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Camera Lucida

by Roland Barthes

translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, 1981, $10.95, hardcover

A review by Elsa Dorfman
Originally published in The Journal of Photography in New England, Volume 3 Number 3 

Roland Barthes, who died in 1981, was an eminent French historian, writer and philosopher, one of the chief formulators of semiology, the study of forms by interpreting the societal role of signs and symbols. La Chambre Claire, in its English translation, Camera Lucida, was his last work. Barthes had written occasional pieces on photography before be wrote Camera Lucida. The form of the book is 48 one-to-three page numbered essays which lead almost architecturally from one to the other. Titled in the table of contents, the essay sections carry no titles in the work itself, probably to induce fluidity and a narrative sense.

Barthes was prompted to write this book when he was in mourning for his mother, to whom he was devoted and with whom he lived. A major section of the book is about his looking among family photographs for the best, most telling picture of his mother. He was searching for the true HER among all the snapshots of her long life that were available to him. Most people have had this experience in their private lives. We have as well gone through this process en masse as a culture following the death of public figures who have touched us: John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe. Recently, on the one hundredth anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's birthday, the media printed pictures that through the filter of 35 years seemed to hold the charisma of the man. (Similarly, we look for the diabolical streak in pictures of persons who turn out to be mass murderers: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy.) As photographers, many of us have in our archives portraits of people who are now dead, some of whom may mean a great deal to us. I can understand Barthes' ordeal and the pull of his mother's images. Last year I printed a commemorative series of portraits of a poet friend, Charles Olson, who died 11 years ago. In each of my images he was large and vigorous; in one or two I could literally hear his voice. Going through my contact prints, I was in a trance, a real time warp. More recently, in this past month, actually while reading Barthes, I printed 24 images of my aunt Riv, who is dying at the Brigham and Women's Hospital. They were all taken at parties celebrating her 60th and 65th birthdays. In the images, she is happy and vigorous, innocent of her future. Poring over images of the dead is an active part of grief, of mourning, of dealing with the actuality of death. This ritual didn't exist for anybody but the upper classes, obviously, before photography was invented; 1839 must be a milestone in the history of mourning rites and thanatology.

It seems inevitable to me that in going over old pictures of his mother, Barthes would be overwhelmed with the connections between the Images, Time and Death. (It is a totally human conclusion.) The reality of the photos is palpable, but the reality of Death is the ultimate Concrete. It is inevitable that Barthes would be struck by what Time and the Instant mean in an image. How the image fights Change (the ultimate Change being Death.) It is natural, considering the genesis of his ideas, that Barthes would decide that the genius of photography was the specificity of the subject of the image, that the subject "really was there". And that he would conclude that Death was the logical implication of every image.

Barthes went through all the pictures of his mother - from the most recent ones to ones of her childhood. The one he settled on and doesn't reproduce (assuring us it would be uninteresting) is from her childhood. He describes it thus:

My mother was five at the time (1898), her brother was seven. He was leaning against the bridge railing...she, shorter than he, was standing a little back, facing the camera...she was holding one finger in the other hand as children often do, in an awkward gesture. The brother and sister had posed, side by side, alone, under the palms of the Winter Garden...I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother.
What is so special about the Winter Garden Photograph, as Barthes calls this essential portrait? What can be extrapolated from his search about the nature of portraits which work? Or about how they work? Barthes says that what makes the Winter Garden Photograph so great is that his mother let herself be photographed. She lent herself to the photographer. She placed herself in front of the lens with discretion. He sees this photograph as a new moment. It has the splendor of her truth, although it doesn't look "like" her (being of a child Barthes never knew). Barthes sees the Winter Garden Photograph of his mother as perpetuating Love. He is comforted by its actuality - the fact it literally emanated from his mother. She did not struggle with her image. She was neither showing nor hiding herself. There is an assertion of gentleness, he writes.

Barthes' mother was, in fact, the perfect portrait subject. How many of us have had to struggle with the subject who fights us subtly as we try to take his/her portrait. In fact, the art of the portrait photographer may be to induce in his/her subjects the state of gentleness and "thereness" that Barthes describes in his mother. The "thereness" in a person's character transcends Death. We recognize the person's character immediately. An image that comes to mind is a portrait of John Lennon that Annie Leibowitz took on the last afternoon of his life. It is a straight-on head-and-shoulders image; Lennon is wearing a dark sweater. (Rolling Stone published the image on the anniversary of Lennon's death.) Lennon was a natural subject for the camera. He was always there. Some people just look like there is nobody home and it is very hard to get a good portrait of them. What one gets is a portrait of vacancy. (To help induce "Thereness" in a subject, I explain to him/her what I find interesting about him/her. Many people have no idea what makes them interesting to other people. "It's your curly hair. It's your mink coat. It's your kind face. It's your bravery.")

