Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification’


Olin, Margaret., ‘Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification’ in Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida ed. by Geoffrey Batchen (London: MIT, 2009) 75-89


A photograph enjoys an unusually close relationship to its referent, acording to a widespread theory about the nature of photography. As this theory would have it, the key moment in photography occurs when the shutter opens, allows light into the dark chamber within, and gives lasting representation to whatever is in front of its lens. This view of photography, however characteristically ignores another, equally important moment: the moment of identification.

The moment of identification, unlike that of illumination, does not distinguish photography from other visual images, or even from encounters in the world at large.

At work in any personal exchange identification plays an integral role in the formation of groups. Moreover it is not just identification of a subject that is at stake but, often, identification with it. The personal and social position through which the beholder is looking can bring what she or he sees into focus, or distort it beyond recognition.

[Olin concedes that Camera Lucida is] grounded, ostensibly, in a statement of faith in a photograph’s relation to its referent.


[Olin discusses indexicality and its association with photography]


[Olin discusses Camera Lucida, with reference to indexicality, that-has-been, death]


[Olin discusses Barthes reading of a black family portrait, with reference to his Mythologies, and his statement later of the punctum in this photograph is a certain necklace (which is actually absent from the image).  The necklace he remembers and inserts into this picture belongs to his Aunt Alice.]


Barthes’s mistake may seem like a simple case of missing the forest for the trees. But the detail he felt he needed to search for, was indeed important, if absent. His effort, then, illustrates other highly significant aspects of the punctum: the punctum may be the composition; the punctum may be forgotten; the punctum may be in a different photograph.

The example illuminates an important aspect of memory: the deception at its heart, its ability to embroider and change, to be displaced, when it is “working on” one, like the details in a Freudian dream interpretation. Not just the memory of whatever incident or person the punctum reminds one of, but memory of the photograph, the spur to memory, can itself enact this displacement.

But the mistaken memory opens up the possibility of comprehension.

[Olin concludes that Barthes identified with the photograph of the black family by recognising his own family in them.]


[Olin suggests that there was no Winter Garden Photograph at all. Perhap based on a photograph of Franz Kafka, and a family photograph Barthes reproduces later in the book (La Souche/The stock) ]


[Olin meditates on the fabrication of the Winter Garden Photograph]


The displacement of the punctum leads to another, less personal, meaning of the Winter Garden Photograph that its absence disguises. If the punctum is displaced, like an alibi, then the detail that is not there, the “that-has-been” never was. And neither was the indexical power of the photograph. The fact that something was before the camera when the photograph was taken is no longer unproblematically the source of the photograph’s power.

To raise the possibility that these images do not exist, and to realise how little their existance matters is to cast this founding concept [of  photographic indexicality] into question.

[Olin compares Barthes writing on indexicality and his writing in CL]

The photograph is traced to an originary being in front of the camera and the person is traced to an originary childhood.

A child, no more able than a vegetable to disguise its essence, reveals the “irreducible” just as indexically as the Panzani vegetables reveal their Italianicity. With one difference: the telling details, whose presence before the camera guarrantees the authenticity of the ad, are absent. Essence is not guarranteed.

If the immense powerof the photograph does not come from that which was in front of the camera, it lies elsewhere. To find it, we look into the network of identifications that these photographs establish.


[Olin discusses Barthes’s identifications]

The naive viewer is perhaps everyone when photography enter the delicate sphere of human relations. Relations to people can be as one-sided as relations to photographs. […] One might say that not only do we mis-identify them, we mis-identify with them.

A reading of Camera Lucida suggests that the most significant indexical power of the photograph may lie not in the relation between the photograph and its subject but in the relation between the photograph and its beholder, or user, in what I would like to call a “performative index” or an “index of identification.”

Camera Lucida allows us to see its narrator use photography to satisfy his desire to possess or commune with his mother, to absorb her into himself and preserve her there through his identification with her.

Photography is like a winter garden, like a chambre claire that lets in light in the winter and keeps alive artificially that which should otherwise have died.


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