Camera Lucida – Roland Barthes

Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.

I have been reading this book on my recent commutes by train to Leeds (1 hr 40 mins each way, so plenty of time to become engrossed).  It is a thin volume containing a surprising amount of detail. The reading requires concentration in parts due to Barthes flowery style and the obvious translation from French. Barthes was a philosopher and essayist, not a photographer, therefore his book focuses mainly on the ‘Photograph’.

The main topic of the book focuses on what makes a photograph memorable, stemming from his Mother’s death and his attempt to find a ‘true likeness’ of her while searching through the family photographs. He notes that the search is difficult because he cannot separate out the like/dislike element of many images and so he concentrates purely on those photographs that move him. He says that an appealing image is based on the Studium – a combination of attractive composition and subject matter along with its history and social meaning. These images may appeal but they don’t linger in our memories.  The Punctum, on the other hand, Barthes says “is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”  It is the detail which separates the everyday image from the memorable one. He suggests punctum is what makes a specific image resonate, it is emotive, it has a personal connection. I referred to punctum in this image for my assignment Patterdale. The assignment was based on me re-visiting my Mum’s past by walking through the grounds of the hall where she and her family had arrived as refugees in 1940.


This image is punctuated by a hole, a prick, a highlighted area, but for me it is about that sudden gush of recall, recounting the fear of danger, hiding. I am now my Mum, an alien in a new country, peering through at the figures with apprehension, not knowing whether I have been observed. Am I safe? Are they friend or foe? The feeling is visceral, overwhelming and I move away quickly.

Barthes goes on to describe his desperate search for a likeness of his mother, one that he recognises showing how he remembers her. Eventually he does find a photograph of her, of when she was five years old. He calls it the Winter Garden Photograph. He says, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture….for you, no wound”. For Barthes the image reveals her true personality, rather than the many other posed portrait images.

In the book Barthes  suggests that, in his experience, photographic portraits often lack authenticity and become a play act, a masquerade. He sees this as being a result of the four different narratives that take place when someone takes a photograph of someone else. He offers this; “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art”. In the present day trend of ‘Selfies’, I ponder whether Barthes’ theory can still apply, as the latter two narratives do not take place. I do believe that even with Selfies the subject in the image is still a masquerade, the subject is posing for the camera.

Barthes then discusses his claim that a photograph can represent death, that it portrays a doorway to the past and at the same time it is an indication of what will happen in the future, i.e. everybody dies! I didn’t focus too much on the death aspect of his writings as I found it quite odd and morbid.

To conclude, I have to say that I enjoyed the book, it was an easier read than I first thought it would be. Although I have to say that my dictionary did not leave my side! At times it felt like I was reading fiction – his account of  “searching for his Mother” was very moving and personal, if not a little melodramatic. His thoughts on studium and punctum are thought-provoking and relevant, I am now mindful of this with my own photography.

Barthes, R. (1993). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Vintage Classics. Penguin, Random House. London.