Cameras are Clocks for Seeing

Roland Barthes’s 1980 Camera Lucida reads as a discursive novel (written by a mother-mourning French theorist) presciently preoccupied with photography as a technology of the past.
Grief, Beginnings and Pre-beginnings, Glib Radio Interviews, A Signature Style of Compression and Flow, The Digital Tense, The Blurred Opposition Between Punctum and Studium,The Foam of an Over-Scented Bubble Bath, The Most Famous Bracket in Postwar Literature, Chimping
by Geoff Dyer
Idris Khan, Every Page… from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, 2004. 40" x 50" Lightjet Print. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London; Yvon Lambert Gallery, New York; and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Cameras are Clocks for Seeing

Geoff Dyer
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In 1914 Alfred Stieglitz responded indignantly to a reader who had cancelled his subscription to Camera Work, the journal in which he had sought to “establish once and for all, the meaning of the idea photography.” Roland ­Barthes claimed to be delighted by only one of Stieglitz’s photographs, but the book in which he made this confession addresses the very issue that had obsessed Stieglitz to the point of mania. For many readers the effect of Camera Lucida was exactly the one Stieglitz claimed for Camera Work: “photography suddenly assumed a new meaning.”

Barthes had long been fascinated by photographs, but his exploration of “the phenomenon of photography in its absolute novelty in world history” had its specific origin in a request from Les Cahiers du Cinéma to write something about film. The idea did not appeal. As he told friends, “I’ve got nothing to say about film, but photography on the other hand….” Having agreed to write a short piece for Les Cahiers, Barthes’s reflections on photography (photography “against film”) grew into a book written—according to his biographer Louis-Jean Calvet—“at one go, or almost, during the period between 15 April and 3 June 1979.” His mother had died in October 1977 and the book became bound up with his grief over her death. Barthes himself said in an interview that the book was “symmetrical to A Lover’s Discourse, in the realm of mourning.” The whole of the second half of Camera Lucida, in fact, is based around a photograph of his ­mother—the so-called “Winter Garden” photograph—taken when she was five: “Something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture.” Just how profoundly ­Barthes’s private grief and the subject of his professional scrutiny had become intermingled, is made poignantly clear by the upcoming publication of Mourning Diary.

Barthes liked “to write beginnings” and multiplied this pleasure by writing books of fragments, of repeated beginnings; he also liked pre-beginnings: “introductions, sketches,” ideas for projected books, books he planned one day to write. So when Nathalie Léger, editor of Mourning Diary, describes it as “the hypothesis of a book desired by him,” she is accurate in that it was neither finished nor intended for publication; but she is also describing the typical or ideal condition of the books that were published. In a sense Camera Lucida is the desired book of which Mourning Diary is the mere hypothesis, while itself being a more elaborately formulated series of hypotheses—not a definitive account, but a Note sur la photographie, as the French edition was modestly (and confidently) subtitled. Barthes’s preferred way of presenting his hypotheses was in the form of linked aphorisms, and, as Susan Sontag noted, “it is the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding.” The paradox, then, is that this man who liked first words (and adored paradoxes) offered his provisional findings as if they were the last word. Needless to say, this last word was always susceptible to further elaboration and refinement, to further beginnings. This is how Barthes’s prose acquires its signature style of compression and flow, a summing up that is also a perpetual setting forth. The result, an ever-­increasing subtleness or delicacy of assertion, approximates the defining quality of his mother, as captured, uniquely, in the “Winter Garden” photograph: “the assertion of a gentleness.” If there is a consoling appropriateness about this, then, by the same token, there was a cruel inevitability about Barthes’s work being curtailed by his early death (less than two months after the French publication of Camera Lucida). He was one of those writers whose life’s work was destined, by increments, to remain unfinished.

In a way, the death of the mother was fortuitous in that it confirmed something Barthes had suspected: that his fascination with the ­medium—as he glibly admitted in a radio interview in early 1977—“probably has to do with death. Perhaps it’s an interest that is tinged with necrophilia, to be honest, a fascination with what has died but is represented as wanting to be alive.” By the end of the year his tone had changed. “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level, it must be described in relation to death,” he told another interviewer. “It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more.” This is classic Barthes: an insight into the nature of an event or thing—text was his consistently preferred term—is also a comment of his own determinedly personal experience. While Barthes emphasized photography’s indexical relation to the world, its “evidential force,” he also believed that, ultimately, “the photographer bears witness essentially to his own subjectivity.” In keeping with this, the book about photography is a mediated portrait of the workings of his own mind. Michel Foucault made a similar if more generalized point in the eulogy delivered at the Collège de France in April 1980, praising ­Barthes’s “paradoxical power of understanding things as they are and of inventing them with amazing freshness.” Barthes’s method, in other words, worked exactly like the element of the photograph that he famously termed the punctum: “what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.

