Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes

camera lucida

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.

Hello!  In case you are wondering I have not abandoned Bookstravaganza! I have been on a slight hiatus because of school, but I’m now back just in time to rack up some serious reads.

During a conversation I was having with a classmate/friend of mine, Katja, about the subject of Holocaust photography, she told me that she had a copy of a book I had to read: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.

Camera Lucida is French theorist Roland Barthes’ final book, published two months before he tragically passed away in a car accident. It is written in two parts with 48 small chapters that almost feel like meditations as he  delves into photography through some of his favourite pictures. Camera Lucida is also a eulogy to Barthes’ mother. Barthes does a lot of heavy exploration into themes of loss and presence, life and death, the connection and discontinuity between what a picture represents and what a picture is. Throughout he uses two concepts: studium and punctum. Studium is how our culture interprets the photograph; the layered interpretations that are political or linguistic. The punctum is the personal connection of a detail in the photograph that creates a direct relationship.

I realized after reading Camera Lucida that I never really think about my own personal punctums. I can think of so many photographs, famous or personal, but I’ve never thought of the the detail that puts it in my mind. It isn’t always the most significant, but as small as a particular pose or object that doesn’t seem to be intended as the focal point.

Roland Barthes was not a photographer, but I believe that Camera Lucida is a very valuable book, particularly in an age where photography has never been so popular and easy. There is a violence to the camera that we often forget about; consequence that we constantly disregard. There are so many beautiful pictures so easily accessible and taken everyday to be posted on sites like Instagram or VSCO, but I wonder how many of them really have the soul.  Aesthetic, certainly, but I’m not so certain about soul.

I went to the FOAM Fotographie Museum in Amsterdam on Friday, as soon as I was finished handing in my last paper. There is an exhibit right now about a young photographer, Francesca Woodman, who took tons of stunning and provoking photos of herself to discover what I believe is the dark side of femininity.  What I saw at FOAM was only a sliver of the career she should have had, as sadly Woodman committed suicide at 22 in 1981. Her black and white photos featuring the female body have succeeded in gaining acclaim all over the world. The friends who were at FOAM with me and I began to wonder about how a person could ever take photos like that today without it being contextualized as “selfies.” Where has the soul gone in our self-portraits?  In Camera Lucida Barthes injects soul back into photography; he slows the whole of it down and brings it back to the conversation of: what really is a photo?  What does it represent? If you believe these two questions are the same then I think you should pick up Camera Lucida.


Books read: 2


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