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Camera Lucida

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26 April 2014

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Nowadays photography is one of the most wide-spread spheres of art. Despite the great variety of its types, photography always depicts the objects existing in reality and in the present moment regarding the photograph. However, the art of photography and its very existence can be viewed from the different side. The ability of a human being to capture everything around is fascinating. The invention of this art has made a huge change to the entire world. Due to the rapid development of technologies it is very simple to make a picture and send it to the other continent. It seems like there is no mystic there, the process does not seem strange or remarkable nowadays. However, it is a rare person to ask a question about the development of this field. Moreover, there were a great number of philosophers and researchers who viewed photography from the different point of view. They have questioned the very existence of such field and obscurity of photography aim. The others claim that photography is different for a spectacular than to the photographer. Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida touches the topics of nature and essence of photography, stating that the photographers are the evidence of presence. It was one of the most influential books in the early era of photography theorization.  He aimed to explore the core of photography from the understanding of philosophy. The author has never been a photographer himself, though throughout the book, Roland Barthes performed the attempts to comprehend photography from ontological point of view.

 “What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially” (Barthes 4). The author raises an interesting question of the photographer being as the servant of the universe depicting and presenting to the wide audience the illustrations of particular moment. It is clear that Barthes sees the moment as a unique representation of life. According to these words, he considers each moment existentially exceptional where photographer is the tool of illustrating this moment. In general Barthes claimed that his initial intention to write the book is finding out if the photography existed. It is rather difficult to explain such intention as the existence of photography is unquestionable, though at the beginning of theoretical approach towards photography, such ideas were rather popular.

Barthes compared cinema to photography stating that the stillness of the pictures makes photography different from the cinematic experience. It is important to notice that photography is a practical art where theoretical platform is difficult to be applied. However, different critics and theorists considered that such approach can be relevant if investigating the nature and essence of this field. Nevertheless, while analyzing Barthes’s book one can come to conclusion that the writer aims to analyze the photography through its being and its capability to show things that are present in the moment for the photographer. A photographer uses only his vision for capturing what is in front of him/her, therefore the picture made by a particular photographer is a transmission of a particular vision.

According to Barthes, proposed an idea that during the process reduction or alteration of form, prospective, and color takes place, thus the image is not real. At the same time, the philosopher states that a picture is a perfect analog of the reality. From one side, such perspective seems to be ambivalent, though it is important to realize that the author did not state that the image in its physical form is not real. On the contrary, Barthes supposed that the picture transits only the flat version of the reality, while the reality holds multiple dimensions of the objects. In this case the author wants to emphasize that there is a difference between the reality all people see and the picture that tries to transmit the reality. Such ontological characteristic of photography points to the fact that perhaps does not bother a lot of people. Barthes’ point of possible unreality of photography lies in the theory that reality an individual perceive is different in form, color, and perspective, though as the picture goes though the transformation losing these characteristics, it is possible to state that it is not actually real. Perhaps the ideas presented in Camera Lucida do not deal with the realism of photography as the field, but consider the photographs as only the analogs of the reality.

It is possible that such ideas emerged in that time, as the sphere of photography was still rather young. Roland Barthes wrote his book in 1980 when the ideas of existentialism were rather popular. The additional factor of such conceptions is the fact that the author was not a photographer himself and viewed the photography only through the prism of transition of the reality. Throughout the book Barthes admits that he personally has the problems with ambivalence. According to the philosopher he has always had problems with his ability to speak different languages: expressive, scientific, and critical. This fact influenced the author to dissect the field of photography from three sides. Barthes proposed to dissect a photograph from the perspective of a photographer, a viewer, and the objects being pictured. In addition, the scholar had his own definitions of these three parties. “The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves… And the person or thing photographed is the target, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph…” (Barthes 9) The interrelationship of these three parties produces a specific vision transmitted by the picture.

As it was mentioned earlier, to Barthes view a certain photograph is produced by specific vision of the photographer, or Operator. It is he/she who looks through the lens limiting and framing the view in front of him/her. It means that every photographer has his/her own perspective that embodies in a particular picture. If implementing such point of view, it means that the photograph manifesting the same picture can be different if taken by two different photographers. It follows that each photograph is the manifestation of reality of a specific photographer, or Operator. In addition, Barthes admits that he does not have the experience of such perspective as he has never been a photographer. The author states that he can judge only from the side of a Spectator and a Spectrum.

While being an object of a photograph, or a Spectrum, each person immediately tries to pose. Barthes touches this topic, though not viewing it through the psychological point of view, he views this process from the perspective of ontology. According to his conception, a Spectrum if it is a person cannot be coincided with his or her own self. According to the author, the image does not possess the inner personality of a person being photographed, but only the external manifestation of an individual. However, Barthes does not compare the illustration of a person on the photograph and the manifestation of an individual by the painting.

