Book Review – Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes

Recently I have read ‘Camera Lucida’.  I’ve started this book a couple of times before but never finished it – I found Barthes vocabulary and referencing quite challenging.  This time however, I made more progress and believe I can see links to my own work and indeed that of others.  Below are a series of quotes that I feel are of particular relevance to ‘People and Place’:

“it can happen that I am observed without knowing it, and again I cannot speak of this experience, since I have determined to be guided by the consciousness of my feelings.  But very often (too often, to my taste) I have been photographed and knew it.  Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes; I constitute myself in the process of “posing”, I instantaneously make myself another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.  This transformation is an active one: I feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice….” pp10-11

“Photography is anything but subtle except in the hands of the very greatest portraitists, I don’t know how to work upon my skin from within.” p11.

“what I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my (profound) “self”; but it is the contrary that must be said: “myself” never coincides with the image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn (which is why society sustains it), and “myself” which is light, divided, dispersed; like a bottle-imp”….” p12

“In front of the lens, I am at the same issue: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one who makes use of the medium to exhibit his art” p13

” I imagine (this is all I can do, since I am not a photographer), that the emotional gesture of the Operator is to surprise something or someone (through the little hole of the camera)…..” p32

“That is the paradox: how can one have an intelligent air without thinking about anything intelligent, just by looking into this piece of black plastic?” p113

“..the Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor.”

In these words Barthes provides great incite into what it is like to be photographed and, from the viewpoint of a non-photographer.  It can surely only improve my photography to use these incites to try to better place myself in the subject’s shoes when trying to make a statement about them.

One further section that I found interesting and helpful, although too long to quote in full, is Barthes expansion of the idea that the essential gesture of the Operator is to surprise something or someone.  Barthes covers five ‘types’ of surprise:

  1. The rare
  2. Arresting a gesture that the eye cannot see
  3. Technical prowess
  4. Contortions of photographic technique
  5. The trouvaille or lucky find.

All of these are worth bearing in mind but I find numbers two and five to be particularly important!

My final thought is not specific to People & Place but is rather more general.  Much of Barthes’ book, published in 1980, is about the evidential nature of photography.  Were he alive today, what would Barthes make of the digital world and the ability to create images of ‘objects’ that never existed?  Now there’s a question to sign off on!

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