Monday, October 22, 2012

The Last Part of Camera Lucida

Section 41: Barthes is considering the Winter Garden photograph after the passage of time, after "remaining with it," as he suggests. He refers to pioneers of scientific images: "What Marey and Muybridge have done as operators I myself want to do as spectator: I decompose, I enlarge, and, so to speak, I retard, in order to have time to know at last." (99) He wishes to "enter the paper's depth." (100) He gets at notions of desire here: "I can have the fond hope of discovering truth," though he admits he will not find it. (99)

Section 42: He suggests that, sometimes, he perceives something if the truth in a photograph, what he calls "a likeness." But the likeness is imprecise, imaginary: "they conform to what I expect from them." (101-102) For Barthes, the actual truth (that is not imaginary) exists in photos which are not "a likeness" (such as the Winter Garden photograph).

Section 43: Photos also display, not the truth of the individual, but the truth of lineage. This is both reassuring (Barthes suggests that the thought of origin soothes us) and disappointing: "it bares the mysterious difference of beings issuing from one and the same family." (105)

Section 44: He concludes, "I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the Photograph." (106) The photograph is unlike the tect ("our vision of it is certain"). The photograph arrests interpretation: "this-has-been." (106-107) I am surprised by this observation. e, in semiotics (visual or textual), do not believe that any sign arrests interpretation (photograph or not).

I don't wish to speak for all semioticians here, but this is certainly what I believe.

Section 45: Barthes' frustration is evident here: he still seeks (more properly, desires something more in the photograph. He wishes to discover the person in the photograph completely. It seems here that Barthes is grasping at straws, so to speak. He wants to find the truth in a photograph, and so he finds, as the locus of his desires, the air (or the expression). But then he immediately writes, "The air of a face is unanalyzable." (107) But it evokes for the observer, "little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another." (109) The air is what allows Barthes to identify his mother in the Winter Garden photograph.
All the photographs of my mother which I was looking through were a little like so many masks; at the last, suddenly the mask vanished: there remained a soul, ageless but not timeless, since this air was the person I used to see, consubstantial with her face, each day of her long life. (110)
This is what makes a true photograph: the capturing of the air (one's soul, one's shadow). Barthes suggests it is due to either the photographer's talent or luck, but if it is not present, the photo simply identifies, but it is not a "true" image.

Section 46: He goes to great lengths in this section to come to his point, though he beautifully expresses it:
by leading me to believe ... that I have found what Calvino calls "the try total photograph," it accomplishes the unheard-of identification of reality ("that-has-been") with truth ("there-she-is!"); it becomes at once evidential and exclamative; it bears the effigy to that crazy point where affect (love, compassion, grief, enthusiasm, desire) is the guarantee of Being. (113)
He cites his student, Julia Kristeva, at the end of this section (an honour, I'm sure).

Section 47: What a great start to a section: he concludes his findings (photography shows that "that has been") and confronts his critics. The madness of photography is that it is about the absence of the object and also that the object existed where we see it in the photograph. In this way, photography is a hallucination. (115)

For Barthes (and all of us?), there is a link between Photography, madness, and love, or, more properly, Pity. We love those photos that allow us to enter them, to embrace the subject, to "[go] mad for Pity's sake." (116-117)

Section 48: The last section. Society attempts to control the madness of the photograph (as outlined in the last section). First, it makes photography into art ("no art is made," says Barthes). (117) Photography can be art, but it must be powerless photography. Second, society generalizes and make photography banal. For Barthes, photography is everywhere (he calls this a tyranny).

And, in a way, he calls for the destruction of the medium: "let us abolish the images, let us save immediate Desire (desire without mediation)." (119) But in the end, he suggests the choice is in the hands of the observer, to banalize photography (to make the medium "tame"), or to make it mad, "to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality." (119)

This is a beautiful book, and it has made me want to track down photos of madness, that make me want to get inside of them, that frustrate me because of my inability to do so. I want to find photos of those I love, that show the truth of these people. But, in a way, I also want to find those photographs that hurt me because they simply identify but do not convey the "air" of the subject. Those kinds of photographs don't only point to the absence of the subject, but also the absence of the subject's soul, the truth of them. In that absence, I can grieve, I think. Barthes seems to wave these sorts of photographs, perhaps as art.

