What is a Photograph by Sean Sheehan
Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, edited by Geoffrey Batchen (MIT Press)
No self-respecting student of photography would admit to not having read Camera Lucida and, because it is such a short book, easy to read and full of interesting observations, there is no good reason why anyone should. Barthes began writing it after his mother died in 1977 and there is one picture of his mother as a child that is central to the writing but which, despite all the other photographs he discusses being reproduced in the book, the reader is never allowed to see. The absence of that picture represents what he wants to say about the nature of photography and its ‘that-has-been’ quality that clings uncannily to the image. To someone not acquainted with his mother, an old black-and-white photograph of her would arouse little interest; it would lack punctum, Barthes’s term for the unintentional effect and affect that an image is capable of possessing, a poignant detail in the photograph that derails the observer’s safe contemplation of an otherwise recognisable scene that can be decoded in conventional ways. This comfort zone is defined by Barthes as the photograph’s stadium and when this is disrupted by something not anticipated it is because the punctum has made its presence felt. These now famous twin terms have entered the lexicon of photography, for Barthes they delineate the field and define what is unique about the art of photography.
The wounding realisation (etymologically punctum is ‘pricking’) that time past is time lost, never to be recovered — ‘there is ‘nothing Proustian in a photograph’ – haunts the writing of Camera Lucida. The wound effected by the punctum is not just the sense of time past but the way time is embalmed in the photograph. ‘From now on’, he says, referring to his mother’s death and the photograph of her that he has discovered, ‘I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death’. A month after it is published in France, Barthes was run down by a laundry van and died a month later in hospital. It is not altogether surprising that some critics have downplayed the significance of Camera Lucida as a text about photography, regarding it instead as a lyrical meditation on death and mourning.
Nonetheless, Barthes does bring a metaphysics to photography and one that is badly needed at a time when there is a tsunami of photographs flooding the media. Without some reflection on what constitutes photography there is a danger that its status as an art form will rapidly de-evolve. The art historian Julian Stallabrass touches on this in one of his essays (http://photoworks.org.uk/are-you-a-photographer/) and some of the insights found in Barthes might be important in trying to salvage photography from an aesthetic implosion. The prick of the photograph’s punctum, writes Barthes, is felt by the observer who thereby experiences the self’s instability, knowing that one day he too will be just such an image: ‘I only resemble other photographs of myself, and this to infinity; no one is ever anything but the copy of a copy, real or mental’. The photograph becomes a mirror, posing existential questions by asking why are you, the gazer, existing when you could and will be an object capable only of being gazed at? Put like this, there are a lot of digital images out there that wouldn’t count as photographs because they are incapable of provoking any degree of self-examination.
The fourteen essays on Camera Lucida in Photography Degree Zero are uniformly good and while there are some overlaps in their interpretations, inevitable when the brevity of Barthes’s book is taken into account, they each offer a new perspective on what has become an indisputable classic of photography literature.