The author expresses concerns about the uneasiness caused by being photographed. At this point it is crucial to mention an important idea presented by the philosopher; uneasiness of being photographed can be experienced by a lot of people, it depends only on the perception of this process by an individual. Nevertheless, this question belongs to the sphere of psychology, than to the philosophy. While the author refers to the questions of the legality of taking pictures of a random person or a private property stating that the photographer transforms the subject into object, one might notice that in the contemporary world the right to take pictures in certain places is limited. A great number of photographers nowadays express their concern about a variety of limitations to take pictures in public places or within the settings of private property. However, these restrictions derive from the fact that a lot of people feel extreme uneasiness while being photographed. It concerns the idea of privacy and the right of each person to decide if he or she wants to be photographed. This is actually the idea Barthes refers to; while the picture painted by an artist is made with the consent, a person can be photographed without such.

Additionally, the philosopher applies the same idea of unreality of a photograph. While being exposed to photography a person tries to pretend being someone he thinks he is, while a photographer has another vision of a person, he also expresses his own point of view through the picture. There is also s third party; it is a viewer, who at the same time has his own point of vision towards a person being photographed. Altogether is creates a cognitive dissonance of the perception of certain photograph and the objects depicted by it. It is obvious that a picture can be viewed from three different perspectives depending only on specific visions of people who pose, who photograph, and who view an image. Barthes calls it inauthenticity as referred to the person being photographed.

Moreover, the philosopher escalates this idea to the experience of an artificial death each time he is exposed to photography. “I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter” (Barthes 14). The ideas of phantom perception of oneself while being photographed can be linked to the conception of unreality of a photograph in the sense of its inability to represent the reality in true colors, forms, and dimensions. At the same time, such point of view is somehow controversial, as the author connects the idea of unreality to the notion of death. It follows that the philosopher bounds two concepts together while linking death to unreality.

However, at the same moment, Barthes emphasizes the reality of a photograph through depiction of images presented in it. He then claims that the image itself does not raise any feelings, no admiration, or anxiety, but at the same time the author claims that the picture simply exists as it represents the objects depicted in a particular moment. By inspecting the photographs of a particular photographer Barthes insists that duality presented in his works was the only thing that attracted the philosopher. At this point, it is crucial to notice that the tendencies of ambivalence and duality are central in Camera Lucida. Barthes perhaps is especially attracted to such perception of the world, together with the field of photography.

The philosopher touches the topic of the capability of the photographer to transmit the cultural heritage of a person or an object. Referring to the ideas mentioned earlier concerning the specific vision of each photographer, the author implements the same conception here as well stating that cultural heritage is difficult to transfer through the photograph. “I perceive quite familiarly as the consequence of my knowledge, my culture; this field can be more or less stylized, more or less successful depending on the photographer’s skill or luck, but it always refers to a classical body of information” (Barthes 23). The photographer to the philosophers view, has to possess certain skills or vision to embody particular objects in a ‘right’ way, in the way to trigger emotions of the viewer. However, the perception of a certain image refers to the personal taste, not only to the vision of a photographer. Nevertheless, Barthes does not touch the topic of a personal taste claiming that a photographer either has necessary skills or not. To his point of view, the photographs that trigger emotions possess punctum in them. This term the philosopher connects to the ability of a photographer to prick, in the other words to impress the viewer. Off course, this is the ability that a rare photographer obtains, though as it was mentioned earlier, it is the question of a particular taste.

It is true that the works of different photographers produce different kinds of emotions, while some images do not influence the viewers at all. It is the issue of being relevant in particular sector of photography. Nowadays, there are a lot of divisions of this field, like editorial or wedding photography that requires absolutely different skills, experience, and vision to succeed in certain area. At the same time, Barthes throughout the book refers mostly to the art or social photography that are rather specific fields. The author however, states that if the photography causes particular emotions it was intended by a photographer who made it. At the same time, it is possible to disagree with the author. It is difficult to state that the emotions triggered by an image and felt by one individual will be experienced by all viewers. Moreover, it will be incorrect to claim that the photographer meant to enclose the same emotions with particular photograph. It all depends on a personal vision, perception, taste, and a person in general. However, it is important to notice that Barthes wrote the book exclusively from his own point of view never claiming to the objectivity.

While analyzing different emotions influenced by particular photographs, the philosopher noticed that each image can influence the destiny of a photographer. “Ultimately, the Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks” (Barthes 38). The philosopher raises an important question of the possibility of each photograph to impress the viewers. At this point, one has to mention that it this capability depends exclusively on the talent of the photographer and his/her ability to present the objects in a particular way. In addition, the philosopher raises a point of importance of the detail in such photographs. It is the detail that can change the perspective and perception of the viewer. The whole structure of the photograph can carry particular meaning, though it is the details that trigger particular emotions. It is possible to assume that a viewer can either notice such detail or not, therefore, it proves the point that photography is subjective and in some cases the meaning enclosed by the photographer can remain unnoticed at all.

