes. In 1977, he had begun to keep a mourning diary after her passing. In a means to deal with his grief, as we all are wont to do, Barthes had been looking at old photographs, to reconnect with his Mother’s likeness. And it was in that process that he was struck by the magic and morbidity of the photograph. In entry No. 5 titled “He Who Is Photographed”, Barthes states,

“…I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know I am posing, but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from my effigy. What I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my (profound) ‘self’; but it is the contrary that must be said: ‘myself’ never coincides with my image;…”

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Pg. 11-12

To know more, and see how the fascinating revelations that Barthes has, are so aptly applied to the present-age of camera phones, selfies, social media, Instagram, and Facebook that reproduce our images, now thousands in a month, rather than a lifetime. But are any of them truly our ‘real self’ – are they?

Not always Loved

When the book originally came out, it had been panned by critics and reader alike. The assumptions of what they would find within its pages, in my opinion, due to the false advertising in the title, led to disappointment. The French title for the work is La Chambre claire, ( The Clear Room) with a tagline that translates to – ‘a note on photography’. Perhaps some assumed, that the title was a nod to Niépce’s ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’.

Hence, it is but natural that the reader shall assume s/he would find technical analyses of the semiotics of the Photographic Process. This is exactly what Camera Lucida is not! The English translation for the title also is misleading in my opinion. We expect to find Barthes with his analytical hat on – telling us about light, prisms, the differences between the camera obscura and the camera lucida. Perhaps even giving us a lesson on the history of photography itself. In parts, all these definitely influence what I can only term as reflections by Barthes. But no, this is not a technical book, it’s a book about experiences and not processes of reproducing the image. In every page we read, we are stirred awake to our own experience of and with the photographic image. It is surprising and fitting in a way then that this work has gained such canonical status within the world of Photography and Art. Simultaneously being a go-to guide for the reproducer’s of the image as much as those who critique them.

Some final thoughts before you read the Book

In no way is the book Camera Lucida a close examination of the technical process of creating the photographic image. What it is about is simply this – one man’s experience with these reproduced images, as a philosopher, human, son, artist and thinker. He presents us with fragments of his thoughts, through 48 distinct snap-shots of his mind and personal experiences with a specific selection of photographs.

The work is a poignant essay on healing our memories, dealing with grief, and immortalising this life through technology- specifically for Barthes through the photographic image and the Art of Photography.

Many have given Camera Lucida the status of being one of the first texts to theorise Art Photography. This isn’t completely accurate. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida was published in 1980-81, Photography has been with us, in its earliest forms, through the explorations and collaborations between Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce, concretely since 1829. The result of their correspondence and capabilities as inventors and artists gave us the first permanent photographic image (Niépce, in 1826) and the first technology for realistic reproductions of that image – through the daguerreotype process (Daguerre, in 1837). In the 150-odd years between the two events, between Niépce and Barthes, there have been hundreds of explorations on all that is Photography. One worthy of note here is, The Chemistry of Light and Photography in Their Application to Art, Science, and Industry By Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, in 1875. Vogel gives us what some expected with Barthes.

So, why is Camera Lucida so very important? It gave the world of Art and Photography, of Artist, Critic and Viewer a vocabulary that was user-friendly to connect to these re-produced images through emotion and experience, just as Barthes does. Especially when he defines the photograph and our experience of it, in two parts. Part one is the Studium – the enthusiastic component that captures the viewer. That which makes us want to look at the photograph again and again, what draws us in. The Studium is there for all to observe, for all to be captured by. The second part, the Punctum is what interest Barthes the most. He defined it for us by sharing with us what he finds to be the punctum in a photograph, sometimes he states that the punctum “pricks” him, “bruises” him and other times it evokes emotions of sympathy or wonder. The Punctum is the details of a photograph that “puncture” and “penetrate” our emotional planes – igniting a subjective reaction or then attachment to the photograph. Where sometime’s the punctum becomes more expansive than the studium.

In the end, what Barthes does successfully is this, he highlights for us the various ways in which we engage with photographs. Not from a chemical, light and production process, but through our insight, intuition and subjective connection with the object and subject of the photograph. The processes he wants us to focus on, the ones that are important to him aren’t the shutter speed, exposure, or chemical baths in a darkroom. But the process of becoming the self outside the photograph, and if the self that is captured and lost within the photograph – is it real? Ultimately the reason I keep going back to this book, that is no more than 119 pages, is because it reveals parts of Barthes’ self.