Barthes sees Death implicit in each photograph. He is struck by how the photograph moves you back through time. How you always have the past with you. Each photo documents a 1/60, 1/ 125 of a second that existed. Death is the final moment of a life and the last possible photograph. At the same time, Barthes sees the photograph as a kind of resurrection. It continues after the person is gone. It has a life of its own, in scrapbooks, on walls, in cardboard boxes, as long as the paper exists. Barthes likes the fact that what he sees has existed in front of the lens. The past is as certain as the present. He can assure himself of his mother and know that his experience with her was real. The Winter Garden image becomes a magic relic, as though it is part of his mother.

It is interesting that Barthes settled on the Winter Garden Photograph as the Total Portrait. Many photographers, beginning with Stieglitz, think that the most telling portrait is an extended series which is cumulative in its effect. Barthes, in Camera Lucida, never raises the possibility that several images could yield the "true" portrait. Partly, it may be because Barthes was searching in grief and love for one image in which to find his mother's spirit. When I go over my contact prints of people I have photographed off and on for 15 years, some portraits nail my friends more than others do. But the cumulative effect is at least as powerful as is the effect of any one image. The change over Time is eerie and it seems to me, at those times particularly, that photography is about change. I am struck by the fragility of the status quo; we don't know what is waiting for us around the corner. (I have many pictures of happy couples now divorced that I would publish as a series dedicated to life's uncertainty if it weren't for the lawsuits it would provoke.) Wendy MacNeil's longitudinal composite portraits are a good example of the power of cumulative imagery.

It's interesting, too, that Barthes never talks about the effects of different kinds of cameras on the images produced. Surely, all the pictures of Barthes' mother that he reviewed before settling on the Winter Garden Photograph weren't in the same format.

I find format a decisive factor in the kind of portrait I take and get. The 35mm camera is quick, casual, familiar. It is a mask in front of my face, but I am very accessible. The technology is easy and it adapts to the situation. The square is a much harder form to compose within. I hardly ever take a full figure with it since I don't know what to do with the leftover space (usually on the sides). It is great for people on chairs, or half the figure, or just the face. (You can tell Diane Arbus and Lisette Model are no ordinary photographers by how they use the square.) The Polaroid 20 x 24 on the other hand, is stimulating because of the heroic scale and the color. (Barthes never mentions scale as affecting an image's impact. Perhaps all the images of his mother in the cartons were small, ordered for the family album.) The 20 x 24 isn't a mask for the photographer. It is a bonafide accomplice. The photography session becomes theater. And since the subject sees and can react to each shot, the session is collaborative and builds upon itself. The 20 x 24 is a very stimulating format for me. It demands a certain control, a sense of composition, and a sense of the subject's formalism and body. In the studio, without a lot of props, I have to induce the "thereness" in my subjects. (It is very important to pick interesting people and to compose carefully.) The 20 x 24, with no negative and no darkroom work, is a direct medium and produces a startling lifelike photographic rendition. The image is a life mask.

Aside from what seems to be an obsession with the photograph as the shadow of the frozen moment and time/reality/death/portraiture, Barthes makes many observations on photography which are on their way to becoming part of the vocabulary, especially studium and punctum. The studium is the spectator's attraction, because of cultural background, interest, curiosity, to an image. Barthes describes "unary" photographs (e.g., news photographs, war photographs, sociological photographs) as providing for the spectator of a lot of studium. The pornographic photograph which is completely constituted by one thing (genitalia) is another example of a photograph with a lot of studium. The example of studium Barthes chooses to reproduce is an image titled "Mayday" by William Klein. It is a picture with a lot of cultural information. We can find other examples in W. Eugene Smith, Susan Meiselas, or Lee Lockwood.

The punctum, on the other hand, is the detail that catches the eye, jogs the memory, arouses tenderness. The punctum has the power of expansion, while remaining a detail. It is an attribute of the scene. It occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is inevitable and delightful. Barthes discusses the punctum in (and reprints) photographs by Van der Zee, Klein, Kertesz, Hine, and Mapplethorpe (whose work he loves).

Barthes says that it is the punctum that lets the pornographic image rise to the erotic. It is the detail that takes the edge off pornography's literalness. I think Barthes is right here. For two and a half years, I worked closely with James Donald (formerly of Cambridge, now of Baltimore). Donald concentrates on nude homosexual imagery. Once I got used to the anatomical differences and the sexual motifs, the nakedness and the explicitness were boring to me. It wasn't until Donald himself got tired of being explicit and began to layer his images with details and suggestions that they became erotic and tender. (He also became humorous and has a whole series of nude male studies posed in front of and within venerable Harvard landmarks.)

