Forget the Analysis and Just Read Camera Lucida

Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes


Elevator – Miami Beach, by Robert Frank. Barthes argued that a Punctum must always be an accident, unseen by the photographer. How then could Robert Frank have produced an entire book in which virtually every image pierces the soul?

I doubt if any book about photography has been more thoroughly dissected than Camera Lucida.

I have no illusion that I can add anything significant to the body of work on this small volume. It is a safe bet to say that for every one of the 119 pages in Roland Barthes’ brief volume, hundreds of pages have already been written.

Two recent and worthwhile volumes are Photography Degree Zero, edited by Geoffrey Batchen, which  contains 14 often challenging essays on the book and James Elkins’ What Photography is, which is more of a counterpoint, rather than an analysis of Camera Lucida.

There is more than enough material for anyone who wants to plumb the depths of critical analysis of Camera Lucida.

Rather than attempt to add anything to what has already been written, I have concluded that I would do best by suggesting that simply reading Camera Lucida and enjoying it without obsessing over every detail can be a rewarding and enlightening option.

There is something to be said for just joining Barthes as he takes the reader on his deeply personal journey to “learn at all costs what Photography” is in itself, and “by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images.”

It is a personal journey and I sometimes wonder if we make a mistake trying to use Barthes’ book as a guide toward some universal, grand unified theory of photography.

Of course, Barthes does lays out something of a grand theory focusing on what he characterizes as two key elements of photographs, the “studium” and the “punctum.”  It is impossible to talk about Camera Lucida without some discussion of the two terms. But, so much has been written about them that I think they often overshadow the book itself.

Both are Latin words that have been repurposed by Barthes.  The “studium” can be greatly oversimplified as that which the photograph appears, on the surface, to be about.

In most cases, Barthes is only mildly interested in this surface subject. “The studium is of the order of liking, not of loving” he says.

In contrast, he is most interested in what he calls the “punctum.”

Robert Frank, The Americans

Trolley, New Orleans, Robert Frank, The Americans

Barthes’ own description seems the best: “…it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me…because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole…A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”

There are times that I wish Barthes had simply stopped there with his description of the punctum. Unfortunately, he didn’t and that has created a problem for me, because, for Barthes, the punctum can never be a purposeful effect of the photograph. When Barthes describes the punctum as “that accident that pricks me,” he quite literally means that it must be an accident.

In Barthes’ world, any punctum consciously included in the photograph by the photographer is not a true punctum, but rather a contrivance.

Certainly, a great many photographs do rely on a purposeful shock and many fail as a result. The most common of these are fashion photographs that aspire to art. In too many of these, the pressure to shock simply to draw attention has become so overwhelming that it tends to bore more than intrigue or titillate. A little Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton goes a long, long way.

Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier, 1936

Is anyone really shocked today by Robert Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier?

It is also true that many images that once shocked, when taken out of time and context, lose the capacity to shock. That is particularly true of photographs that have become icons. Is anyone really shocked today by Robert Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier?

But, I struggle with Barthes’ belief that the “punctum” must always be accidental.

On the one hand, I think he grossly underestimates photographers when he essentially rules out any instance where the “prick” of the photograph is known to the photographer.

Pick up a copy of The Americans. Is there a single image in that entire book that does not contain a punctum? Could it possibly have been an accident that virtually every image is capable of pricking and bruising the viewer…that so many of these images remain painfully poignant more than a half century after they taken.

But, the images of The Americans inspire me to think of Barthes’ premise in a different light. There is another way to look at the nature of the punctum that I think may in some sense be what Barthes intended.

That is, to consider whether photographers are “creators” in the same sense that a painter fashions an image, or whether photographers are more like “collectors” who hunt for the interesting species and encase a tiny speck of time, light and space forever in a frozen moment.

While today’s digital world makes it more possible than ever before to construct an image entirely from pixels that have never existed in nature, that was not the case for Barthes or for most of the history of photography.


Bar – New York City, Robert Frank, The Americans

As John Szarkowski observed, “The first thing that the photographer learned was that photography dealt with the actual…

…a photograph evokes the tangible presence of reality. It’s most fundamental use and its broadest acceptance has been as a substitute for the subject itself…”

Near the end of his book, Barthes’ concludes, “The noeme [essence] of Photography is simple, banal; no depth: ‘That has been.’”

He continues, “Here is where the madness is, for until this day no representation could assure me of the past of a thing except by intermediaries; but with the Photograph , my certainty is immediate; no one in the world can undeceive me. The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality.”

If that last passage leaves you scratching your head, well, it does me too. But I use this to illustrate a rather simple point: Photographs have the unique ability to freeze a specific point in time. The instant a photograph is taken, the person or object is locked in time and space.

And, for  Barthes the struggle is reconciling that moment-stopping image with the harsh reality that time itself marches on. His mother lived an entire life and died, all the while her image within his dear Winter Garden photograph remains that an innocent five-year-old yet to be touched by the ravages of time.


Covered Car – Long Beach, California. Robert Frank, The Americans

But I am more intrigued by the thought that in most cases the best photographs, I find, are those where the photographer somehow has managed to extract something meaningful during that tiny moment when the shutter clicks and, incredibly, freezes some universal emotion that the viewer can experience for all time.

Barthes insists that the punctum can never be purposeful. I suspect that in one sense Barthes is right – these tend to be lucky accidents. We like to pretend that as photographers, we are creators, but in reality, I think the most successful photographers are more like a medium – a conduit for channeling some universal emotion (seldom a truth, but possibly one).

I am inclined to believe that the greatest photographers somehow manage to consistently, and perhaps even subconsciously, channel these poignant, piercing, painful punctures and freeze them forever, so that generations from now, long after subject and photographer are both gone from the world,  the punctum still pierces.

This entry was posted in Books, Criticism and Commentary, Great Photographers, On Photography and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *