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Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography Paperback – May 1, 1982
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Frequently as I read through the brief, but provocative, Camera Lucida I would turn to the author photograph of Barthes on the back of the book. The further I got into Barthes' book the more I wondered just what he would have thought of the photo of himself. You see, in the pages of Camera Lucida Barthes explains how he sees most portraits as mere images that are far separated from the true identity, much less the soul, of the subject. And so I wondered, did Barthes ever see this portrait of himself? Was he the one who chose it for the back cover? Are the subtleties of this photograph effects Barthes consciously created as he posed for the camera?
These questions that arouse in my mind went to the heart of, indeed were a product of my reading of, Camera Lucida. In this book Barthes explores the nature of photography, what sets it apart from other arts, what are its benefits, its liabilities. He also wonders what exactly a photograph is, what that cold image on paper truly captures.
The book opens with Barthes wondering what is that one thing that a photograph, out of all other forms of art, possesses. While contemplating this he also muses that a photograph is forever linked to the object of which it is taken. That is to say that a photograph of a girl is always linked to that girl whereas a painting of a girl might very well be the construction of the author's mind and have no real world analog. Barthes does well to open with these two thoughts because they become the central insights on which he hangs the rest of his theories.
Barthes is also concerned with how a photograph can exist, that is to say how it can become more than simply a sign pointing as a real world object, how it can come to embody that object on its own, how it can achieve, in a word, transparency. He sees photographs as dead objects, indeed at times is obsessed with this Death that he claims photographs confer on their subjects. It seems that somewhere inside Barthes is a desire to discover photographs that are not shadowed by Death; this is the transparent photograph he seeks.
As Barthes investigates these theoretical propositions he beautifully blends blend cold theory and personal reflection. For instance, when Barthes recounts his experiences as the camera's subject, and we discover a shy, even vulnerable personality. Similarly Barthes evokes tender feelings when he recounts the touching effects of discovering what he believes to be the one true photograph of his mother. In Camera Lucida we see that the author is a man for whom ideas are not theoretical abstractions, but deeply felt concerns whose resolution is central to his well being. This organic blend of personal and professional reflection makes Camera Lucida a work of much intellect and much beauty.
Camera Lucida is a slim book that carries a great deal of weight. It is a book that is highly recommended to anyone who is concerned with what separates a good photograph from a great one, as Barthes points a way past the proliferation of mediocre photographs to the truly great ones.
subject of "photography" is incidental; instead, individual photos dominate. Camera Lucida is a
book about loss & grief, mortality, and love. It
is highly elliptical and idiosyncratic ("rambling"
to some), beautiful and deeply moving. It's the one great thing I got out of English grad school.
attempts to understand the essential meaning of photographs and
to uncover what it is that a
photograph captures. Barthes cites a number of examples and he
makes his search for meaning very personal when he
discusses in detail his search for, and his
understanding of, the photograph which
captures the essential spirit of "his mother" for him. The book
has tedious passages, but does capture some of what transpires
when one finds a photograph which appeals. Camera
Lucida will be of interest to photographers who care about their
craft. For them, the book speaks in words about something
they probably already have an implicit understanding of.
People who take only casual
notice of photographs will likely be bored in reading Camera Lucida, and may never
finish the book. (The book was written before the computer
and digital revolution. Thus, a bit of the content is
dated by the manipulation of images which that
revolution has enabled.)