June 1, 2012

The Dark Room: Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

The last word, precisely because it is the last, of course, has a weight of expectation loaded on to it that no mere arrangement of language, no thought, could reasonably be expected to support. Meaning gets lost then, in this struggle to meet the demands of saying what we need to be said under, as it were, the sign of eternity. There is no chance for revision, or for nuance. When Roland Barthes died following a road accident in 1980, his last completed project was Camera Lucida, and it is a work that has entered the canon as being his last word on the subject of photography, perhaps to the detriment of how we understand both. It’s not the metaphorical image of Barthes’ untimely death and how it feeds into the tone of his own writing here, the seemingly elegiac contemplation of mortality, that causes the trouble (although that is, in itself, a fairly grisly spectacle). Rather, the style he employs has an odd, speculative voicing, characteristic of Barthes' later work that reads without friction and is in a far more discursive or even “subjective” mode than the theoretical austerity for which he was formerly known.

Indeed, Barthes has to admit as much himself from the outset; this “split” with the expected rigour of critical analysis, favouring instead his own, more eccentric methodology, is dramatised in one of the opening chapters. In this context we can see that his conversational tone is as much a narrative device as anything else. Given the subtle foregrounding of his intentions, then, embodied by the very style of the writing as a self-conscious act, it would be a mistake to take everything that follows on its own terms. But the apparent simplicity of Barthes’ approach is seductive, and he opens warmly to the reader a view of, ostensibly at least, his own thorny encounter with the photographic image. We see several instances of him thinking through the experience of looking at a given picture, some of which are reproduced in the text. But this use of what should be understood as a literary style gives us no reason to believe he is always speaking in his own voice. This was the man, after all, whose best efforts had long been dedicated to opening a gap between the text and its author.

Barthes’ proposes two vaguely oppositional terms and these are what carry the main thrust of his analysis, such as it is. This double structure is reproduced by the book itself, the first part dedicated to his thoughts on photography as a medium and the second to a meditation on a particular image of his adored mother, who had died not long before. This image is the real crux of his argument, but, rather tellingly, it is not shown. He proposes that our encounter with a photograph can be broken into distinct levels, the first of which he calls “studium” and this is one that all photographs enter into; it is the level of their social reality, the fact that they depict certain observable things in the world. This level of photographic attention is, in a sense, the narration of what is visible. It is a common value of photographic images and Barthes’ seems to tire of it quickly. The other term however, is the one that most captures his attention (and indeed that of his subsequent readers). He coins the term “punctum” to describe an effect of certain photographic images quite apart from that of their common, social reality. It is some element (not necessarily an element of the photographic, its apparent subject) that he alone sees, or that shows itself to him and which pierces the airless skin of its social reality; the punctum is in fact a “lacerating” encounter with the reality of an image that actually fails to be made visible at the very moment of its apprehension, because it is not “in” the photograph at all, rather it is something that he must find, a disturbance of the photographic surface.

The punctum is an absence within reality, something more that what it is, but yet absolutely itself. Barthes concludes then the “photographic” is a kind of near visible absence that opens a space in the image to show the disparity between the real which is our experience and the symbolic (representational) order of social reality. It is an absence understood as something that elides the procedures of representation, or, as he would have it, the studium. He defines this as a state that cannot be reduced to the common visibility of a photograph – or any common language at all. The “truth” he proposes is not at all antagonistic to the coded depiction of a given subject, rather these codes depend absolutely on that referential aspect of the medium. Here Barthes is edging closer to his subject, one that becomes somewhat more apparent in the closing half of this inscrutable book, concerning as it does the infamous photograph of his mother, the very one that, as I have said, he chooses not to reproduce. This image, which is referred to as the Winter Garden photograph on account of its setting, then becomes a mythical absence at the heart of the text itself.

Describing the experience of looking through these old photographs he notes a mounting dissatisfaction over the fact that in none of them is he able to recognise the “essence” of his mother’s being. Her image remains fragmentary, and yet what he seeks is the apprehension of her whole self – not as memory, but as fact. The Winter Garden photograph is treated, then, as a revelation; he finds in this image the image of his mother, embodied and yet quite apart from the photographic image itself. The apprehension of her real being pierces the reality of the photograph and the “presence” of his mother (the totality of her image) is constituted by her absence. The “photograph” becomes therefore the perverse signifier of an absence that cannot be represented. His mother, as a child – as he never knew her – is here a kind of spectral entity, forever suspended between the reality of his experience and the common reality of the photograph. Barthes is taking us to the point where our concept of representation begins to fail – here there are things of which we cannot speak or that cannot be seen, but only intuited as an embodiment of something else.

For him this “failure” is implicit in the photographic image and what makes it so significant is the subversive insistence of a referent that can at times escape its container, spilling over the picture, breaking its own representational codes. Bathes’ late work abounds with this sort of covert measure, a frivolous “methodology” that hinges on some personal obsession of his, a detail of taste, which opens out into a labyrinthine reflection. The airy structures of his prose in Camera Lucida and its elaborate doubling of narrative themes have surely to be considered as one of his finest achievements. But then again, he is not writing about photography as such, at least not just as itself. Rather he is using this literary mode of analysis as a rhetorical device by which to address the unspeakable aspect of his own experiences from within; turning the photograph against itself, the immovable assertion of death-in-life: photography becomes death. He takes us to the very limit of what is visible, trying to show all that escapes the “narration” of a cultural discourse, a tangible absence he finds again through the image of his mother. In this sense, then, Barthes’ subject is the reality within these fictions of place and memory, even, or especially, when the picture does not seem able to hold it – every photograph appears to suggest the manifestation of a true reference, breaking the frame.

The “truth” of a photograph then is a kind of permanent contingency. Barthes finds in the Winter Garden photograph the truth of his mother, not as an empirical fact, something discernable through observation, but as an experience – he experiences the truth of his mother and of the image itself. It involves, for him at least, a motivated looking, some investment in the subject, but he has ultimately to consider its presence in every photograph – as a quality of the medium, a truth expressly of and not about, that is, an experiential truth. In this way, Bathes’ position in Camera Lucida can be understood as a radical assertion of an ideal held, even then, to be deeply problematic. But the way in which he navigates this crisis is both typical of his later style and of his ingenuity as a thinker. The narrative opposition of this elusive “punctum” to a social field of photographic meaning, its coded surface, allows him to construct a reading of the photograph as a series of socially grounded codes built on the very presupposition of its “truthful” reference. This is not truth as the mere correspondence of representation and object, but a discursive encounter, burdened by reality.