Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida—Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981)
Kasia Houlihan (Theories of Media, Winter 2004)
The overall project of Barthe’s Camera Lucida is to determine a new mode of observation and, ultimately, a new consciousness by way of Photography. His efforts aim to fashion an altogether customized framework—one that is distinct from already-determined accounts of images and representation—in which one can ‘classify’ photography, so as to get at its essence, or noeme. Barthes says that he wants, ‘a History of Looking’ (12), and in doing so, he attempts to account for the fundamental roles of emotion and subjectivity in the experience of and accounting for Photography. The essential nature—or eidos— of this subjective experience of photography is defined by an irreducible singularity of the photographic image, as an index indicating, ‘that-has-been.’
In order to distinguish what exactly sets photography apart from all other forms of representation, Barthes begins by noting a symptom of its ‘disorder’ (that which renders it ‘unclassifiable’ according to already-established standards): ‘the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’ (4); its essence is the event, ‘that which is never transcended for the sake of something else.’ In other words, the photograph is never distinguished from its referent—that which it represents; it simply is what it is (illustrated by the fact that one says ‘this is me’ when showing someone a photographic image of oneself, opposed to ‘this is a picture of me.’) When we look at a photograph, it is not the actual photo that we see, for the photograph itself is rendered invisible; thus the photograph is unclassifiable, for it resists language, as it is without signs or marks—it simply is. (This is comparable to Lacan’s version of the Real.) Furthermore, the subject that is photographed is rendered object, dispossessed of itself, thus becoming, ‘Death in person.’ (14) (*note that it is customary to say that a camera ‘shoots’ a picture.)
In his personal—subjective—examination of multiple photographs, Barthes proceeded to note a duality that was characteristic of certain photographs: a ‘co-presence of two discontinuous elements’—what he terms, the stadium and the punctum. The studium refers to the range of meanings available and obvious to everyone; it is unary and coded, the former term implying that the image is a unified and self-contained whole whose meaning can be taken in at a glance (without effort, or ‘thinking’); while the latter implies that the pictorial space is ordered in a universal, comprehensible way. The studium speaks of the interest which we show in a photograph, the desire to study and understand what the meanings are in a photograph, to explore the relationship between the meanings and our own subjectivities. The punctum (a Latin word derived from the Greek word for trauma) on the other hand inspires an intensely private meaning, one that is suddenly, unexpectedly recognized and consequently remembered (it "shoots out of [the photograph] like an arrow and pierces me”); it ‘escapes’ language (like Lacan’s real); it is not easily communicable through/with language. The punctum is ‘historical’ as an experience of the irrefutable indexicality of the photograph (its contingency upon a referent). The punctum is a detail or “partial object” that attracts and holds the viewer’s (the Spectator’s) gaze; it pricks or wounds the observer.
The ambiguity of the book’s title lends itself to the many levels on which the text addresses media theory, ranging from the very materiality of the photographic medium itself to its grander implications for human consciousness in the pursuit of truth. In his efforts to divorce photography from realms of analysis that deny or obscure its essence, Barthes ultimately formulates a new science of photography—an original framework in which photography steps beyond the shackles of classification and such terms as ‘art,’ ‘technique,’ etc. and, thus, draws upon an ‘absolute subjectivity’—one that exceeds the normal boundaries of the everyday by moving the activity of viewing from a transparent relationship of meaning and expression to a level in which meaning seems to be there without the presence of subjectivity. It is as if the photograph brings out the unconscious; it also represents the unconscious, while at the same time, it denies all of these relations of meaning. The photograph allows for the sight of self, not as a mirror but as an access point into a definition of identity—identity associated with consciousness, thus housing a whole; for it is in the photograph ‘where being coincides with self,’ (109) a, ‘true being, not resemblance.’ (Barthes uses the term ‘air’ for the expression of truth.) The photographer, a mediator, supplies the transparent soul its clear shadow, revealing its value and not its mere identity (110); the photographer, ‘makes permanent the truth.’