Race and Reproduction in Camera Lucida


Smith, Shawn Michelle. ‘Race and Reproduction in Camera Lucida’ Photography:Theoretical Snapshots ed. by Long, J.J., Nobel, Andrea, and Welch, Edward (Oxon: Routledge, 2009) pp.98-111


A close reading of [Camera Lucida] discovers that many of Barthes’s most important and influential insights are informed by complicated, and sometimes vexing, personal-political inclinations. Indeed, Barthes’s very conception of photography is laden with anxieties about race and reproduction.


The punctum is the trace that launches Barthes ‘beyond’ the ‘that has been’ of the photograph, beyond the photograph’s referential denotation, and into his own experience.

[On the VanDerZee group portrait photograph]

Barthes’s studium description of the image is notably condescending: he states that the photograph ‘utters respectability, family life, conformism, Sunday best, an effort of social advancement in order to assume the White Man’s attributes (an effort touching by reason of its naïveté)’ Barthes’s explanation of the studium is laden with a paternal racism that readers are asked to ignore in pursuit of that which really interests Barthes – the punctum.

He calls upon the studium as if it is apparent, transparent, as if this lovely formal portrait could not be read in any other way, as if all readers would share Barthes’s bemused reaction to to the image and its subjects.

Barthes’s text asks readers to view this racist paternalism as natural, or beside the point, rather than a culturally codified part of the studium to be put under examination.


[discussion of Barthes’s mis-identification of the punctum in the photograph]


Surely, Barthes’s failure to remember precisely the attributes of a piece of jewellery is a slight offense; it is, however, indicative of a much more fundamental interpretive slippage, whereby personal connotation can efface representational denotational through the mechanism of the punctum.

It is not so much the erasure of a pearl necklace for a gold one that is disturbing, but the effacement of an African American woman under the sign of Barthes’s aunt. One is left to wonder whether this erasure, effected by the punctum, is in part a result of the studium, of a racist paternalism that disregards an African American woman’s self-representation as trite.


While Barthes’s musings are compelling for all who are interested in Barthes, they are nevertheless of little use in reading this image in its historical specificity.

In Barthes’s punctum response to the VanDerZee photograph, he effaces those who have been for a personal memory (of another who has been), obscuring the indexicality of the photograph with a memory that might have been evoked by any other sign system.

In making himself (and his memories) the measure of photographic meaning, Barthes obfuscates the presence of other historical subjects, and in so doing, disregards his most compelling claims about photography as a unique sign systems – the evocative, provoking presence, or present-absence, of those represented on photographic film.

It would seem that the racism registered in his studium response enables Barthes to devalue those who have been, subsuming them under himself, under his own personal history, under the inadequate prick of the punctum.

[On Avedon’s portrait of William Casby, ‘born a slave’]

In Barthes’s reading, the portrait of William Casby enters the realm of meaning as it comes to signify ‘slave’, and ceases to register a singular face.

Barthes then uses the objectification of Casby to comment on the nature of photographic meaning; photographs become readable through a similar process of abstraction and categorization. The photograph enters meaning as its specific subject is transformed into a cultural object.

[When Barthes muses about being photographed himself, he concludes by] Resisting such objectification, Barthes proclaims: ‘It is my political right to be a subject which I must protect’. The political right of subjecthood is, of course, precisely that which is denied to the enslaved individual; he or she is not legally recognized as a subject, but as an object.

Maintaining his own political right to be a subject, Barthes collapses William Casby into the category of the photographed that signifies slave.


[On the photograph of the slave-market that Barthes recalls]

For the photograph not only testifies to the existence of slavery, it also touches Barthes; in his imagination, Barthes shares a skin with the enslaved men and woman. In this provocatively shared corporeality, Barthes’s own position as a free, white, self-possessed European viewer is unsettled, for his ‘shared skin’ metonymically links him with slavery, blackness, and objectification under a white gaze.

