Monday, October 15, 2012

Section 33-40 of Barthes' Camera Lucida

These notes are hampered (enhanced?) by my daughter's constant commentary beside me as I was preparing them. She, though, was talking about Nutrios, tea, and Disney's version of Pocahontas, and whether Grandmother Willow was a "man tree or girl tree." On to the notes from these sections of the book.

Section 33: An important thought right at the start: “looking at photograph, I inevitably include in my scrutiny the thought of that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye.” (78) In cinema, that "pose" is swept away. Where Barthes speaks earlier of the pose as disguising the authentic or true, here he suggests the pose contains the authentic or true.

Interestingly, he seems to have found differences between cinema and photography suddenly. Film shows the actor in two "poses": the real one (Barthes calls this "this-has-been") and the role that is being played.

Finally, he mentions that photography is proof of the truth. (79)

Section 34: Who invented photography? Not painters, but chemists. A beautiful passage follows: "The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here." (80)

Photographs are alive (the photographic process itself is alchemic(al?), and vital). This is curious, as Barthes also suggests that photographs show the dead (and die themselves). He decides here that he detests colour photographs, as it is (for Barthes) simply cosmetic a "superadded light." (81)

Section 35: Photography attests to what has existed. But then Barthes makes an astonishing observation: photography resurrects. (82) But then he suggests that photography affects him as he observes it: "why is it that I am alive here and now?" (84)

Section 36: "What has been": maybe death is not the primary signified of the photograph after all. Photography "is authentication itself." (87) These are interesting comments to consider when thinking about digital photography (in fact, pages 87-88 seem key in a discussion of how digital photography is fundamentally different from traditional photography, how it puts traditional photography into crisis). He finished the section with this: "the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation." (89)

Section 37: He returns yet again to the Winter Garden photograph - he calls it "my Photograph." (90) I must quote Barthes at length here:
The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed (that we can sometimes call it mild does not contradict its violence: many say that sugar is mild, but to me sugar is violent, and I call it so). (91)

Section 38: Suddenly Photography equals death again; the photograph itself is mortal, susceptible to the effects of humidity and so forth. In the past, memory was eternal, but not so for the photograph. Camera Lucida, the book, is referred to here as a trace of teh "astonishment of 'that-has-been.'" (94) Is he talking about the Winter Garden photograph here? Note: sad words at the end of this section, about the passage of time and the tenuousness of "proofs" of love, etc.

Section 39: He identifies a second "punctum" that exists in (all?) photographs: Time (and its passage, I assume). Of his mother's photograph: "she is going to die." (96)

Section 40: Here, Barthes suggests that the act of observing photographs is one done alone (Cinema is embarrassing alone). What does Barthes mean when he suggests that the amateur is the one who stands for the professional in photography, who stands closer to the defining character of photography (he suggests that the amateur is not the "immature state of the artist in photography")? (98-99)

This is the penultimate section of the book. The end of this particular volume is in sight, and so, thoughts about its whole are welcome.


Phil Wiebe said...

Section 33: I love this line, it captures the essence of this section: “In the Photograph, something has posed in front of the tiny hole and has remained there forever” (78). Barthes suggests that the Real is easily conflated with the Live, and posits that photography’s essential feature is that the referent has necessarily been seen in person. Barthes correlates this thought with the history of photography as the art of the Person – his example is Avedon’s “Born a Slave.” A photograph’s historicity lends it a gravitas beyond mediation (“without method” [80]) and thus a disturbing facticity in the face of death.

Section 34: I like Barthes’ use of science here – it is a compelling thought that a photograph contains not only an existential but physical link to its circumstances based on the fact that some of the same light present then has been captured and retained. Sontag’s star metaphor is also apt. To comment on Barthes’ thought and writing patterns, he seems to have a fondness for contriving Latin terms – punctum, studium, etc. are elegant and concise, but he doesn’t shy away from unwieldy ones either like imago lucis opera expressa. I wonder if Barthes thought that Latin was the most “communicative” language, that expressed ideas best; as noted in the foreword, Barthes loves parentheses and I think this is one of his best ones: “(like the juice of a lemon)” (81). It is certainly an insight into how he experienced photos. Barthes wants to put the mythology and mysticism back into Photography. But his dislike of colour photos is then strange – it makes sense that he wouldn’t like artificially colourized pictures, but his appreciation of the radiance of the real of the past through the photograph should be enhanced by containing the colours that were actually there in the form of reflected light. Those were the photographed body’s own rays, to paraphrase.

Section 35: I sense that Barthes is more interested in the subjects of the photograph rather than the Subject of the Photograph – as a whole, photographs generally bore him or merely interest him by some other predisposition, but the individuals and objects of a scene: their stories intrigue him very much. I believe he might have felt that the narrative that isn’t fully told is the best one, because he got to imagine the rest for himself – he is “the reference of every photograph” (84). Perhaps it is the sense of self that photography resurrects: “Why is it that I am alive here and now? (84, emphasis added).

Phil Wiebe said...

Section 36: This section has aged the least gracefully of those read so far, in light of digital photography and how easily it is manipulated. Interesting thoughts on language versus photography as not-authenticating and self-authenticating, though. Barthes, it seems, would not have subscribed to the ‘myth of photographic truth’ idea. This is a uncharacteristically straightforward line from him: “To ask whether a photograph is analogical or coded is not a good means of analysis” (88).

Section 37: Barthes divides cinema and photography on the basis of constitutive style – cinema has it, photography does not (Barthes also claims that films aren’t melancholic for the same reason, which is puzzling; maybe filmmakers hadn’t gotten that nailed down yet in his time). A photograph can be without culture, undialectical, non-transformative, and even unreadable. Thus, in a word, it is violent.

Section 38: The transfer from monument to photograph as society’s totem of history has placed death outside of religion and ritual and rendered it ‘flat;’ the fascination with what has been is disappearing and Barthes is its self-proclaimed last prophet. With the Photograph as Death, the thing now stands for itself, rather than something stands for something else – it is no longer semiotic but literal.

Section 39: This is a very good segment, and Barthes must be quoted directly: “I read at the same time: This will be and this has been … what pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence … I shudder … over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (96). This co-presence of different times fills Barthes with anxiety and makes him distrustful of the ‘reality’ a photograph portrays.

Section 40: I think Barthes means that amateur photographs are most representative of the essential facets of Photography – or as he says, the noeme. It is interesting, then, that he almost only cites professional photographs.