Monday, September 17, 2012

The first part of a long term exploration of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

This post is the first in a weekly series of "dialogue" surrounding Roland Barthes' exploration of photography as a cultural process in his book Camera Lucida (the edition from Hill and Wang from 2010, with a Foreword by Geoff Dyer). I am guiding a student through a directed study of this book (and Barthes' comments regarding photography in general), and so these entries are supposed to represent both kinds of guides, as well as sort of discussion points. Hopefully, these are both helpful and thought provoking. This is an experiment, and all are invited to participate. Comments are welcome.

Right at the outset of the book, the author includes a Polaroid photograph by Daniel Boudinet from 1979. What do you think it was about the image of pillows and drawn curtains that would have enticed Barthes?

Dyer's introduction is full of wonderful points: Barthes' style is "compression and flow." (x) Perhaps Dyer's following statement is ripe for comment: "photography represents the advent of the self as other" (he attributes the sentiment to Barthes here). (xiv)

Consider Dyer's comments about digital photography:
- photograph as a record "of what has been";
- "photography as a technology in the process of becoming past, part of what has been." (xvii)

Section 1: Barthes cannot separate photography from cinema, but decides to figure out what it is apart from the other image-based media (or medium, I suppose, of film). He goes so far as to suggest that it (photography) doesn't exist.

Section 2: The various categorizations of photography, characterizations which could easily be applied to painting. He suggests that the photograph only means what it points to: "it points a finger." it is only a diectic language (that is, meaning is dependent on the context in which it is used). A photograph is always the photograph [of something]. (5) What is Barthes saying about photography as visual semiotics on p. 5? Why do you think Barthes capitalizes Pholography?

Section 3: He decides to look at only a few photographs (ones that he suggests "existed" for him, in order to "formulate the fundamental feature, the universal." (9)

Section 4: Important There are 3 impulses in photography:
1) to do (the Operator - this isn't Barthes)
2) to undergo (the observed subject)
3) to look (the subject observing)
For Barthes, photography is "the return of the dead." (9) He covers photography-according-to-the-photographer (#1 above) as simply a chemical and physical activity, but one outside of his experience. He leaves it alone. (10)

Section 5: Posing for the camera is a problem for Barthes. Photography, unlike painting or drawing, is anything but subtle - at least the artist can imbue the image with some character, whereas photography cannot. (11) "'Myself' never coincides with my [photographic] image." (12) What does Barthes say about painting in history here? What does Barthes mean by the following beautiful phrase: "cameras ... were clocks for seeing."? (15)

Section 6: Barthes constitutes #3 above - the spectator - and admits (simply) that he does not appreciate all photographs. (18)

Section 7: So, then, why the attraction to certain photographs? He talks about "advenience" or "adventure" of a photograph: "This picture advenes, that one doesn't." (19) The photograph that interests Barthes "animates" him. (20)

Section 8: He refers back to earlier sections here, suggesting that he could speak of photography in terms of "material essences" (science) and "regional essences" (perhaps sociology), but instead considers "sentimental" reasons.
I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) bust as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think. (21)

Hopefully the questions above will elicit some sort of discussion. There are (probably) no "right" answers, and I certainly don't know them all, but this is certainly a "rich text." It is a personal text, made quite evident by his observation of photography, or his desires for the photographic referent, as a "wound." His personal story comes out as he continues; Camera Lucida is a deeply personal book.


Phil Wiebe said...

Barthes prefaces Camera Lucida with the noted (and much discussed) Boudinet polaroid (surprisingly reproduced in greyscale rather than color in the Hill and Wang edition) and the epigraph "In Homage to L'Imaginaire by Jean-Paul Sartre." Barthes was probably interested in Sartre's idea of the analogon in relation to photography; a photograph is not just an image, it alter withs the intentions of the beholder, and takes on some of the nature of what it represents. Barthes' recollections of photographs that 'really exist for him' is deeply personal, and the contingency of a photograph's existence reveals that, at this point in his journey, he cannot separate the essential nature of photography from his experience of it.

The foreword reflects the importance of ‘intimacy’ for Barthes (he is really only interested in photographs that strike him (this point will, I think, be further emphasized in his discussion of punctum]) – the photos mentioned by Dyer are of personal importance or interest to Barthes; it as if, when Barthes discusses photographs, we understand more about ‘Roland’ than we do about the pictures (I use his first name very deliberately here – when we understand ‘Barthes’ [if that is even possible], we understand him as a theorist and thinker, but when we know ‘Roland,’ we understand him just as a human and perhaps even a warm person).

Also in the foreword, we receive a warning of Barthes’ preoccupation with death in regards to photography (xi). I think that this is not merely a Barthian idiosyncrasy or some kind of necrophilic preoccupation. Rather, every photograph is by nature a depiction of loss in relation to the observer; it is the record of a past moment, and just one moment, and it shall not recur – it is lost. Here can be found the paradoxical joy and melancholy of viewing a photograph’s event: it really did happen, but now it is gone, save for this fragile representation. Memory persists in a photograph.

Phil Wiebe said...

This aspect is not enough to separate photography from film, though, and thus find a niche in the community of images. Barthes’ language is elusive when he wonders if photography really exists. Clearly, cameras and photographs exist, but what he is asking is much more metaphysical. Maybe Barthes wants to know if there is a Form for photography, and thus capitalizes Photography – the photograph in its purest, most essential sense, containing only the necessary features: the ur-photo, if you will. He is dubious whether that exists, and thus is also dubious of the existence of photography. Nonetheless, he thinks that based on the few photographs that really ‘exist for him,’ he might find a universal feature.

In regards to the actual process of photography, Barthes is primarily interested in the third sense (‘to look’). He is not a photographer in any capacity, and prefers to be the observer rather than the observed – though his remarks on being photographed are both humorous and insightful (10-11). Barthes realizes that when we are knowingly photographed we create a self that is other to our true self; photography re-creates us and exposes us to ‘our self.’ Thus he frets over whether he will appear with noble expression – we want photographs of us to align with our true self, but what can photography depict of us outside our true self? “The Photograph is the advent of myself as other” (12). Painting depicts the subject like ‘this’ or ‘that,’ but photography captures the subject ‘as is.’ To put things in repurposed Kantian terms, painting the phenomenon, photography the noumenon.

Cameras are clocks for seeing in that their use provides a representation of the passage of time.

Barthes considers photos in very existential terms – only the ones that animate him exist as Photographs (meaningful images) rather than photographs (mere images). This suggests a relationship – a photograph is not essentially meaningful, possessed of signs and language, but the viewer instead puts those aspects into the photo after it has seized him? Barthes, and Sartre too, approaches experience with a sort of ocular mysticism, where everything is dependent on the observer. To quote Schopenhauer, “The world is my representation.”

If photography can be considered in material, scientific terms, and cultural, sociological terms, then what does discipline does Barthes’ sentimental approach fall under? Is this a philosophy of photography?

As for the pillows and drawn curtains of Boudinet’s Polaroid? It is a safe place. It is simple, it is dark, it is comfortable. There is no posing, posturing, or positing necessary. Perhaps it is ‘La chambre claire’ where Barthes would have liked to write his ‘Note sur la photographie’