Roland Barthes on Photography: The Critical Tradition in Perspective

Roland Barthes on Photography: The Critical Tradition in Perspective

Roland Barthes on Photography: The Critical Tradition in Perspective

Roland Barthes on Photography: The Critical Tradition in Perspective


Nancy Shawcross places Barthes' thought on photography in the context of his developing ideas about semiology, tracking origins, rejections, and departures. She shows Barthes' affinities with and distinction from other theorists of photography such as Baudelaire and Benjamin and examines his thought in the context of postmodern discussions of photography that followed it. Barthes enjoyed a long and shifting relationship with photography, first using it as metaphor, then exploring its use in movies, film stills, political campaigns, and popular photographic essays, and finally confronting it anew upon the death of his mother. Though his last book, Camera Lucida, has enormously influenced the study of visual images in the arts and humanities, this is the first examination in English of Barthes' work on the visual arts. Shawcross brings together and analyzes for the first time - in any language - all of Barthes' writings, both direct and indirect, about visual media in their many forms.


If we were to choose a photographer to have been at Golgotha, or walking the streets of Rome during the sacking, who would it be? Numerous photographers have been trained to get the picture, and many leave their mark on the picture they get. For that moment of history, or any other, I would personally prefer that the photograph was stamped Photographer Unknown. This would assure me, rightly or wrongly, that I was seeing a fragment of life, a moment of time, as it was. The photographer who has no hand to hide will conceal it with the least difficulty. Rather than admiration for work well done, I will feel the awe of revelation. The lost found, the irretrievable retrieved.

Wright Morris, In Our Image

Until his untimely death in 1980, Roland Barthes's professional writing career spanned more than three decades. Throughout this time Barthes sporadically offered commentary about the medium of photography. In the 1950s he produced several pieces regarding photography that were later collected in Mythologies, for example, "Photos-Chocs," "Photography and Electoral Appeal," and "The Great Family of Man." In 1961, nineteen years prior to the publication of La chambre claire (Camera Lucida in its English- language translation of 1981), Barthes wrote an essay on photography entitled The Photographic Message." Additional interviews and references in other published works attest to a persistent interest in the photograph. They reveal a development of thought or perspective on the photograph that culminates at first in the attempt to decipher photographic images as signs but which ultimately moves away from such concerns and follows a provocative, albeit highly individualistic, path.

What are Barthes's concerns with regard to the medium of photography? The text of Camera Lucida begins with the appearance that Barthes is unresolved as to whether photography exists and is struggling to understand and systematize its quiddity. In comparison, an essay such as The Photographic Message appears relatively straightforward in its explication of the medium and its import, because it concerns itself, for the most part, with a . . .

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