Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes is, to my mind, the pivotal text in
photographic writing. It has been reduced in seminars, taught in
workshops, practiced by photographers for three decades, and yet there
is every reason to seek it out again.
I was asked recently, about another book, whether it resorted to
“artspeak” and I did my best to refrain from defending the practice of
talking like one of the artspeakers. Art has a language, so what? But to
say that Camera Lucida was written for photographers, or with
photography principally in mind, is to miss the importance of the text.
Before the book, there was an order to the arts that left photography in
a strange place, partly due to novelty, and partly due to its middle
position in ontic terms, straddling the real and imaginary as concepts.
One has to read earlier texts to understand how things were once divided.
The French historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson once wrote of the
German concept Dasein, and said it means merely “it is there”, so that
thing, and the being of the thing, could be held apart by a kind of
restraining order, a disciplinary frame, of time and space, so to speak.
The trouble with photography is how disorderly it is as a concept,
since things in photographs are sometimes so inseparable from the form
of the thing within the frame, the being of the thing in the photograph.
It can be really tough to suss out, and that is what Roland Barthes set
out to do, and provided a language for thinking about pictures in
A recent conversation with an intelligent reader of my little
column made it clear that I don’t do a good job of pointing out why
reading a book would help a person taking pictures, and here I can be
clear in saying that I think reading Roland Barthes would help in
gaining clarity about the things in the pictures that a person makes, or
better yet, the being of the things that are in the pictures, that a
person makes. But I think this means more than taking good pictures.
The most famous part of Camera Lucida is the so-called “winter garden”
segment, where Barthes describes a photograph of his mother, who
passed-away during the time that he was writing the book. I lost my mom
only a few years ago, only a little while before she was gone, I read
another book by Barthes, called ‘Mourning Diary”, that he had written at
the time of Camera Lucida. All told, these writings have to do with how
a memory enacts the vision of the world we see around us. The current
edition of Camera Lucida comes with an introductory essay by Geoff Dyer,
who does an excellent job laying the ground for a re-interpretation of
the text. It is my feeling that the goal of reading this book is nothing
less than a greater appreciation for the impermanent fact of living.
Dyer writes that the death of Barthes’ mother was “fortuitous” to the
writing of his text. I understand that, just as much as I understand
that the word choice eclipses the original meaning of fortune as either
good or bad, and finds the neutrality that Barthes himself sought to
The apologia for this feeling is found in what I have always read as the
supreme commentary on Camera Lucida, Susan Sontag’s On Photography.
This book is nothing less than a moral application, and a chastisement
of the practice of looking at or making pictures, and an application of
implications in Barthes texts. Taken together, my wager is the reader
becomes a better photographer, even if they never take pictures, and so
perhaps, also, become something more than just merely a better