Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is a classic text of the realist school of Photography theory. I’ve been reading extracts from it as published in The Photography Reader (ed. Liz Wells). This post covers parts 1, 2,4 and 5 of the original text.
Barthes commences by describing how a photograph of Napoleon’s brother caused him to start questioning what is the essence of photography’s uniqueness, and to what extent photography has a ‘genius’ of it’s own. He rejects the idea of trying to understand photography in terms of classification systems on the grounds that those systems can just as easily be applied to other forms of visual representation and hence can’t possibly get to the heart of photography’s uniqueness.
His first insight is that a photography captures a unique event that can never re-occur. Furthermore, each photograph is intrinsically bound to this event, or referent (or vice versa): the referent cannot be photographed again, the photograph cannot be retaken in order to point to a different referent. This strongly emphasizes the realist view that the photograph is the referent, and it is pointless to speak of the photograph as some sort of entity with its own life, unshackled from the referent.
He claims that there is no particular reason to choose a particular moment or event as referent (as any other might just as easily have been chosen) and hence photography is unclassifiable, has no meaning in itself. Books on photography, whether technical, historical or sociological, infuriate him for this reason, and because they tell him to shun the sort of ‘Amateur Photography’ that he enjoys – the sort of photography that is all about the referent and nothing else, such as family pictures.
So he ignores all theories of photography and starts to construct one himself. There are three activities involved in photography:taking photographs, viewing photographs, and being photographed. He has no interest in the first of these as he does not take photographs, and presumably also because to do so would be to ascribe intentionality to the photographer and contradict the ‘pure realism’ approach he espouses.
Part 5 relates his thoughts on the experience of being photographed. Being photographed involves a consciuous awareness and an inevitable ‘posing’ where the subject attempts to convey a particular impression through the photograph. He suggests that this always fails, as the subject attempts to imitate him or herself, in an attempt to convey their true nature. Feelings of ‘inauthenticity and imposture’ coincide with a general uneasiness as the subject is transformed into an object. Barthes likens the process to a micro-version of death as the subject becomes a ‘specter’. He finds a photograph of himself to be ‘sinister and repellent’. This relates back to the notion of a photograph being tied to a unique event, never repeated. Barthes will never again be as he was when the photograph was taken, he will always be closer to death, and the photograph, the specter, will live on, perhaps to be viewed by others, after his own death.
Above is a slightly bizarre picture of me freezing my ass off in a tent up a mountain in Tanzania some years back. My wife took it. I threw it in here to see if I shared Barthes’ view of the connection between portraits and death. Unlike Barthes, I don’t think I see my own death in it, but then I’m a lot younger than he was when he wrote that. I can say, that at several points during the day after that photograph was taken, I did think I was going to die. I’m not sure it would have made a fitting visual epitaph.