Sunday, 5 May 2013

Roland Barthes

Roland Gérard Barthes (12 November 1915 – 26 March 1980), I read in Wikipedia, was a French literary theoristphilosopherlinguistcritic, and semiotician. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralismsemioticssocial theoryanthropology and post-structuralism.

I have to confess at this point that I had no knowledge of him until my tutor suggested that I read his views on photography.  My starting point was to obtain a copy of his last published book, Camera Lucida.  Quite curiously in the w/c 22/04/2013 OCA Weekender E-bulletin, Sharon Boothroyd refers to Barthes in her discussion  of a TAoP student's work.  I will refer later to this in its place in my thoughts on Barthes and his views, and by implication the collective views of the "photographic academia".

This is by no means an easy book to read!  With perseverance, and use of a dictionary, I managed to make my way through it.  My thoughts on this work are expressed below and I feel only scratch the surface of an understanding of Barthes’ investigation into photographs.  Having read this book once, I will put it to one side with a view to reading it again in a few months time.  I think my understanding will benefit from this and I will be able to take a more comprehensive view of Barthes’ thoughts, rather than the somewhat superficial expressed below.

Barthes had a long standing interest in photography, but he only considered it in depth in his later years, after the death of his mother.  In one way or another, there is reference to her throughout the book; in some way it could be regarded as though the book is a eulogy to his mother, shaped through a particular photograph, not given to the reader to see, which is of his mother and her brother in “The Winter Garden”.  “The Winter Garden” was the term, Barthes explains, used at the time to describe a conservatory.  There is another photograph which is referred to several times in this work.  It is that of his mother and her husband.  I found it a great pity that these photographs had been omitted from this book as I struggled at times to visualise them from his description.

The title of this book is rather cleverly formed, as Camera Obscura is well known to being used in shaping photography, as it projected an image, whereas a Camera Lucida is a device which was used to assist artists in drawing.  Curiously, I recall having such a device as a child, though what ultimately happened to it I do not know.  In essence this was a device which merged a projection of the subject together with a projection of the paper on which the drawing is being made, allowing the outlines to be drawn more accurately.  As there is considerable light loss, this device is only useful in good sunlight.

The book is devoted into a study of the nature of photographs, their relationships with life and death and also with other art forms such as painting or drawing. To Barthes, the subject of a photograph had to have been real or existed at some point, whereas, to him there is doubt about the reality or truth of a subject, when that subject is depicted as a painting or a drawing.  This is understandable, though the truth of the subject may be different, for example, the date and time of when the photograph is purported or suggested to have been taken, may, in reality, be different.  I have thought about where composites sit in this, however, each element of a composite will have existed and it is only their final placement in the composite which causes an issue as this is where there is a divergence from truth or reality.  There are other examples in contemporary photography which have this divergence from reality, all of which have been manipulated as in composites; should these be counted as a photograph in Barthes’ world?

A photograph depicts that specific moment in time which will not be repeated in life, however  that moment  becomes recurring as it is repeated each time the photograph is viewed.

Barthes opens his book by referring to a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852.  He talks of his amazement that “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor”.  Looking at historical or old photographs, I can relate to this concept and perhaps take it further by suggesting that I can feel being drawn into that time, though not all photographs work in this way.

Early on, Barthes tackles portrait photography, and considers that the subject has 4 states.  In the first place the subject is that who he or she think they are, secondly they are how they want others to think of them, then there is the state of how the photographer thinks of the subject at the time of taking the photograph and finally how the photographer presents the subject when the photograph is exhibited.  I can certainly see this in formal portrait photography, after all how often has one heard the phrase “this is my best side” being said one way or other by your subject.  Thankfully, when dealing with a model, this does not arise so much, however, one could say that, in collaboration with the photographer, the model will change their look through the use of make-up.  The photographer will be viewing the subject, perhaps, more as an object and changing their view through the use of light and pose, certainly creating somebody different to the person conceived of originally by the subject.  Finally we have the way that the use is made of the portrait in the way it is exhibited, whether online or in a gallery, or perhaps in a book or an unframed print.  The permutations nowadays are seemingly endless, but all are designed to lead to that end-point which is how the photographer wants that image to be seen by others.

Barthes moves on here to look at photographs as a whole and in the first instance he uses this photograph by Koen Wessing taken in Nicaragua in 1979.

Koen Wessing:  Nicaragua, 1979
To me this photograph captures that moment with the juxtaposition of the nuns with the three soldiers.  For Barthes, this photograph had a duality where there were two elements which seemingly did not belong to the same world, the nuns and the soldiers.  This leads to the two elements, which run as the main theme through Barthes'  work: studium and punctum.  The studium relates to the photograph as a whole, the range of meanings which can be derived from it and which would lead the observer to study the photograph.  The studium provides a reality which was observed here by Wessing.  In this photograph is the second element, the punctum.  The punctum is that which breaks the studium or, punctuates it.  In this case it is the nuns walking behind the soldiers.  Punctum can be described further as the detail in the photograph.  Barthes refers to a photograph's punctum as "that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)".

Barthes discovers a further category of punctum, which is time. He illustrates this through the photograph taken by Alexander Gardner of Lewis Payne in his cell waiting to be hanged.

Alexander Gardner:  Lewis Payne 1865
This photograph says that death is in the future, and it is this which disturbs the calm of the portrait of a young man.  By the time Barthes saw the photograph, Lewis Payne had been dead for many years.  This causes Barthes to review his thinking about the photographs he is viewing of his mother.  These photographs say that she will die, so the photograph tells both of the future but is also the past.

Sharon Boothroyd refers to Barthes defining photographs as being polysemous and certainly they are, where a punctum exists.  Barthes says that there is no relationship between a studium and punctum and the latter may not always exist.

As I said earlier.  this is not a book which can be understood immediately, there needs to be a period of reflection, though already I feel some of Barthes' thinking occupying my thoughts.  Perhaps that is the punctum to my internal studium.


Wikipedia entry for Roland Barthes

Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes, Pub: Vintage Books

OCA Weekender E-bulletin, Sharon Boothroyd

Annotation by Kasia Houlihan, 2004

No comments:

Post a Comment