Barthes, Camera Lucida

I finished reading Camera Lucida this morning later than I meant to, because I got distracted by reading this article in Esquire by Jeff Sharlet titled “All That We’ve Lost”. Sharlet has spent this year tweeting about people who have died from COVID-19, mini-obituaries. One of them struck me in particular; a daughter speaking about her mom, who died of coronavirus last year. “It’s kind of stupid how much I look like my mother”, she says.

If you have read Barthes before, you know about the punctum essay– what I didn’t know about it is that it was only part of what is not a collection of essays, but one essay divided into two parts. Camera Lucida is Barthes’ musing on what a photograph is, and indeed whether photography exists. There is an inherent tension in trying to decode a photograph, as he explains. If photography is unclassifiable, finding out what it is is a hopeless project.

The first half of this essay outlines Barthes’ theoretical exploration of what a photograph is, and why photographs compel. Like Sontag, he determines that what makes a photograph interesting is not its formal composition or skill– an amateur photographer can take an arresting photo. While Sontag is more interested in the role of the photographer as one capturing random chance (you are lucky enough to see the random event that’s meaningful), Barthes determines that photos are interesting when they contain two elements that are at odds with one another.

Sometimes, these elements are the studium and the puntum. The studium is the historical or social context of the photo and the questions you ask about it– where and when it was taken, what the place was like, etc– the social-cultural field that is waiting to be pierced. The punctum is the point of interest that comes out of the photograph to arrest you, eclipsing all social knowledge and indeed all context. The photo of the nuns crossing the street behind construction workers is arresting because it is 1) taken by chance, and 2) the nuns provide a punctum that strikes the viewer. If the photograph kills its subject, turning them into an object, then the punctum brings it back to life.

Barthes ends this section by musing that although he has discovered more about his own desire, he has no better idea than when he started about what a photograph is. The second half of Camera Lucida represents his attempts to learn more about photography through his own personal experience as a spectator– by looking at photos of his mother.

This essay, and this part of the essay, is famous because it does what it describes. If the punctum makes you think about scenes in your life that are similar to what’s in the photograph, this essay makes you think about parts of your life that are similar to it. Of course this section made me think of my mom. On the one hand– photos of her, of which there are not that many. Barthes describes an alienation on looking at his mother as a child, except in one photograph where she stands in a winter garden for a posed photograph. There are a few black-and-white photos of my mom as a kid, mostly school photos, and one or two color ones of her running around with her best friend DeeDee with her hair in braids. There is one I can remember the existence but not the composition of, where she is a counselor at what she describes as “diabetic camp”, where she went for several summers. The punctum there I guess is the situation, which is something I’d think was made up if I hadn’t heard it from her. These photos don’t alienate me, like Barthes– they make me sad, because they make me think I would have liked to be friends with my mom when she was a kid.

Of course, the other thing this section of the essay makes me think about is this past year. My mom just got her second vaccine shot. Up until a few weeks ago, every day I woke up and worried about her. I worried about my dad too, of course, because he’s in his fifties, but my mom is multiply immunocompromised and lives in a rural area where things like food delivery that lessen contact with other people are unaffordable and therefore impossible. Having her get the vaccine is a huge weight lifted, although not completely, because vaccinated people can still get sick less severely and that would still be very serious for her. For that reason her life is still restricted, and will be for who knows how long. I don’t know what I’ll do next time I go to visit her; I might isolate again, even though we’re both vaccinated. We are in this unbearable time at the moment where we don’t know how effective vaccines are at reducing transmission, and until we do, I’ll be nervous about going home.

My mom isn’t an angry person, but in the past few months she has gotten angry. At the beginning of the year it was about the inequity of the rollout and how neither she nor her friend, another disabled person, would be eligible until June. Then, it was about how the revised guidelines left out both of her conditions, despite both of them raising her risk exponentially. (She was lucky enough to qualify, eventually, but this is still an enormous inequity.) More recently, it’s about her neighbors who refuse to get vaccinated and yet keep coming over to say hello, and expect to be met with friendly conversation. I get angry at them on the phone, and normally she would defend them to me, but now she just agrees. Since last year, she has been angry on behalf of most of the country and at some points the world, which is an exhausting process. I only have the energy to be angry on behalf of her.

The emotional experience of reading Barthes right now, alongside those twitter obituaries, is chiefly one of sorrow. Thinking about how many people have experienced just this one kind of loss is crushing; even how many people I know who have, my students especially, but also friends.The experience of loss that is present in Barthes’ transmitting how he feels has always been there and has clearly always been affecting. But right now there is also the sense that his loss, like our collective loss, is in media res, as in “I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred… every photograph is this catastrophe” (117). Or when he exclaims that in front of the winter garden photograph “I am a bad dreamer who vainly holds out his arms toward the possession of the image; I am Golaud exclaiming ‘Misery of my life!'” (122). As with Sontag’s critique of capitalism, he sees too many images, but they form a labyrinth at the center of which is the winter garden photograph, the only one that can possibly, through its connection to him, reveal the essence of photography.

And yet, Camera Lucida never settles on one definition of what a photograph is. It can be made into art, in an attempt to tame it, because “no art is mad”; it can separate perception from attention, in order to encourage us to glance at something in particular. It is the “that has been” (noeme), a representation of what was (even when it still is), which is why photography, if it is not boring, is always melancholy. The two forms of photography in modernity are the real and the fake, or the unadulterated vs the staged or generalized. The first has the punctum, and the second has destroyed it. Barthes believes this destruction is inevitable in contemporary American society: images are lively, and yet they are unaffecting because they have been tamed by either other interests or norms. Pictures taken by indifferent mediators, existing by chance, are the last refuge of the photograph.