The Question of Photographic Meaning in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

By Levy, Liar | Philosophy Today, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Question of Photographic Meaning in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida


Levy, Liar, Philosophy Today


This essay explores Ronald Barthes' thoughts on photography by constructing a narrative of development in his thought that reaches its peak in his last book, Camera Lucida. I claim that Barthes' engagement with photography revolves around the desire to develop a new kind of sight, a sensitive one, which penetrates the visible world deeper than our ordinary ways of looking. In Camera Lucida Barthes develops an original view regarding photography's relation to time, albeit a view that has been misinterpreted or simply ignored in philosophical discussions of photography. I interpret Barthes theory of photographic meaning as dealing with the temporal relation that unfolds between the photograph, the photographed object and the spectator and claim that it offers an insight not only into the meaning of photographs but also into the uniqueness of our existence, uniqueness that we tend to ignore or forget.

My reading of Barthes opposes the prevalent interpretations of Camera Lucida. Barthes' project is seen as falling into one of two poles - understood either as a personal text about mourning, or as a species of some theoretical genus, i.e., as a psychoanalytic text or a general theory of photography.1 While it is true that Camera Lucida parts from Barthes' earlier structural texts and that in it he does not concentrate on the ways meaning is conveyed in the photograph, he does not abandon meaning as expressible and does not withdraw into a private, "speechless" realm. On the contrary, Camera Lucida, through its repeating and finally successful attempts to articulate the "eidos" of photography, serves as testimony to the desire to share meaning and to articulate it in language that is public and shared.

Photographs pose a unique problem for Barthes: although there is nothing in them but the objects we see, an analysis of photographs on the level of their contents (through iconography and iconology) does not always fully exhaust the meaning we find them. Thus Barthes turns to the experience of looking at arresting photographs to show that the experience cannot be reduced to the photograph's features (it is not located on the level of details) nor can it be the outcome of the spectator's psychological constitution (the network of desires and expectations). In order to articulate the meaning we find in photographs Barthes turns instead to the concrete (an ordinary photograph, one that we find in our photo album) and develops from within it a picture of how meaning unfolds. Moreover, he shows us how our daily engagements as well as our theories conceal this meaning and suggests that the photograph, through its relation to time, can uncover this unique field of meaning. Now the philosophical significance of Barthes' work on photography often remains unexplored since he is considered mainly as a critic. However, I find in his writing, which is not always rigorous in the traditional philosophical sense, a unique conception of meaning: one that emphasizes the concrete as the locus point of meaning and wishes to use it to explore and sustain meaning.

The Language of Photography

Barthes always treated photographs as reproductions of the real. In "The Photographic message" (1961) he claims: "What does the photograph transmit? By definition, the scene itself, the literal reality."2 Later in "Rhetoric of the Image" (1964) he says:

In the photograph ... the relationship of signified to signifiers is not one of 'transformation' but of 'recording' ... the scene is there, captured mechanically, not humanly.'

And finally, he argues in a similar fashion in Cameral Lucida (1980):

By nature, the photograph . . . has something tautological about it: a pipe here is always and intractably a pipe.4

Photographs, unlike paintings, do not allow us to distinguish the picture from the pictured, they are mechanical reproductions of reality and there is no gap between them and the real things they depict. …

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