Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida—Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981)
annotation by Jenifer Schadlick (Theories of Media, Winter 2004)

In the opening pages of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes clearly states what motivated his investigation of photography. He writes, "I was overcome by an 'ontological' desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was 'in itself,' by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images (3)." If Barthes motivation is personal in nature, so is his methodology. Because of a "desperate resistance to any reductive system," Barthes chooses to begin his investigation by focusing on photographs that "exist" for him; consequently, he takes himself as "mediator for all Photography (8)." Despite this highly personal approach, Barthes ultimately strives to arrive at "the thing which is seen by anyone looking at a photograph and which distinguishes it in his eyes from any other image (60)."

The "thing" Barthes hopes to arrive at is alternately called photography's eidos or noeme; it is what essentially differentiates Photography from other images. The "community" of images Barthes attempts to distinguish Photography from includes Film, or Cinema, and Painting. Barthes' first taxonomic challenge lies in the contingency of the photograph; "it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency…the This…in short, what Lacan calls…the Real, in its indefatigable expression (4)." The photograph essentially says, "Look. Here it is." However, it points to and repeats something that "has been" and "could never be repeated existentially (4)." Barthes connects this eternal present tense of the photograph to the impossibility of separating a photograph from its referent. The apparent difficulty this causes Barthes ultimately serves him in his purpose; he says, "I didn't yet know that this stubbornness of the referent in always being there would produce the essence I was looking for (6)."

In examining the public photographs that "exist" for him, Barthes provides a new vocabulary to speak about Photography, and provides a means to distinguish them. The photographer becomes the Operator, the subject of the photograph is the Spectrum, and the viewer of a photograph is the Spectator. Barthes does not speak to the role of Operator, because he is not a photographer. He speaks most extensively on the role of the Spectator, but in his brief discussion of the Spectrum Barthes touches on one of his main arguments; speaking about a photograph of himself, he says, "Death is the eidos of that photograph (15)." He further develops this theme in the second half of the book. Speaking about photographs from the role of the Spectator, Barthes distinguishes between the important elements of a photograph. He notes what he calls a "co-presence" of elements in a photograph that strikes him. These co-presences become the studium and the punctum. The studium "is an extant, it has the extension of a field, which I perceive quite familiarly as a consequence of my knowledge, my culture (25)." However, the punctum is what truly makes the Photograph exist in Barthes eyes; it disturbs the studium. He frequently describes the punctum as a wound and this bodily-ness connects to Barthes later discussion of Death and Photography.

By the end of the first part of Camera Lucida, Barthes has provided all of the key terms and ideas that will come to fruition in the second half of the book. In order to arrive at the essential nature of Photography, Barthes moves from the discussion of public photographs to very private ones. A photograph of his mother proves essential in his understanding of Photography.