Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography



Barthes ‘wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was “in itself,” by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images.


What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.


The Photograph is never anything but an antiphon of “Look,” “See,” “Here it is”; it points a finger at certain vis-á-vis, and cannot escape this pure deictic language.

A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent (as is the case for every other image, encumbered – from the start, and because of its status – by the way in which the object is simulated): it is not possible to perceive the photographic signifier (certain professionals do do), but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or reflection.


The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both.

Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. In short, the referent adheres. And this singular adherence makes it very difficult to focus on photography.


[Barthes questions:] What does my body know of photography?


It seemed to me that the Spectator’s Photograph descended essentially, so to speak, from the chemical revelation of the object […], and that the Operator’s Photograph, on the contrary, was linked to the vision framed by the keyhole of the camera obscura.


[…] the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a microvision of death (of parenthesis) : I am truly becoming a spectre.


I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking; they are only “images,” their mode of appearance is heterogeneous.


[Barthes says] it was necessary to take a look for himself [in order to explore] the impulses of an overready subjectivity,  inadequate as soon as articulated: I like / I don’t like […]


So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation. The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in “lifelike” photographs), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure.

back to p.19

[Barthes originally calls this attraction] advenience or even adventure [saying] This picture advenes, that one doesn’t. The principle of adventure allows me to make photography exist. Conversely, without adventure, no photograph.


[Barthes discusses various creative photographic techniques to shock or stimulate viewers and how they are inadequate  and do not produce a punctum – much like Benjamin in A Short History… speaks disparagingly of creative photography…]


In order to perceive the punctum, no analysis would be of any use to me (but perhaps memory sometimes would)


However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion.

This power is often metonymic.


Certain details may “prick” me. If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally.

Perhaps, as Barthes himself points out, ‘I imagine (as this is all I can do, since I am not a photographer)’ [p.32] it is his lack of knowledge of the Operator that leads him to make assumptions about the content of a photograph and to conclude that the punctum is not something the photographer intended. (Olin) Barthes goes on to revise his statement:

Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; […] [my emphasis]

I recognise, with my whole body, the straggling villages I passed through on my long ago travels in Hungary and Romania […]


I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own.


Nothing surprising, then, if sometimes, despite  its 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. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect, the punctum.

[…] however immediate and incisive it was, the punctum could accommodate a certain latency (but never any scrutiny).

Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes.


Absolute subjectivity is achieved only in a state, an effort, of silence (shutting your eyes is to make the image speak in silence). The photograph touches me if I withdraw from its usual blah-blah: “Technique,” “Reality,” “Reportage,” “Art,” etc.: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.

Whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.

Do I add to the image in movies? I don’t think so; I don’t have time: in front of the screen, I am not free to shut my eyes; otherwise, opening them again, I would not discover the same image; I am constrained to a continuous voracity; a host of other qualities, but not pensiveness; whence the interest, for me, of the photogram.

Yet the cinema has a power which at first glance the Photograph does not have: the screen […] is not a frame but a hideout; the man or woman who emerges from it continues living: a “blind field” constantly doubles our partial vision.


Now, confronting millions of photographs, including those who have a good studium, I sense no blind field: everything which happens within the frame dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond.

When we define the photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies. Yet once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is divined) […]


(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your stadium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.)

[…] besides how opposed I am to that scientific way of treating the family as if it were uniquely a fabric of constraints and rites: either we code it as a group of immediate allegiances or else we make it into a knot of conflicts and repressions. As if our experts cannot conceive that there are families “whose members love one another.”




What matters to me is not the photograph’s “life” (a purely ideological notion) but the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its own rays and not with a super-added light.


Every photograph is a certificate of presence.

Perhaps we have an invincible resistance to believing in the past, in History, except in the form of myth. The Photograph, for the first time, puts an end to this resistance: henceforth the past is as certain as the present, what we see on paper is as certain as what we touch.


To ask whether a photograph is analogicalor coded is not a good means of analysis. The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.


In the cinema, whose raw material is photographic, the image does not, however, have this completeness […] because the photograph, taken in flux, is impelled, ceaselessly drawn around other views; in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favor (sic) of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a spectre.


[on cinema] (what is it then? – it is, then, simply “normal,” like life). Motionless, the photograph flows back from presentation to retention.

