Camera Lucida in The Guardian

At the same time John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, Lewis Payne attempted to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward. Seward survived the attack. Alexander Gardner took this photograph, one of several of the Lincoln conspirators, shortly before he was executed on July 7, 1865.

I’ve had Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida on my list of books to read for quite some time. This article by Brian Dillon in the Guardian makes me think I need to move it up in the queue.

“…what Barthes had written was neither a work of theoretical strictness nor avant-garde polemic, still less a history or sociology of photography. Instead, it was frankly personal, even sentimental: an essay in 48 fragments that deliberately frustrated readers looking for the semiotics of photography they imagined Barthes would (or should) write.”

“Camera Lucida, however, was different… a search for the aspect of experience that evaded study or critique. In short, it was a book about love and grief, written directly out of the loss of his mother in 1977… Barthes had composed a ghost story of sorts, in which neither Henriette Barthes nor the book’s ostensible subject, photography, could quite be grasped.”

“Camera Lucida is a distinctly odd volume to have attained, in the 30 years since its publication, such a canonical place in the study of photography. As the scholar Geoffrey Batchen points out in Photography Degree Zero, a recent collection of essays about Barthes’s text, it is probably the most widely read and influential book on the subject. But the nature of that influence remains obscure – what exactly does one learn from Camera Lucida? Barthes certainly shrinks from being comprehensive; he has no interest in the techniques of photography, in arguments over its status as art, nor really in its role in contemporary media or culture, which he leaves to sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu. He is allergic to cleverness in photography (much of Henri Cartier-Bresson would surely qualify), disparages colour (in the era of William Eggleston, no less) as always looking as if it’s been added later, and calls himself a realist at exactly the moment when postmodernist artists and critics were declaring the image a performance or sham. Worse, he risks this sort of aphoristic provocation: ‘in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes.’

“What, then, was Barthes looking for when he looked at photographs? In the first half of the book, he elaborates a distinction between two planes of the image. The first, which he calls the studium, is the manifest subject, meaning and context of the photograph: everything that belongs to history, culture, even to art. ‘The studium is a kind of education,’ he writes. It’s here that we learn, say, about Moscow in a William Klein street photograph from 1959, or about the comportment of a well-dressed African-American family in a 1926 picture by James Van Der Zee. But it’s the second category that really skewers Barthes’s sensibility. He calls it the punctum: that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty. In the same Van Der Zee photograph, the punctum is one woman’s strapped pumps, though it later shifts, as the image “works” on the author, to her gold necklace. This is one of a few curious moments in the book where Barthes blatantly misreads the image at hand; the woman is actually wearing a string of pearls. But his point survives: he has been indelibly touched by the poignant detail.”

“Suddenly every photograph is for Barthes a memorial; the very essence of the medium is its spectral conjuring of death-in-life. Contemplating a portrait by Alexander Gardner of the condemned Lewis Payne – sentenced to death for the attempted murder of US Secretary of State WH Seward in 1865 – Barthes sees only this fearful temporal paradox: ‘He is dead and he is going to die.’ “

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