Photography Degree Zero: Cultural History of the Polaroid Image

By Buse, Peter | New Formations, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Photography Degree Zero: Cultural History of the Polaroid Image


Buse, Peter, New Formations


In contemporary writing on photography, there is probably no text whose value and importance is as taken for granted as Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. So great is its reach and influence that it is cited approvingly both in popular non-academic books on photography and in the densest of critical works, as well as enjoying a privileged position in writing on mourning and memory, where the author's grief over his mother's death has found many admirers and imitators. It is slightly odd to find Barthes, the scourge of all doxa, so universally appreciated. It is also easy to forget that this was by no means always the case. Although it made a full recovery, Camera Lucida was initially greeted by a flurry of detractors from a politicised segment of AngloAmerican photography theorists who excoriated the book for its ontological essentialism, or lamented its sentimentality and apparent humanist deviation. (1) Indeed, the force of the reaction it originally elicited gives a good sense of the challenge that it posed to thinking on the photographic. Once a necessary shock to the orthodoxies of semiotic or historicist analysis of photography, it has now become so orthodox that its inclusion, extracted, in anthologies, is inevitable, and it is even considered hors categorie, as, for instance, in The Photography Reader, where it takes pride of place as the inaugurating piece, out of chronological order. (2)

Without returning to the polemics of the early detractors, or denying the immense force of Camera Lucida, it might be worth asking whether its canonical status is not in fact symptomatic of an impasse within a certain version of photography criticism found in cultural studies. Do we really need another contribution to the melancholic consensus that so dominates the analysis of photography, or another article that notes the absence or presence of the supposed studium or punctum in this photograph or that? Slavish fidelity to Barthes' great last book ultimately cuts off a number of potentially fruitful paths of investigation. For instance, near the start of Camera Lucida, Barthes expresses a devastating general dissatisfaction with books on photography, which he says always seem to miss their object: 'Some are technical; in order to "see" the photographic signifier, they are obliged to focus at very close range. Others are historical or sociological; in order to observe the total phenomenon of the Photograph, these are obliged to focus at great distance'. (3) Free from the burden of footnotes, Barthes does not give examples of the sort of texts he means, but it would not be difficult to provide a few on his behalf. At one end of the spectrum of writings on photography, then, we might imagine an account of the improvements in shutter technology from 1955 to 1965 or Ansel Adams outlining the Zone system; at the other perhaps books like Gisele Freund's Photography and Society (1974) or Pierre Bourdieu's Photography: A Middle Brow Art (1965), or even Susan Sontag's On Photography (1977). Neither approach is able to consider the Photograph in itself, which is what concerns Barthes. And yet, is the choice we are faced with when analysing photography really so starkly either/or? What if these two supposedly opposed poles were in fact taken together? Could it not be asked in what ways changes at the 'close range' of the 'technical' are implicated in the 'great distance' of the 'historical and sociological'? That is, what is the cultural significance of technological change in the process of image-making and to what extent do 'media determine our situation' (4) or vice-versa? It is these kinds of questions that animate virtually all the work of Barthes' compatriot Paul Virilio, as well as the German techno-materialist Friedrich Kittler, but perhaps the finest exemplar of this sort of inquiry applied to photography is Walter Benjamin's 'Little History of Photography', where developments in photographic technology are understood dialectically in relation to the social and cultural field. …

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