[on the Winter Garden Photograph]

I cannot place it in a ritual (on my desk, in an album) unless, somehow, I avoid looking at it (or avoid its looking at me), deliberately disappointing its unendurable plenitude and, by my very inattention, attaching it to an entirely different class of fetishes: the icons which are kissed in the Greek churches without being seen – on their shiny glass surface.


That the Photograph is “modern,” mingled with our noisiest everyday life, does not keep it from having an enigmatic point of inactuality, a strange stasis, the stasis of an arrest.

Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.

The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed.


For Death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.

Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.


[on the photograph:] Not only does it commonly have the fate of paper (perishable), but even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment, then ages… Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there  is nothing left to do but throw it away.

Early societies managed so that memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke Death should itself be immortal: this was the Monument.

A paradox: the same century invented History and Photography. But History is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and the Photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony; so that everything, today, prepares our race for this impotence: to be no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically: the age of the Photograph is also the age of revolutions, assassinations, explosions, in short, of impatiences, of everything which denies ripening.


And no doubt, the astonishment of the “that-has-been” will also disappear. It has already disappeared: I am, I don’t know why, one of its last witnesses (a witness of the Inactual), and this book is its archaic trace.

In front of the only photograph in which I find my father and mother together, this couple who I know loved each other, I realize: it is love-as-treasure which is going to disappear forever; for once I am gone, no one will be able to testify as this: nothing will remain but an indifferent Nature.


This new punctum which is no longer of form, but of intensity, in Time, the lacerating emphasis on the noeme (“that-has-been”), its pure representation.

This punctum, more or less blurred beneath the abundance and the disparity of contemporary photographs, is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die.


It is because each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death that each one, however attached it seems to be to the exciting world of the living, challenges each of us, one by one, outside of the generality (but not outside of any transcendence).

The reading of public photographs is always, at bottom, a private reading. This is obvious for old (“historical”) photographs, in which I read a period contemporary with my youth, or with my mother, or beyond, with my grandmother, and into which I project a troubling being, that of the lineage of which I am the final term.


But this is also true of the photographs which at first glance appear to have no link, even a metonymic one, with my existence (for instance, all journalistic photographs).

Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds rather precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumed as such, publicly.

I experience the Photograph and the world in which it participates according to two regions: on one side the Images, on the other, my photographs; on one side, unconcern, shifting, noise, the inessential (even if  I am abusively deafened by it), on the other, the burning, the wounded.

(Usually the amateur is defined as an immature state of the artist: someone who cannot – or will not – achieve the mastery of the profession. But in the field of photographic practice, it is the amateur, on the contrary, who is the assumption of the professional: for it he who stands closer to the noeme of Photography)


[…] as spectator: I decompose, I enlarge, and, so to speak, I retard, in order to have time to know at last. The Photograph justifes this desire even if it does not satisfy it: I can have the fond hope of discovering truth only because Photography’s noeme is precisely that-has-been, and because I live in the illusion that it suffices to clean the surface of the image in order to accede to what is behind: to scrutinize means to turn the photograph over, to enter into the paper’s depth, to reach its other side (What is hidden is for us Westerners more “true” than what is visible).

Alas, however hard I look, I discover nothing: if I enlarge I see nothing but the grain of the paper: I undo the image for the sake of its substance; and if I do not enlarge, if I content myself with scrutinizing, I obtain this sole knowledge, long since possessed at first glance: that this indeed has been: the turn of the screw has produced nothing.


All I look like is other photographs of myself, and this to infinity: no one is ever anything but the copy of a copy, real or mental.


Likeness leaves me unsatisfied and somehow sceptical (certainly this is the sad disappointment I experience looking at the ordinary photographs of my mother – whereas the only one which has given me the splendor (sic) of her truth is precisely a lost, remote photograph, one which does not look “like” her, the photograph of a child I never knew).




[Barthes concludes] I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the Photograph. I can only sweep it with my glance, like a smooth surface.


[The air]


One might say that the Photograph separates attention from perception, and yields up only the former, even if it is impossible without the latter; this is the abherrant thing, noesis without noeme, an action of thought without thought.


Now, in the Photograph, what  I posit is not only the absence of the object; it is also, by one and the same movement, on equal terms, the fact that this object has indeed existed and that it has been there where I see it.

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