In his book Camera Lucida, the French philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes writes that he one day happened to see a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, taken in 1852. It struck him “with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.’”
However, even if he mentioned this amazement to others, they did not seem to share or even understand it, so he forgot it and, as he says, took a more cultural interest in photography (or rather Photography – to emphasise their meaning, he usually capitalises the words Photographer and Photography). But in part two of his book he returns to the fact that a photograph has more than one tense. He refers to a photograph by August Salzmann (1850) that shows the road to Beith-Lehem (as it was spelled at the time). Barthes is conscious of three layers of time: his own present time when he is looking at the image, the time of Jesus and the time when the photograph was taken. We will come back to this notion later in part two of the book, in which Barthes reflects on how a photograph bears witness to what has been.
There is, of course, nothing new in Barthes’s observation that photography can be the object of three practices. He refers to doing, undergoing and looking. To him, the Operator is the Photographer. The person or thing photographed is the Spectrum of the Photograph, and the Spectator is the one who looks at the Photograph.
It is when it comes to looking at a photograph that Barthes introduces the two elements studium and punctum. He argues that studium does not mean (at least not immediately) “study”, instead calling it a field of cultural interest, the kind of (polite) interest one takes in people and things one finds “all right”. We invest the field of the studium with our sovereign consciousness.
Punctum, on the other hand, shoots out of the image, pierces the spectator, causes a disturbance. A detail in the image changes the way we read it; we are looking at a new photograph. The punctum, says Barthes, is an addition: it is what the spectator adds to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there. The punctum triggers our thoughts (“I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think”). Sometimes the punctum is revealed later, when we no longer have the photograph in front of us, when we think back on it. Barthes sees a photograph of a woman and notices that she is wearing a necklace that looks the same as one that one of his relatives wore, and he remembers her: “I had always been saddened whenever I thought of her dreary life”. Photography stirs up the pangs of love, or pity. However, the punctum must have come to him later, for the necklace he remembers, “for (no doubt) it was the same necklace (a slender ribbon of braided gold) which I had seen worn by someone in my own family…” is actually not in the image – the woman in the image is wearing a pearl necklace.
In the second part of his book, Barthes relates how, going through old photographs shortly after his mother’s death, he found one of her at the age of five together with her two years older brother. He does not reproduce the photograph in the book; it exists only for him: “at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.” All the photographs of her were like masks, but in this specific image, the mask vanished and he found the truth of the face he had loved. In a Proustian way, the photograph brought back to him his mother’s gentleness and innocence; it “contained more than what the technical being of photography can reasonably offer”. And yet this photograph, “the only one which has given me the splendor of her truth is precisely a lost, remote photograph, one which does not look ‘like’ her […]”. Thinking about how he nursed her during the illness that led to her death, he experiences her as his little girl. “Starting from her latest image, taken in the summer before her death […], I arrived, traversing three-quarter of a century, at the image of a child.”
Barthes shows us a photograph by Alexander Gardner of a young man condemned to death for an assassination attempt. “The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die.” In this image, the punctum is not a detail but Time.
Barthes realises, when he looks at the photograph of his mother at the age of five, that she is going to die. He shudders “over a catastrophe which has already occurred”. A photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but it says, for certain, what has been. Thus Barthes argues, “all those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of Death”. Looking at friends or relatives in photographs we realise that they are going to die or are already dead. In the words of Barthes, “whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe”.
Three years after contemplating the photograph of his mother and reflecting on the power of Photography, Roland Barthes died after a car accident, 64 years old.
To quote Douglas Davis of Newsweek in the blurb on the back, ”This is a great book – flawed, impossible, infuriating, and moving …”. It is indeed personal, touching and well worth reading – and re-reading.
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
(Translated by Richard Howard)
1981, Hill and Wang, New York