Saturday, July 10, 2021

Camera Lucida / Roland Barthes - detailed summary and analysis

(Here you can find a shorter summary of Camera Lucida)

Camera Lucida: Thoughts on Photography is a work by Roland Barthes published in 1980, in which the Barthes questions the nature of photography, trying to understand if it has a "genius of its own", a trait that distinguishes it from other means of representation.

Camera Lucida work echoes a difficult period that the writer lived after the death of his mother on October 25, 1977. It is dedicated to L'Imaginaire by Jean-Paul Sartre .

The title of Camera Lucida (in french La Chambre claire) is a play on words based on the etymology of the words "camera" and "room" from the same Latin word camera . The photography developed in the dark ( the dark room - lat. Camera obscura ), is characterized above all by its obviousness, its certain character. According to Barthes, photography is therefore closer to the idea of camera lucida , because unlike other perceptions, it gives its object in an indisputable and precise way.

Camera Lucida is illustrated by 25 photographs, old and contemporary, chosen by the writer. Among them are the works of famous photographers such as William Klein , Robert Mapplethorpe or Nadar , but also a photograph from the author's private collection. Among the photographers cited, and on whose photographs he based the evolution of his thought, we find in particular, (given here in decreasing order of frequency): Robert Mapplethorpe , André Kertész , William Klein , Nadar , Richard Avedon , Francis Apesteguy and more .

Camera Lucida consists of 48 chapters divided into two parts. As the subtitle specifies (“Note on the photograph”), it is a free form, without a strict structure. Barthes does not start from a fixed thesis, he presents the evolution of his thought: he returns to ideas expressed in the preceding chapters to complete them or even deny them. Starting from a desire to conceive the art of photography, the story becomes more and more personal in the second part (“I had to descend further into myself to find the evidence of photography”). The scientific register which is illustrated by the precision of the vocabulary, numerous scholarly and cultural references gives way to the subjective register, very intimate (use of personal pronouns of the first person singular,

The three perspectives on photography 

In Camera Lucida Barthes distinguishes three points of view vis-à-vis a photograph:

Operator - the one who takes the photo. Barthes is not a photographer, so he cannot talk about Operator's emotion. He supposes, however, that Operator's photograph would be "a vision cut through the keyhole of the camera obscura ."

Spectator - the one who looks at the photo.

Spectrum - the target, the referent of the photo: an object or a human being. Barthes chooses the word “spectrum” to underline the relationship that photography maintains with the spectacle.

The person photographed is both:

1) the one she thinks she is,

2) the one she would like us to believe,

3) the one the photographer believes it to be,

4) the one he uses to show off his art.

The crossing of these four imaginaries causes in her a feeling of inauthenticity.

The elements of photography 


Among the photographs of which the author speaks, there are those in front of which Barthes experiences "an average affect", which he calls "studium" (Latin word). This cultural, political or social interest aims to identify the photographer's intentions. The spectator lives them according to his will: he can approve them or not, but he understands them, because as a consumer of culture, he is endowed with a kind of education ("knowledge and politeness"). But according to Barthes, culture is a contract between creators and consumers. Studium is something conventional, a sort of "vague, smooth, irresponsible" general interest. It makes it possible to find the photographer and to rehabilitate photography by giving it a function (to inform, to represent, to surprise, to make signify, to create envy).


The punctum is a Latin word which means the bite, the small hole, the small spot, the small cut, but also the throw of the dice. It is the chance which points in a photograph and which cannot be perceived by any analysis, which one does not manage to name. This is a detail that provokes strong emotion in the viewer, which attracts special attention, but which is not intended by the photographer. The punctum therefore constitutes a sort of subtle off-screen.

“Unary” photography 

A photograph may not have a punctum. In this case, it does not cause any trouble. It is a naive photograph, without intention and without calculation which can "cry", but not "hurt". Barthes calls this type of photography "a unary photograph  ".

Photography and death

In Camera Lucida, Barthes wonders a lot about the relationship between photography and death.

The photograph captures a moment when the person photographed is neither subject nor object. She feels herself becoming an object, she lives "a micro-experience of death". The person in the photo no longer belongs to himself, he becomes a photo object, which society is free to read, interpret, place according to its will.

The target of the photograph is necessarily real. The referent existed in front of the camera, but only for a brief moment, recorded by the lens. The object was therefore present, but it immediately becomes different, dissimilar from itself. Barthes concludes from this that the noema (the essence) of photography is “It-has-been”. The photograph captures the moment, immobilizes its referent, testifies that he "was" alive and therefore suggests (but does not necessarily say) that he is already dead.            

Photography brings a certainty of the existence of an object in front of the camera. This certainty prevents any interpretation and transformation of the object. The death given by photography is therefore "flat", because nothing can be added to it.

In photography, the concrete object is transformed into an abstract object, the real object into an unreal object. The target of a photograph is dead, but at the same time it is immortalized by the physical medium that is a photograph. However, this support, too, is sensitive to degradation.

The photograph "wise" and "crazy" 

According to Barthes, there are two types of photography: the “wise” and the “crazy”.

In “wise” photography, for the viewer, realism remains “relative, tempered by aesthetic and empirical habits”.

In “crazy” photography, realism is absolute, original. However, looking at “crazy” photographs, the viewer is confronted with what is dead or what will die. He experiences a feeling towards the object being looked at which Barthes qualifies first as "love" and then as "pity". The certainty that the being represented "has been" and, consequently, that he is no longer or that he will no longer be, drives him mad.

Photography and other arts of representation 
Photography borrows its frame and perspective from painting, but differs from it in that, in its representation, it always attests that its object "has been".

This is how it is also distinguished from language which is, by its nature, fictional.

As for its relationship with cinema, photography, unlike it, is characterized by the immobility of its referent. Time is stopped there in an "excessive and monstrous" way. Photography breaks with the continuity of the image, as we can see it in the cinema. In films, it is assumed that the experience will continue, while in photography, the object remains motionless, “protests its former existence” and clings to the viewer.

Finally, by the representation of death, photography approaches the primitive theater which was linked to the cult of death. In the original theater, the actors are both alive and dead at the same time (they put on make-up, wear masks).

Note that Barthes in Camera Lucida ignores sculpture.

Additional summaries and articles on Roland Barthes: