Cultures of Vision: Images, Media, and the Imaginary

By Ron Burnett | Go to book overview

2 Camera Lucida
Barthes and Photography

Photographs and Images: The Polaroid

"One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor."1

The eyes of the emperor's brother once looked straight into a camera, in this case "manned" by a photographer whose duty it was to take pictures of the rich and powerful. Jerome's eyes had been privileged enough to look into Napoleon's eyes. The photograph as described by Roland Barthes allowed him to establish a relay between Jerome (in the 1850s) and the modern readers of Camera Lucida. This juxtaposition of time and space is at the root of Barthes's meditation on photography in Camera Lucida. Barthes provides us with the social and cultural matrix at the heart of his activities as a viewer and as a cultural analyst. Camera Lucida is part analysis, part theory, a personal examination of the role of photography in Barthes's life, and an homage to Jean-Paul Sartre 's book, The Psychological Imagination.2 An extraordinary number of essays and articles have been written about Camera Lucida and Barthes's work. My purpose here is to interrogate the photographic image in historical and cultural terms. Barthes is a focus, but this chapter is designed to raise a primary distinction between photographs and images. My premise is that this distinction will allow us to more clearly understand the role played by the viewer in the experience and interpretation of images.

One of the aims of the project3 of Camera Lucida is to discover whether there is an interpretive space between image and photograph that will allow for if not encourage new ways of thinking and seeing. Barthes tests many

____________________
1
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, tr. Richard Howard ( New York: Noonday Press, 1981), 3.
2
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Psychological Imagination ( London: Methuen, 1972).
3
The book is far from being the literary exegesis that some commentators have suggested. Its playfulness with regard to form, its lack of commentary on the many photographs to which it refers, and its use of photographs that are not even reproduced, suggest that Barthes was as worried about the "word" as he was about the image.

-32-

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Cultures of Vision: Images, Media, and the Imaginary
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • 1 - Images and Vision 1
  • 2 - Camera Lucida Barthes and Photography 32
  • 3 - From Photograph to Film Textual Analysis 72
  • 4 - Projection 127
  • 5 - Reinventing the Electronic Image 218
  • 6 - Postmodern Media Communities 278
  • Bibliography 337
  • Index 349
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