- Paperback: 119 pages
- Publisher: Hill and Wang; First edition (May 1, 1982)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374521344
- ISBN-13: 978-0809013982
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.3 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 71 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #84,120 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Although the book is ostensibly about Barthes' attempt to work out why he is moved by some photographs and not by others, it soon reveals itself to be a meditation on the absence inherent in photography. Barthes wrote before radical manipulation of the image had become a standard practice in photography, but even if he hadn't it would make no difference, as he is only interested in photographs insofar as they depict something that was there at that particular time, and is now (presumably) gone. He is particularly eloquent on a photograph - deliberately unreproduced here - of his beloved mother, who'd died shortly before he began to write the book. He doesn't even try to elaborate a grand theory of photography; this is unashamedly a book about himself and the loss he has suffered, which he finds echoed and prefigured in the photographs that he holds dear. This being the case, he is able to write as movingly and beautifully about a 19th century photograph of a condemned man ("I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake") as he can about the cherished Winter Garden photograph of his mother (which he doesn't reproduce in the book because, he says with heartbreaking discreetness, "it exists only for me").
Barthes wouldn't feel much at home in the digital age. For all his academic reputation as a whip-cracking avant-gardist, his most powerful and convincing writing is always yearning back to the past. He almost manages to make nostalgia seem not merely respectable but essential. But his generosity prevents him from imposing this point of view on the rest of us. That's what made him a great writer.