Reading ‘Camera Lucida’

Beginning a new project, of which will delve deeper into memory and photography, I have been recommended a book by Roland Barthes. At first I found the writing style highly personal (and a wholly hard read!), but as the pages turned I grew used to the technical terminology with my dictionary to hand.

Camera Lucida is a short book, containing 48 chapters, split into two parts. The first part discusses how one may be drawn to certain photographs. He uses the term puncum meaning a point of interest or to quote from the book;

“Punctum is also; sting, speck, cut, little hole and also cast of dice.” (chapter 10, page 27)

He also uses studium, meaning a kind of general interest in a photograph which makes one pause briefly and eventually the noeme of which means simply “That-has-been”.

In part one of this book he looks at photographs (always black and white, always containing a subject) and debates in length about how he is personally attracted to certain photographs and attempts to theorise and give reason for this attraction. He states that one must close their eyes to really ‘see’ the photograph and that it is only after he can no longer see the photograph that the punctum comes into play.

“Nothing surprising, then, despite it’s clarity, the punctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it.”

The book is set out logically, stripping photographs down to the formalities in the first section, and in the second (the part that made more sense to me) refers to (as he puts it) the vertigo of finding the true person in the photograph.

Part two is a great deal about the recent death of his mother, and his search for her in his photograph collection of which he finds the one photograph that was truly her, without being a mere copy of her formality. He explains how his memories of her became increasingly distorted and broken over time, as if the photographs were replacing what memories he had. He delights when he finds a photograph of her when she was 5 years old stood in a ‘Winter Garden’ with her brother, of which he exclaimed “That’s her!” (during his Mothers latter years, he had looked after her as if she were his child – this may be why he saw her true being in this photograph)

From the discovery of the Winter Garden Photograph, it dawned on him a new emotional factor that linked him to his photograph. Following on from the first devices of punctum and studium, he now felt the ‘vertigo’ of realising the picture that was taken is completely truthful. The light had once reflected from his mothers hair, face, hands and dress to the lens and onto the paper. It was real.

It was this ‘vertigo’ that he speaks of that I feel I can really relate to. I also felt this rush when searching through my Grandmothers box. An almost imploding feeling, a realisation that I am looking at my Grandmothers history and in essence my own. Barthes visits this subject in Camera Lucida, he looks at the work of Alexander Gardner and his portrait of Lewis Payne – sentenced to death through his attempted assassination of secretary of state WH Seward in 1865. He describes feeling this ‘vertigo’ when looking at the photograph. As the Observer, and through knowledge of history Bathes knew that Payne would have died shortly after the photograph was taken.

This made him conclude with the noeme or the ‘That-has-been’. For it was the ‘That-has-been’ that attracted him to the Winter Garden Photograph of his mother.

Overall, I felt that Roland Barthes put words to what I had been feeling in my past project, when looking at my Grandmothers photographs. Camera Lucida has enabled me to understand the technicalities behind my own work and the way I should be ‘seeing’ others work. It has also helped me to understand the meaning behind what I have been doing and has inspired me into forming a new project of which I will call ‘Vertigo’. The feelings that come when I myself look at family photographs.


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