The increasingly autobiographical tilt and lilt of Barthes’s writing were regarded, in some quarters, as symptomatic of a diminution of the rigor that had marked his first incarnation as systematizer and semiologist. By the mid-1980s, the work of Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, et al had been absorbed wholesale into the English-­speaking academy. ­“Theory” became an indispensable part of the cultural-studies mainstream. The excitement and energy generated by these challenging new ways of reading texts were matched by a corresponding indignation and resistance, particularly in England, but the ease with which the European challenge to traditional academic orthodoxy installed itself as a new orthodoxy was shocking to behold. Cowper’s famous jibe about Pope—that he “made poetry a mere mechanick art; / And ev’ry warbler has his tune by heart”—was rendered suddenly contemporary by the clutch of sub-­Barthesian, Foucault-drenched academics discoursing and signified-and-­signifying away for all they were worth. Subsumed in a general mass of cultural theory, the works in which Barthes most clearly revealed himself as a writer were the least valued. An article in the New Statesman assessing Barthes’s importance ten years after his death dwelt almost exclusively on his semiotics, on works like Image, Music, Text and Mythologies, while dismissing the later, more personal works as “marginal, lacking the satisfying stamp of authority.”

All of which was in sharp contrast to Sontag’s approving observation of the way that “his voice became more and more personal,” that he derived pleasure from “the dismantling of his own authority,” and that the marginal would come to seem absolutely central to ­Barthes’s achievement. In time, Sontag rightly predicted, the theorist who had famously proclaimed the death of the author would come to appear “as a rather traditional promeneur solitaire” (one of whose preoccupations, incidentally, would be his abiding loneliness).1 Writing in the immediate aftermath of Barthes’s death, Italo Calvino offered a similarly nuanced view of two Barthes: “the one who subordinated everything to the rigour of a method, and the one whose only sure criterion was pleasure (the pleasure of the intelligence and the intelligence of pleasure). The truth is that these two Barthes are really one.”

Between them, Sontag and Calvino accurately mapped the territory in which Barthes’s posthumous reputation would come to reside. The earlier, much-­anthologized essays in which Barthes first wrote about photography—“Rhetoric of the Image” and “The Photographic Message”—today seem intensely reader resistant. But while Barthes, in Camera Lucida, explicitly distanced himself from “sociologists and semiologists,” one can discern the residue of the earlier systematizing efforts, like the ghostly imprint of scaffolding, a grid on which he is no longer reliant. And even when Barthes is at his least theoretical, one still senses what Perry Anderson calls “the formative role of rhetoric” in his style—a formation shared by most of his illustrious contemporaries. The potential costs of this, Anderson goes on, are obvious: “arguments freed from logic, propositions from evidence.”

Nevertheless, a programmatic approach can be extracted from the book. In this respect Camera Lucida has become a victim of its own success. The punctum is an apparently irrelevant detail, extraneous to a picture’s intended purpose or composition and yet, once noticed, essential to it. This idea proved so seductive that a punctum—which, crucially, was not there in all photographs, which snagged Barthes’s attention almost accidentally—became almost a necessity. As the search for a picture’s punctum took on the quality of a critical dragnet—we know it’s in there somewhere!—so this surprising detail lost its capacity to surprise, offered the same kind of unconcealed or overt satisfaction as the studium to which it had originally been opposed: something that any photograph provided and that we expected to find, as of right.2

A related problem is that ­Barthes’s thought is inseparable from the elegance and cunning with which it is formulated. Style, as Martin Amis rightly insists, “is not something grappled on to regular prose; it is intrinsic to perception.” In The Pleasure of the Text—a useful guide, naturally, to his own work—Barthes had asked, “What if knowledge itself were delicious?” The corollary is: what if that knowledge were robbed of all that made it so tasty? The tone of “sustained astonishment” with which Barthes discovers that photography represents the advent of the self as other; or articulates the strange tense of Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Lewis Payne: “He is dead and he is going to die”; or notices “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.” None of this lends itself to bald summary. To copy out and formalize his argument (especially in the clodhopping style of Michael Fried) is not simply to diminish it, but to rob it of so many subtleties as to misrepresent it entirely (all in the name of representing it more clearly and rigorously).3

Full of what Anderson calls “eclectic coquetries” and flourishes of “flamboyant eloquence,” Barthes’s prose is all the time delighting in its own refinement. This is not to every­one’s taste. As he asked (again in The Pleasure of the Text): “Why, in a text, all this verbal display?” He goes on to say that the “prattle of the text is merely that foam of language.” For his detractors this is not the foam of a tide or stream but the foam of an over-scented bubble­ bath to which one can develop an allergic reaction; for his admirers it is something in which to luxuriate. This is crucial to Barthes’s appeal: a prose built around complex ideas that somehow manages to pamper the reader. Part of the fun of reading him is in seeing rhetoric brought to a point of exquisite jotting—and vice versa.