Nevertheless, the author is trying to persuade the reader of Camera Lucida that to see the meaning of a photograph, the viewer has to perceive it though the consciousness, not through the eyes. Barthes refers to the importance not only to criticize such factors as the composition, technique, or art, but to perceive the photograph by senses. While the photographs do not have the abilities of the films, as the motion, it is harder to make a photograph that will be able to speak. The philosopher then notices that it will be incorrect to claim that the photograph is motionless; it possesses the power of telling the story as well. Some photographs can be more vivid that the whole movie telling the story for example, of the whole nation or particular social class. It is the ability of the viewer to see it and off course the skills of the photographer to transmit the meaning correctly. At this point, Barthes compares the pornographic pictures and erotic emphasizing the radical difference between them. According to the author, pornographic images have not punctum, in the meaning that they do not possess anything special representing only certain organs of a human, while erotic photographs create the aura of mysticism launching desire by different tools.

The ability of photographs represent history is one of the features this field can be appreciated for. At the same time, the photographs have the ability to represent the history in their own way. Barthes argue that the photography is incapable to embody the ‘real’ history, as each photographer uses his/her own principles while making the pictures, therefore the objects represented on them can speak for particular historical time, though at the same way the images might do not have the power to characterize the relative history. The author tries to prove that the idea of inability to present the reality lies in the field of subjectivity of a photographer’s view. The author provides the example of his dead mother and the way of her old pictures influence the author. He claims that the representation of her mother on the pictures comparing to his experience in ‘reality’.

It is proving the idea that the photography is exclusively the subjective matter. The photographs depend on the photographer and the viewer as well. Implementing the author’s idea of unreality of the photography can be connected to the conception of the subjectivity of this field in general. “I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph” (Barthes 76). The author claims that the existence of certain objects presented in the photographs do not contradict the reality, though the relation of the photography to history is superimposed. The author states that the history also has a subjective character; therefore the photographer cannot transmit it objectively relating to the object of photography.

Barthes researched the phenomenon of the pose and posing in general. He admits that the pose has intentional character influencing on the appearance of the person. At this point, the photography can again be compared with the cinema where the moment can pass very quickly, while photograph represents a stilled moment. According to the pose, a person can be represented from the different points of view, thus in some cases it is difficult to claim that in reality this very person has the same appearance. It was the same conception to which Barthes refers with viewing the old pictures of his mother. He realized that her representation on the photograph differs significantly with his memories of her. At this point, it is possible to conclude that the photography incarnates individual view on the reality that can be absolutely different for another person. It is easy to notice this idea in almost all segments of photography. The photographer, for example, can capture the object from different angles which can change the representation of its form. In addition, it is crucial to admit that each person can be represented differently on the pictures taken by different photographers. The appearance of the object depends on the light, time of the day, exposition, and various technical details of the camera and skills of the photographer.

Therefore it is possible to assume that Barthes refers to the same ideas of unreality of the photography due to its inability to present the reality. However, it is possible to present counterargument to such theory. The notion of ‘reality’ is very complex and depending to the point of view of a random scholar or philosophical school, it can be defined differently. At the same time, the reality can be viewed differently by every human being, therefore the photography shows reality as well, though it can be different from the perspective of the viewers.

At the end of the book, Barthes refers to the topic of privacy and publicity of the photography. “Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such” (Barthes 98). The philosopher admits that photography even being public is intimate and private. He states that photography cannot be public in its essence, especially when it concerns a person. Nowadays, one can find such ideas as well, as there are group of people insisting that it is the right of a person to be photographed or not. On the other side are the photographers who complain that the street photography as the genre will die to the growing tendencies of privacy among the society. At the same time, one can agree with the idea of intimacy in the public places, as there are certain people as well as the moments when a person does not have the desire to become an object of photography.

While analyzing Roland Barthes and his Camera Lucida, it is possible to notice that his ideas are somehow irrelevant in certain areas, as well as somehow obscure. It is difficult in some places to connect such ideas to reality and especially to the present times, as the field of photography has developed and altered drastically since the book was written. In addition, the author has never been on the other side of the camera, though it is difficult to claim that his ideas are objective or relevant. At the same time, Barthes raises the questions important for the field from existential and philosophical point of view. His idea of unreality of photography has not to be viewed in one dimension. Barthes hints on the subjectivity of the photography and each image as well. As each photographer is an individual, he/she captures one’s own vision and reality making the photographs incredibly versatile and diverse. It is also possible to admit that the author is right in the point while comparing the pornographic and erotic pictures, the difference are tremendous while the purpose of both genres is almost the same. The photography can raise certain emotions or does not provoke any feelings at all, though it still remains one of the most important arts in the world.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Howard Richard, trans. Paris: Straus and Giroux, 1981.

Research Paper:

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5 days

Academic level

College 4th year

Subject area

History of Photography



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