Monday, September 24, 2012

Sections 9-16 in Barthes' Camera Lucida

There are less questions asked below, but certainly an engagement with the text is required. In any case, I will dive in with section 9. Get a nice cup of tea, a fountain pen, and read along (or consult, more properly, after reading, and compare notes).

Section 9: The adventure of the Nicaraguan photo is from the "co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world ...: the soldiers and the nuns." (23) But the characteristic doesn't seem to translate to other photos by the same photographer (Koen Wessing).

I should mention here, completely off-topic: I'm listening to Bats for Lashes' album Twin Suns while typing this. That's all.

Section 10: Two elements whose co-present establish adventure:
1) the field of general interest for the observer--"studium"--"a kind of general, enthusiastic commitments, ... but without special acuity." (26)
2) "this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me."--"punctum" (26) He calls this a "sting, speck, cut, little hole. ... that accident which pricks me." (27)

These are central ideas from Camera Lucida; we will hear much more about these things throughout the book.

Section 11: He makes a judgment about many photos here, how they please (or displease) him without "pricking" him. (27) "The studium is of the order of liking, not of loving." (27) It is about understanding the intentions of the author, he claims. This is a particularly strange claim for Barthes to make, considering his views on authorial intention elsewhere.

Why does Barthes call the Photograph "dangerous"? (28)

Here he also lists the functions of photography: "to inform, to represent, to surprise, to cause to signify, to provoke desire." (28) He goes on to discuss these five functions in this order in the next five sections of the text.

Section 12: Here, Barthes shows how a photograph can inform, "to accede to an infra-knowledge." (30)

Section 13: Right at the start of this section, Barthes enters into the controversy as to who created photography and, of course, sides with the French. He also makes a definite link between photography and its parent, painting (because of framing and perspective). But then, he makes the link with theatre, because of Death ("however 'lifelike' we strive to make it ..."). (31)

Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, ... a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead. (32)

Section 14: Here, Barthes admits his failings in terms of being the "operator" of cameras. And it seems that he is being a little bit sarcastic (or mean) toward the photographer, suggesting the he or she is only after surprise (he calls this "the essential gesture of the Operator"). (32)

1) The first surprise, for Barthes, in the "rare referent."
2) The second is the ability to apprehend the gesture, to stop time.
3) The third is what he calls "prowess," the ability to see, for instance, the explosion of a drop of milk.
4) The fourth surprise is the "contortion of technique," playing with the technology of photography. (33)
5) And, finally, the fifth type is the "lucky find" of a whimsical, but natural, scene.

Barthes does not speak highly of these "surprising" photographs (at least, that is the sense I have).

Section 15: This is a difficult section on meaning in photographs, and portraiture in particular (remember that this section explores the function, "to cause to signify," above). What he does suggest is that "the semiology of Photography is ... limited to the admirable performances of several portraitists." (38) I what he calls "good photographs," the "object speaks" (at least). (38)

Section 16: Have you ever wanted to live in a photograph? Which one, and why?

For Barthes, this is a requirement: "landscape ... must be habitable, not [only] visitable." (38) He speaks here of a powerful notion of "home" (a notion that, for Barthes, evokes the Mother--this foreshadows his thought further in the book regarding his actual mother, and the obvious safety he felt with her, "a utopian time"). (40)

All, feel free to comment, post, enter into dialogue (especially P.W.).


Phil Wiebe said...

Barthes’ ‘adventures in Nicaragua’ are rooted in what my grade 11 poetry textbook called ‘two-ness,’ which was the discovery of a certain semiotic duality, or a striking contrast, that lived within just one set of signs. This force is certainly at work in the Koen Wessing photos. And yet, this is only enough to ensure mere existence for Barthes – it makes me wonder what kind of photographs truly did please, interest, or intrigue him.

In any case, Barthes is drawn to the ‘contingency of the event.’ I use contingency in a very specific sense here: he is interested in the this of the scene, the very particular of what is depicted rather than the more universal observations drawn from it. Examples help explain this idea better – Barthes says “why this sheet?” rather than “why a sheet?,” wondering not why the grieving mother is carrying a sheet at all and instead contemplating the significance of this specific sheet for the scene (24). Or for the father’s arrest picture – he doesn’t ask why people sob in the wake of loss but rather ponders how these particular people were informed of the arrest, and who was to see them in their grief (this raises another question: is grief worth displaying if there is no one to see it, or, more generally, what is the value of the unseen gesture?). Barthes’ tendency is most highlighted in his phrasing regarding the picture of the destitute children: “The excess of those eyes disturb the scene” (25) – the eyes do not disturb Barth but rather the scene! Barthes’ is most interested in what has been lost that only lives on in the photo (contingency), rather than the obvious signs, lessons, etc. that can be drawn from its record.