Barthes has written a marvelous description of the discomforts of the Subject/Target. Subjects who feel as uncomfortable as Barthes does in front of a camera drive me crazy. "If I could be painted (by Titan) or drawn (by Clouet)...If only I could come out on paper as a classical canvas, endowed with a notable expression - thoughtful, intelligent, etc." He continues to lament that he hadn't been photographed by Nadar or Avedon. (It is hard to believe that Avedon, who pursues cultural giants, missed photographing Barthes.) "I don't know how to work upon my skin from within," he complains.

Nothing makes a subject like Barthes happy with his image. Color. Black and white. Inside. Outside. Casual. Formal. Close up. Far away. Some people's desire to be mythic keeps them perpetually dissatisfied and kills any possibility of a mythic persona they may have within them appearing. One poet I photographed wrote that if I published my mournful portraits of her, no one would buy her books.

I have a strategy for such crankiness. During the second, remedial session, I use Polaroid 665 positive/negative film and shoot until the subject is happy. That forces the subject to work at his/her image. The message of the 665 film to my subjects is "You are boss. You can check every image. We will go on until you are satisfied or exhausted. You are in control."

The frontispiece of Camera Lucida is a Polaroid color (predominantly blue) image of a bed and a blowing curtain by Daniel Boudinet. Neither the image nor Boudinet is mentioned anywhere in the text. In fact, Barthes goes out of his way to mention Polaroid materials are only effective in the hands of a great photographer. He makes a point of saying color is an artifice, a cosmetic. It is a coating applied to the original truth of a black-&-white photograph. Why did Barthes or his editor choose that untitled image as the frontispiece of his book? Was it playfulness? Was it to suggest that no theory is the whole story? Was it to accentuate the effectiveness of portraits? Was it to provide a counterpoint to his insights? I welcome ideas from others as pedantically inclined as I am.

Basically, Barthes doesn't think the photographer does much. He thinks the key to the successful portrait lies unconsciously with the subject (his/her aura) and with Time. He is unaware that a good portrait requires work on the part of the photographer and the subject. He doesn't realize that sometimes the magic is due to the photographer and sometimes it is due to the subject (more often to both).

I find it hard to believe that Barthes doesn't realize what goes into the skill of someone like Richard Avedon. Perhaps Barthes is feigning naiveté. Avedon, who during the one time I watched him work, photographing Allen Ginsberg and his family, was totally controlling and in control. He controlled where each toe of each of the twelve relatives was lined up on a predetermined chalk line. He determined each person's posture. He worked from sketches drawn before the session which were based on each person's height and size. Nothing was left to chance. He took Polaroids to check the lighting and the arrangement of subjects.

Barthes reproduces "William Casby, born a slave, 1963" and "A. Philip Randolph (The Family) 1976," by Avedon, and "Notary," by Sander. Casby and the Notary, Barthes says, are examples of the Photograph of the Mask - or what makes a face into the product of society and of its history. That's another way of saying "a great subject, a great face." Barthes never acknowledges that part of the genius of Avedon and Sander is in how they selected their subjects. They picked people who epitomized that period and the stratum of society they found of particular interest. Finding a good subject, someone who can respond to the camera with the gentleness and thereness that Barthes' mother had for the photographer of the Winter Garden Photograph takes skill and luck. Elaine Mayes did a marvelous series of portraits of young people who lived in the Haight-Ashbury district in the sixties. These images epitomize that time and will become increasingly valuable to us as the sixties recede in memory. The MFA owns at least one of these images and the series was reproduced in Aperture. They are worth looking up as a good illustration of a subject that encapsulates their time in history.

Barthes thinks that all the attributes that make these three images great existed in Casby, Randolph and the Notary themselves and were simply captured by the camera. It doesn't occur to him that they could possibly be created or elicited by Avedon or Sander. Barthes thinks it is all the aura, the air of the person, his/her look; it is what IS that makes a good photograph. (Barthes never considers light. He never considers how light affects Avedon's or Sander's images, how they might use light to reveal and accentuate character or charisma.)

Finally, in conclusion, Barthes says that generally in photography, it is the amateur who is closer to the spirit and mastery of the profession than the professional. I'm bemused (and not the least threatened) by this slight of my life's work, since, though the Winter Garden Photograph was taken by an amateur, Barthes' list of admired photographers is headed by Nadar, Sander, Avedon, and Kertesz. (For some reason, Barthes never mentions Arbus, whose work I think he would have loved.) Barthes may feel the amateur is closer to the inimitable feature (his word is noeme) of photography, which is the that-has-been quality of the image, because the amateur is motivated by "here-we-are-let's-remember-this" which becomes, the moment the shutter closes, that-has-been. The professionals start from a different place.


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