Posts Tagged ‘Roland Barthes’

The PhotoIreland festival is in full swing right now and I am running around trying to catch as much of it as I can. I went to a talk last week by a curator from London called Rodrigo Orrantia entitled “Photography And The Search For Lost Time”. In spite of the fact that there were only about 5 people there, it was really good, and Orrantia was an enthusiastic and interesting presenter. He was talking about photographic artists that address issues to do with time in their work and stretch the temporal boundaries of what might usually be considered normal photography. (more…)


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Peter Wollen’s Fire and Ice is a meditation on time and tense in photography and cinema. It deals with issues regarding what sorts of temporal experiences can be embodied within both forms and how the viewer’s means of engagement impacts upon this. The essay was first published in 1984 but later included in Liz Well’s 2003 book, The Photography Reader.

Photography is inextricably bound up with time. A photograph stops a moment and preserves it as a fragment of the past. The moment captured is of near-zero duration and located in an ever-receding ‘then’. By contrast, the spectator’s ‘now’ is of no fixed duration – the spectator can spend as long as he/she wishes, looking at the photograph. This contrasts sharply with cinema where the spectator’s experience is of fixed duration and often only available at set times.

Wollen applies these observations to Barthes, and claims that this temporal distinction between photography and film explains Barthes’s love of photography and antipathy towards film. Barthes privileges what the spectator brings to the work over the input of the author (as evidenced for example in Death Of The Author), and hence favours a medium like photography, where the spectator is in control over the time and circumstances of the viewing of the work, over film, where that control is ceded to the author. As Wollen puts it: ‘Time, for Barthes, should be the prerogative of the reader/spectator’. The implication of this is a bias against an author-imposed narrative structure and a preference for a freer, more interpretative approach controlled by the spectator. (more…)

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Roland Barthes

This essay is a classic semiotic text where Roland Barthes analyses an advertising image and uses it as a means of teasing out how different messages are conveyed by a system of signs. The ad he uses is the Panzani advert, within which he finds a rich layering of meanings.

Barthes commences by remarking that the word image stems from a Latin term meaning ‘imitation’ and then poses the central question of his essay – can images truly function of conveyers of meaning given that they are essentially imitations (or direct analogical representations) of something else. Do they really constitute a language, and if they do, how does meaning work within this language? He uses an advertising image to analyze these questions, as advertising images clearly have intended meanings. The image used is the Panzani ad which is reproduced below.


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from The Photography Reader, edited by Liz Wells

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.


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