Camera Lucida and a tale of two mothers

Sigfrid Lundberg's Stuff 2014-11-08

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By Sigfrid Lundberg, on Flickr

The ubiquitous photographers tried to capture whatever decisive moments they could experience outside Tivoli, Copenhagen, May 2012.

Camera Lucida is Roland Barthes' thoughts about photographs and our memories. In particular the photographs he had of his mother after her death 1977. The book was published 1980.

It is just 120 pages, a short book. In chapter 47 (out of 48 brief texts) he concludes:

The noeme [i.e., the essence] of photography is simple, banal; no depth: ‘That has been.’ I know our critics: What, a whole book (even a short one) to discover something I knew at first glance?

Barthes is trying to pinpoint the essence of the photograph, not necessarily the essence of photography. He arrives at the conclusion that a photograph is basically an indication that its subject has existed and the photographer was there to see it. All those people who take photographs everywhere basically tells everyone that they've been there and they have seen it whatever that was.

I think that he is basically correct. Most photographs taken are snaps, and the popularity of Instagram and Snapchat are further proof of that. In the very last chapter he says something really surprising:

Photography can in fact be an art: when there is no longer any madness in it, when its noeme is forgotten and when consequently its essence no longer acts on me
Lewis Powell (conspirator)
Lewis Powell (conspirator)

Lewis Powell, portrait by Alexander Gardner from 1865. Roland Barthes' caption under this photograph reads: He is dead, and he is going to die. We look into the eyes of a young handsome man, awaiting his execution. It is a defiant gaze though. Filled with arrogance he is looking over your right shoulder.

Basically, Roland Barthes seem to say that art photography is boring. That is a very sweeping conclusion, and an extremely subjective one. The artsy photo is pure studium, not punctum. The former means that the cognitive effect of an image is that one looks at it and perhaps learns something from it, whereas the punctum implies an area which pricks, or triggers a minor shock or surprise.

Arthur Koestler (1964) worked on a unified theory of human creativity. One of his points is somehow related to Barthes' dichotomy. Koestler proposes that human creativity has three domains named after their cognitive effects, haha, aha and ah. They correspond to creativity within humour, discovery and the arts, respectively. Put another way: These are the three ways anything can be awesome. There are hardly any other ways, if you ask me.

Following Barthes' ways of reasoning, I'd say that it is obvious that punctum could contain elements of haha or aha or both. Just by the sound of it, I feel that an ah is more related to the sublime; the great or the beautiful. Something Barthes would regard, at its best, as a good studium. I doubt that Barthes would voluntarily place a punctum into a one of Alfred Stieglitz' nudes of Georgia O'Keeffe or any Ansel Adams' landscapes.

My mother teaches me riding my bike
My mother teaches me riding my bike

I believe my mother taught me to ride my bike 1962. I was six years old then. At the time I had grey trousers and suspenders, and I had some hair that stood on end and defied any attempt to tame it with a comb. The bicycle was green, and I loved it in spite of the fact that it was a little bit too high. To me the punctum is the perfect shadow.

Barthes concludes, in chapter 23:

Last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.

Hence the photographer must do something interesting, or there won't be any punctum, but it is the viewer that put it into place in the image. The punctum is in the eyes of the beholder.

There are a quite a few interesting image examples in Barthes' book, like the portraits by Richard Avedon of William Casby (Born a slave from 1963) and by Alexander Gardner of Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Payne) from 1865. Apart from the fact both are very high quality portraits, there is an interesting connection between them. Powell attempted to murder US Secretary of State William H. Seward. He was one of four conspirators hanged for participation in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This was after the end of that civil war which gave the freedom to Casby.

You know that Powell is dead, and you know that he knew that he was going to die, perhaps that same day the photo was taken. This fact alone makes me place a punctum on his hands with the handcuffs and another on his eyes. It is me that place it, but it was Gardner who made it possible.

Is the portrait of Powell interesting on its own right? Is his attitude, posture and handcuffs enough? He is waiting for the gallow. We are all curious about the end of the story. Somehow he knew something rest of us don't. Not yet.

R0015684_v3 by Sigfrid Lundberg, on Flickr

A mother's hands. The very same hands that held me when I learned to ride my bike. My mother died two years ago, at 99 years and six months of age. I came an hour and a half too late, and could only say farewell after she had gone.

Perhaps one third of Camera Lucida is about Roland Barthes mother, and his quest for a photo that could carry his memories of her. He should recognize her essential identity, the genius of the beloved face.

He goes into some detail on how he searched for a nice photo of that face. At last he found one, a photo of her as a five year old child where she is standing together with her brother on a wooden bridge in a conservatory, a winter garden. He then writes:

I had understood that henceforth I must interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call life and death.

Then he adds that just couldn't reproduce the winter garden photo. It was too personal, and no one else would be able to place a punctum in it. Camera Lucida was Barthes last book. He died himself a few weeks after its publication from injuries sustained from being run over by a laundry van (Dillon, 2011).

A morning
A morning

A beloved's face a morning in July 2014.

For me it was impossible to read Camera Lucida without thinking about mother, my own mother. We came to her a few hours after her death, and the nurses had arranged her nicely. Everything was calm. Her hands clasped over a book of psalms and a bouquet of Pinocchio roses from her garden.

The photograph should be more interesting or more beautiful than what was photographed said Garry Winogrand (Diamonstein, 1982) in an interview a year or so after Barthes death. The interview is entirely unrelated to Barthes, but isn't Winogrand's thinking still similar to Barthes' punctum? If so, isn't it the same as saying that the photo is in one of Koestler's creative domains?


Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida. Vintage UK, Random House UK. London 2000.

Diamonstein, Barbara, 1981–1982. Visions and Images: American Photographers on Photography. Interviews with photographers. Rizoli: New York

Dillon, Brian, 2011.Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, The Guardian

Koestler, Arthur, 1980. The Art of Discovery and the Discoveries of Art. In: Bricks to Babel. Hutchinson & Company (Publishers) Ltd. London 1980. Reprinted from Arthur Koestler, 1964. The Act of Creation.


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My name is Sigfrid Lundberg. The stuff I publish here may, or may not, be of interest for anyone else.

On this site there is material on photography, music, literature and other stuff I enjoy in life. However, most of it is related to my profession as an Internet programmer and software developer within the area of digital libraries. I have been that at the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen (Denmark) and, before that, Lund university library (Sweden).

The content here does not reflect the views of my employers. They are now all past employers, since I retired 1 May 2023.

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