I think I can embrace them because of what they lack, and what that lack then evokes from me.

I also want to capitalize "Photography," and write with more semicolons. I won't blame Roland Barthes for that.


Phil Wiebe said...

Section 41: The scrutiny of a photograph is an action undertaken in good faith even against the recognition of futility: can we know anything more about the represented than what we see? The Photograph captures our drive to find truth and suspends it, rendering it impervious to reason and allowing it to be guided only by desire. A prized line: “Such is the Photograph: it cannot say what it lets us see” (100).

Section 42: Photographs are representations of perceived ‘likenesses’ to imagined ‘identities.’ Portraits are correct or false based on their adherence to cultural expectations. Barthes’ personal analysis is especially potent: “All I look like is other photographs of myself, and this to infinity: no one is ever anything but the copy a copy, real or mental . . . ultimately a photograph looks like anyone except the person it represents” (102).

Section 43: Photographs can carry the sense of the over-real – a realization of something never noticed in actuality (Barthes uses family resemblances as an example). This reminds me of the slogan of the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner: “More human than human.”

Section 44: Barthes’ quote from Blanchot posits the photograph as a continual paradox; Barthes seems certain that a photograph provides undeniable information yet offers up no knowledge. This seems in contradiction to his previous insight, but perhaps his observations can be divided between ‘personal, subjective’ and ‘historical, matter-of-fact subjects’ that have little bearing on wisdom. When Barthes says he cannot interpret or even saying anything about a photograph I think he is selling himself short.

Phil Wiebe said...

Sections 45-48 will be posted this (25th) evening.

Phil Wiebe said...

Section 45: Barthes divides ‘being’ and ‘existence’ (ontology versus metaphysics?) – existence is merely a corollary of reality, but being possesses essence. A photograph can authenticate being, but yields no verifiable essence, just a strong intuition. Barthes calls the intuited expression we read into a photograph its ‘air.’ Only through this air can we sense the true essence of a subject, beyond its likeness and identity. Inevitably, it takes on a moral dimension: we sense an aura that complements the being. Most interestly, Barthes seems to believe that (contra texts) a photograph cannot be deconstructed meaningfully because a photograph is truth and any attempt to dissect and separate it results in a complete unraveling.

Section 46: Barthes wonders about how an air can communicate something accurate when the subject may have had no intention of transmitting such an atmosphere. He concludes that, once again, essence is at the heart of the matter: the air is a result of an internal attribute: ‘retained within the self’ (113). Meanwhile, I have yet to be cited by any of my professors in a scholarly publication.

Section 47: Barthes says it best: “The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time . . . (on the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”) (115). If pity and madness are the heart of Photography, it seems that pathos is an essential characteristic of Photographs. In Barthes’ beloved Latin, I think his sentiments would best be described as the ‘Lacrimae rerum’ of Virgil: tears for things that have passed. I think Roland may also have enjoyed the Japanese idea of mono no aware – sadness for the transience of things. I think under the form of pathos we can recognize Barthes’ recurring claim that photography is all about death – every moment portrayed is dead by the time we look upon it, and eventually all the beings in it will pass, leaving the viewer alone with a photograph so alive in its representation of the dead. It invites us to experience this madness firsthand: “In each of them, inescapably, I passed beyond the unreality of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die” (116-117).

Section 48: Barthes claims no art is mad. I think he simply didn’t live long enough. In any case, he is correct that society has attempted to tame art by casting it as “simply an illusion” (high art) or by cheapening it through commercialization and/or replication (kitsch). A Marxist reading of “The Photograph crushes all other images by its tyranny:” photography has become a tool to exploit the masses. The human element has been stripped from most of photography. Barthes does not give much hope that there is a middle way between the mad and the tame: “Such are the two ways of the Photgraph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality” (119). I am not sure how to receive this final section, but I know that I want to discover an alternative to madness and illusion – the truth is out there.

If I use Latin to invent terms and use parentheses generously, perhaps I shall find it.