Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida

I was expecting Camera Lucida to be like Image Music Text, which I’ve read several chapters of and found a lot more opaque than Mythologies, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Camera Lucida nearly as readable as Mythologies. Barthes’ reflections on the photographs he uses to illustrate his philosophical ideas gave me as much insight into the individual images and Barthes himself as they did into his primary subject, the ontology of photography. As in Mythologies, Barthes comes over as an extremely sensitive person with a strong sense of humour, attempting here to find a vocabulary to express his visceral and intuitive responses to particular photographs and to investigate whether these responses and their triggers are entirely subjective and unique to him or can be identified and described objectively. He defines two elements – the studium, the field of information contained in a photograph, and the punctum, an element that “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me”, and concludes that the latter “is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there“.

It seems to me that in defining the punctum in Camera Lucida, Barthes has given a name to something he explored a few years earlier in a chapter of Image Music Text, ‘The Third Meaning’, in which he tries to locate the precise point of ‘obtuse meaning’ in a series of Eisenstein stills. Here too he is seeking to define what it is that pierces him with a sense of significance beyond what is provided by the obvious story in the image, and here too it is always a small detail, something that awakens something personal in him – something subconscious and intuitive like a dream or a distant memory.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.
Barthes, R. (1987) Image Music Text. London: Fontana.
Barthes, R. (1993) Mythologies. London: Random House.