The Uncertain Art


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.

–Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

 I recently came upon the website and proceeded to snoop around the different camera bags with curiosity and jealousy. One of the featured photographers – amongst his assortment of lenses, camera bodies, and accessories – had a small paperback text, Camera Lucida. While not in any position to splurge on a new camera or piece of glass, I figured that I could swing a new [used] paperback book. I enjoyed reading it for the most part, and since have found myself reflecting upon its respective reflections. The following are some rough notes and thoughts from my time spent with the text.

           Camera Lucida is a brief collection of reflections on photography written by Roland Barthes. Barthes, a French philosopher of sorts in the 20th century, took it upon himself to explore elements of photography. By no means a photographer himself, Barthes instead approaches the topic as both subject and observer. He dances around, touching on some interesting points without explicitly committing to many single ideas.

Perhaps Barthes’ most well known theory of photography revolves around two elements, the “studium” and the “punctum.” The studium, according to Barthes, consists of the face-value contents or meaning of the photograph. This is the base, the foundation. The second piece, or punctum, “will break (or punctuate) the studium” and “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces [him]” (26). While not always an element of surprise, Barthes posits that the punctum enhances the studium and can act as a foil for the original subject matter: “the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion” (45). However, the punctum cannot be contrived. Barthes observes that if potential punctums fail to jump out at him, it is likely “because the photographer has put them there intentionally” (47). Barthes believes that for maximum effectiveness, a photograph’s punctum must be naturally present within the frame. While offering an opportunity for so much more insight into the photograph, the punctum’s presence can be boiled down to a single sentiment: “it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could notnot photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object” (47). Barthes insists that a powerful photograph maintains an air of naturalism, yet simultaneously seizes the viewer with the unexpected.

Barthes suggests that an element of surprise or shock within a photograph is not always indicative of a punctum. However, he proceeds to break down five different categories of “surprises” (arguably interchangeable with “punctums”) featured in photography. He regards the skill necessary to capture such surprises, stating, “the photographer, like an acrobat, must defy the laws of probability or even possibility” (33-34). To Barthes, luck is not merely a possible benefactor for good photographers – it is a necessary one. Barthes’ “gamut of surprises,” starts off with “that of the ‘rare’” (32), covering extraordinary or unique subjects and situations, which would otherwise remain unseen by the rest of the world. He writes that “the second surprise is one habitual to painting” (32), which is a cryptic introduction. In a matter of words, Barthes believes that the photographer captures a normally fleeting moment, “apprehended at the point in its course where the normal eye cannot arrest it” (32). “The third surprise is that of prowess,” (33) Barthes continues, a photograph achieved through rehearsed skill and practice in capturing otherwise elusive imagery. Barthes proceeds into the realm of experimental – his “fourth surprise is the one which the photographer looks for from the contortions of technique: superimpressions, anamorphoses, deliberate exploitation of certain defects” (33). Lastly, he concludes with the equally important “trouvaille or lucky find” (33) – fairly self-explanatory. Again, Barthes does not imply that each and every surprise is effectively a punctum. However, there is, at the very least, a definite degree of overlap.

Death is a prominent topic in Barthes’ reflections on photography. From the perspective of a subject, he states, “Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me […] is Death” (15). Later, he reminds the reader that a prominent force in his reflections is the photograph “in relation to what we romantically call love and death” (73). Barthes persists with this notion, writing, “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” (92). He is relentless in the matter, hitting upon it again and again: “Photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead” (32). It appears that Barthes believes death to be inescapable, walking hand in hand with both photographer and photographed. Barthes even insists that photographs themselves die: “The only way I can transform the Photograph is into refuse: either the drawer or the wastebasket. […] Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is nothing left to do but throw it away” (93). However, Barthes’ fascination with death in regards to photography is premature. With the rapid progression of technology, we can preserve photographs indefinitely, producing limitless copies of both analog and digital photographs alike. In regards to this, I prefer a different sentiment of Barthes, in which he states, “The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been” (85) – a less morbid angle, to say the least.

While Camera Lucida features some interesting musings on the subject of photography, and at their core that is all that they really are – musings, thoughts, theories, reflections. Barthes does not claim to possess some sort of higher understanding of the subject. He self-admittedly presents his thoughts as a layman, a non-photographer immersed in the world of visual imagery. Despite this, he poses some interesting and notable sentiments. As a photographer of sorts, I do not think that one should take this text as the be-all and end-all on the matter. However, it is worth the read and highlighted some things that I had not previously considered in my work.

We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds.

-Franz Kafka

If he wrote it, he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them.

–Ernest Hemingway