By the time of Camera Lucida, Barthes’s ornate sentences, with all their colons and semicolons, italics, hyphens, ellipses, and parentheses, came quite naturally to him. Where one might remember particular scenes or sentences in a novel, with Barthes the focus narrows to favorite deployments or permutations of punctuation. To take just one example… The most famous parentheses in postwar literature are probably the ones in Lolita where Humbert Humbert provides details of the death of his mother: “(picnic, lightning).” It’s proof, in spectacular miniature, of Nabokov’s exuberant facility. But the moment when Barthes, remembering his dead mother’s ivory powder box, adds, almost inaudibly, “(I loved the sound of its lid),” is intensely moving and just as expressive of his own style. It also reminds us that, for all his extravagancies, there is often something understated about Barthes. Everything about the prose is so personalized that even the printed page seems handwritten with a favorite pen. And not only that: thanks to the delicacy and skill of his translator, Richard Howard, English-speaking readers can enjoy the delusion that they suddenly have the ability to read French.

In Roland Barthes, Barthes had warned readers that “it must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel” and, in his last years, talked about the possibility of writing a novel. Whether he would ever have realized this ambition is impossible to say, but it bears emphasizing that a knowledge of or even interest in photography is no more a precondition for reading Camera Lucida than an interest in young girls is necessary for embarking on Lolita. Camera Lucida is a glimpse of the world as rendered by a master stylist; as such it offers a version of the pleasures derived from the best discursive fiction. “For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, ­watches—and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the mach­inery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.” In such passages Barthes seems like the true heir—in modishly abbreviated style—of Proust.

Barthes entertained few doubts as to his literary gifts and, in interviews, was suavely sure of the “entirely subjective” method whereby a few “arbitrarily chosen photographs” would suffice to examine the “new type of image” that came into existence “all at once, around 1822.” “Whether this will please photographers,” he conceded, “remains to be seen.” In Britain, particularly for those pursuing a ­double life as photographers and aca­demics teaching cultural or media studies courses—Victor Burgin was the representative figure—­Barthes’s work provided a framework that was creative as well as theoretical. For the most part, though, the best American photographers—those adhering to what John Szarkowski deemed “photography’s central sense of purpose and aesthetic: the precise and lucid description of significant fact”—were not so much hostile as indifferent to Barthes’s efforts. The business of making images was dominated, as it always had been, by photographers looking at each other’s pictures and swapping advice and experience about technical matters: lenses, films, papers. Looking back on the period in the 1970s when some of the photos in his book Passing Through Eden were made, Tod Papageorge remembered that “unlike most of the photographers I knew, I bothered to acquaint myself with the major books” by Barthes, Sontag, and others. Not that any of this “intellectual commotion” found its way into the pictures. For the record, Papageorge is adamant that “Garry Winogrand never read Roland Barthes, and found whatever he’d seen of [Janet] Malcolm’s and Sontag’s original articles about photography in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books grimly laughable.” Papageorge, then, was an unusually sympathetic reader-practitioner, but he “was more interested in what other photographers had to say about the state of our common medium.” And while Barthes’s whole purpose was to define the “newness” of photographic images (i.e., what made them different from paintings), some of the people most deeply involved in the medium were not convinced. As Mark Haworth-Booth, former curator of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, mischievously remarked, “I recently hung up a painting in our new dining room and realized for the first time that my mother must have picked the sweet peas in it.”5 

Another irony is that this “new­ness”—almost 150 years old by the time Barthes wrote his book!—now seems almost obsolete. For Barthes, the photograph was not just a record of something that is absent but of “reality in a past state,” a record “of what has been.” Much of what Barthes says about photography rings true only if we are thinking of its traditional chemical/­mechanical phase. Polaroids provided instant memories, but digital photography seems entirely devoid of any qualities of past time. The digital tense is a self-fueling, self-consuming present—never more obviously so than when a crowd of paparazzi is busy “chimping,” consulting the images they have snatched only moments earlier. Far from invalidating Barthes’s arguments, the current ubiquity of the digital means that Camera Lucida has acquired the internal glow of its own preoccupation with photography as a technology in the process of becoming past, part of what has been.

It is ironic, then, that one of the most memorable tributes to ­Barthes comes in the form of an image that would have been inconceivable without the benefits of digital technology. In 2004 Idris Khan photographed Every Page… from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and combined them in a single image in which Barthes’s text and the pictures reproduced in the book peer at the viewer through a dense fog of their own making. The return of the read! It is as if decaying and enduring memories of the book’s successive pleasures—first words and last—have been compacted into a ghostly blur of almost-­impenetrable purity. 

1.  See, particularly, “Soirées de Paris” in Incidents, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.
2. For more on how the opposition between punctum and studium is “blurred” within Camera Lucida itself, see Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator. Verso: New York, 2009, pp.110-16.
3. See Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as  Art as Never Before. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008, pp. 95–114.
4. At the risk of nationalist carping, it is worth mentioning, too, that Barthes’s account of the origins of photography is willfully Franc-o-­centric: a competitive collaboration between Niépce and Daguerre; the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot does not merit even a mention!

This essay is adapted from the author’s foreword to Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes, translated from the French by Richard Howard, to be reissued next month by Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Foreword © 2010 by Geoff Dyer. All rights reserved.

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