The ‘shared skin’ that links Barthes to enslaved people must unsettle his own sense of (political) self-possession, reminding him of that which he refuses, namely his own potential to be objectified.


[On the missing Winter Garden photograph]

The photographic evidence is obscured, indeed replaced, by his reading. There is no chance for the represented to stand and meet the gaze of others, and there is no opportunity for another viewer to be authorized. Denied one’s own response to the image, ultimately one can only respond to Barthes himself.

[His mother] was there to be observed only, and in the case of the Winter Garden Photograph, to be observed only by Barthes.

If the photograph is the conduit for the umbilical cord of light, exactly who stands in the place of the mother in this relationship, the viewer or the viewed?


Barthes, the gay male intellectual without children, is linked through his mother, by becoming his mother’s mother, to what he dems the universal; he transcends himself, his particularity, his death, by momentarily creating a child (his mother).

[…] writing provides an escape from the body that dies or fails or refuses to procreate; writing enables the proliferation and expansion of the self beyond the awkward limitation and finality of the body.

[As in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, for Barthes] photographs represent the domain of the discrete, autobiographical ultimately unproductive self, while writing represents the domain of the self liberated from its private definitions, and made productive.

The photograph adheres one to a body, the written text only to an abstract signifier.


The very things that must be superceded by writing in order to liberate the productive self in Barthes’s autobiography – the image-repertoire and the mother’s body – actually become the source of a procreative impulse and power in Camera Lucida.

Photography becomes, as it were, a doubly reproductive medium: as light becomes a carnal medium, mechanical reproduction serves as a kind of surrogate for sexual reproduction.

If every photograph refers to Barthes, if he becomes the subject of every photograph, then the images also reproduce him, they become his reproductions, his generative offspring.


[returning to the VanDerZee photograph, and specifically to the standing woman, Estelle Osterhout] [Barthes] describes this woman as ‘the “solacing Mammy”‘ and thus, once again, his punctum response is informed by a specific studium training; the African American woman becomes ‘Mammy’ only through the lens of a racialised and gendered class system. Subsuming the woman of colour under the white fantasy of the ‘Mammy’, Barthes symbolically harness her procreative energies to raising a white brood, affacing her own potentially reproductive role as mother.

Deeming his aunt an ‘old maid’, Barthes would seem to denigrate her for failing in her procreative role. And yet, this aunt’s ‘dreary life’, mirrors quite closely Barthes’s own.

Through a signifying slippage, VanDerZee’s aunt recalls Barthes’s aunt, who finally recalls Barthes himeslf. What Barthes sees in this image, in the woman who stands behind and to the left of her relatives, slightly in the shadows, is an image of his own aunt, and ultimately of himself – an image of the one who stands to the side of the family narrative. Barthes is never really the mother of all photographs, but always the aunt.


Ultimately, then, the photograph insists on its referent. However much the punctum may launch one beyond the photograph’s subject, that subject’s temporal presence cannot be denied.

Perceiving that presence engulfs the viewer in a kind of madness, for the ‘effigy’, the person photographed, must live, the representation must be real, the absent must be present.

It is this madness that releases him from the solipsism effected, in part, by the racism registered in the studium. Choosing to recognise the radical presence of photographed subjects, Barthes can no longer subsume them under the sign of himself.


[Finally] Barthes offers a different model of the possible relationship between viewer and viewed. Entering in to a photograph, one might embrace its subject, allowing one’s self  to be touched, without demanding reference or representation.

The that-has-been might be allowed to coexist with the punctum.

This model of photographic engagement acknowledges the that-has-been much more powerfully than mere studium recognition. It maintains the urgency and intensity of the response accorded by the punctum, without allowing the viewer’s own stories to overwhelm the subject photographed.

Barthes’s personal exploration of photographs demands, in part, a personal response – one I can now undertake with some trepidation.

[Smith enters into a personal response to a photograph of Barthes, ‘as one aunt reflecting on another’]

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