It is also of some worth to note that humor is (perhaps unintentionally) effortlessly embedded in Barthes’ style when he is at his most honest – I chuckled aloud at Barthes’ syntax when he says “Did this photograph please me? Interest me? Intrigue me? Not even” (emphasis added) or his frank assertion “I have no idea, knowing nothing of the realities of guerrilla warfare” (24-25).

Barthes’ studium refers to the basic interpretation of the photograph’s meaning, as perceived by the viewer and informed by their particular context. While the studium is ‘user-driven,’ it is also grounded in the semi-empirical information of subject-matter (ranging from the very empirical, such as ‘rebellion’ or ‘soldiers’ to the more abstract, like ‘grief [26]). In any case, an individual’s interest in certain topics determines the kind of studium they will seek out in photographs. Barthes, by his own word, seems to enjoy ‘good historical scenes’ and ‘political testimony,’ and indicates to the reader that his enjoyment thereof is a product of his culture (26).

If the studium is what we seek out in photographs, the punctum is what seeks us when we view them: a subtle, surprising element that jumps out at us and exists in contrast to the studium. As photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruisese, is poignant to me)” (27).

Section 10 presents a mystery line that is easily brushed aside, but may be ripe for further investigation: “In general the photographs I liked were constructed in the manner of a classical sonata” – this is an aside from Barthes, and he gives no further explanation. The classica sonata contained four parts: an allegro in ‘sonata form,’ a slow movement such as andante, adagio, or largo, a dance movement – minuet- or scherzo and trio, and a finale. Perhaps what Barthes means is that he prefers his pictures with a variety of carefully presented moods and tempos.

Phil Wiebe said...

Barthes returns to the studium and makes the important observation that while all photos appear to possess a studium when viewed, not all have a punctum – many are… inert under my gaze.” He is both precise and humorous when he positions the studium in the order of liking: “it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the [things] one finds ‘all right.’” (27). To digress, this reminds me of Zizek when he says, “I am not human; I am a monster. It’s not that I have the mask of a theoretician and beneath I am a more human person – I like chocolate cake, I like this, I like that, and so on which makes me human” ( Studium seems to be one of those simple and universal interests that is thus bland and half-hearted, like eating chocolate cake (who doesn’t enjoy eating chocolate cake?).

Barthes believes awareness of the studium gives insight into the mind of the photographer, but he offers no comment on the veracity of such views. Thus, when he says, “to recognize the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions,” it may be more accurate to posit that to recognize the studium is inevitably to perceive an encounter with the photographer’s intentions. This places the ‘myths’ of photography in an interesting position – they are really the construction of the viewer (for what does he or she really know about the photographer’s mythology, anyway?) and thus the viewer reconciles the photograph to society by his own volition.

A photograph is dangerous insofar as it is useless, for then it is at its most meaningful and powerful. Functions are thus applied to the photograph to suppress its disturbing effect on the viewer, and his society.

The comparison of painting and photography was an easy one to make (though, another great line here: “‘Pictorialism’ is only an exaggeration of what the Photograph thinks of itself” [31]). When Barthes compares photography and theater because of death, I think of this Dinosaur Comic, by Ryan North: . Those lost performances are just like the event of the photograph, contingent and lost to time – but the photograph retains a representation, and thus we see the face of death we see in a drama.

Barthes’ delineation of the five surprises is fair enough in describing them, but we get some interesting autobiographical morsels out of the section. He is nonplussed by hard and long work in photography (32). He seems neutral or perhaps even appreciative of the historical value of apprehending with photography/art that which cannot otherwise be arrested naturally. Prowess does not impress him, nor does he like “anything but appearances to my own measure” (33). He finds technical trickery subversive (emphasis added) and unconvincing. Defiance is alien to him, and he especially dislikes whimsy, neither in music nor pictures. Which is odd considering how ‘whimsical’ and ‘defiant’ Barthes’ approach to writing and thinking was in Camera Lucida. Oh well, the author is dead (in more ways than one).

Perhaps his most cutting criticism though is of the award-winning amateur photographs (34), in which he perceives an arbitrary attitude to subject-matter. I think here we see that Barthes really has not discovered photography’s genius of its own – he fails to allow the Photograph to be a piece of art, and thus ‘useless,’ existing for nothing outside of itself, beholden only to beauty. Perhaps Barth is also afraid to let the photograph ‘speak’ – after all, “Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks” (38).

Phil Wiebe said...

The photographs that induce a desire in me to make a home for myself there share a few traits in common – the landscape is (for the most part) rugged, barren, and sparsely populated:
Bhutan -
Baja California -
Lake District, UK -
Sierra Nevada Mtns. -
Llyn Lydaw in Snowdonia, Wales -
Hokkaido in Winter -