The Philosophy of a Photograph

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like Camera Lucida.  Although it is a short book, I found I had to read it quite slowly.  It required a good dictionary close at hand.  It required time to ponder; it made me think longer and deeper than most books do.  So, while I don’t wholeheartedly endorse it, I did enjoy the experience of reading it.  When it came time to watch Jane Austen on PBS, I chose to keep reading this book instead.

Roland Barthes’ first three sentences entrapped me.  Oh, how I know those little touches of solitude!

One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napolean’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852.  And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at the eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it. (p.3)

This book is one learned man’s subjective approach to understanding why certain photographs grab him and others don’t. He employs two Latin words: studium and punctum.  The studium is a general, enthusiastic commitment.  It is the part of the photograph that is as it should be, i.e. background, lighting, composition.  The punctum is the detail that breaks the studium: a wound, a prick, a sting, a speck, a cut, a little hole.   This is the “something” which grabs your eye, your mind or your emotion.  He writes as a philosopher, which is to say, he writes about a photograph as a death, a madness, a myth, and a reality. He even writes “Photography has something to do with resurrection.” More quotes:

Henceforth, I would have to consent to combine two voices: the voice of banality (to say what everyone sees and knows) and the voice of singularity (to replenish such banality with all the élan of an emotion which belonged only to myself). It was as if I were seeking the nature of a verb which had no infinitive, only tense and mode.  (p.76) (my emphasis, but what an intriguing sentence!)

The Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor … the truth of lineage. (p.103)

What characterizes the so-called advanced societies is that they today consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs…(p.119)

In a poignant and personal passage, Barthes writes about looking for
his mother’s essence in photographs after her death and finding her
(There she is!) in a photograph taken in 1898 when she was five years
old.  He concludes that capturing the air of a face (we might call it the soulfulness of a person), although recognizable is unanalyzable.  Barthes died shortly after he wrote this book in 1980. 

If you are a word-bird like me, see if you are familiar with any of these additions to my vocabulary.  Since the book is translated from French, I don’t know how if these words are from the author or the translator.

heuristic = providing direction in the solution of a problem but otherwise unjustified (Einstein often used this word)
eidolon = unsubstantial image, phantom, ideal
hebetude = lethargy, dullness
oneiric = related to dreams, dreamy
phenomenology = study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to philosophy
metonymic = use of a name of one thing for that of another, i.e. the land belongs to the crown
fulguration = flash with lightning
praxis = exercise or practice, customary conduct
palinode = a formal retraction
anamnesis = a recalling to mind; reminiscence

For the one person I haven’t lost (those little touches of solitude!), if you are still interested awake, you can read a seven page excerpt of the book here.


10 thoughts on “The Philosophy of a Photograph

  1. Intriguing review….I might consider giving this book as a gift to someone who enjoys photography?
    Is reading this part of your trip prep, so that you can capture better pictures?
    I think I can claim to knowing (being able to use in a sentence) ONE of the words from the vocab list πŸ™‚

  2. It was two things, Dana: I wanted to learn more about photography and I have periodic bouts of reading from the borrowed books section of my shelf so I can return the books.  Since it was short I thought I could whiz through it.  The gift part probably depends on the recipient.  It is not a “how-to” book at all.  But if that person likes photography and philosophy (odd combo), it would make a good gift.

  3. So when are you writing that book? When I read, if I run across any words I don’t know I write them in the back on a blank page with the page number, to look up later. Yesterday I wrote down “quotidian” (of or occurring every day).

  4. I had the same question as Dana, as to your interest in photography. I took a photography class at my community college back in 2000 and loved it, both the actual developing of film (taking my roll of film out in the darkroom and getting it into that tiny container in pitch black!) and the classroom lectures about what goes into making a “good” photograph. It almost makes me wish digital cameras hadn’t been invented!

  5. Carmon, if not when!  I like your method for new words. I have a friend who used a small yellow sticky note on her large bedroom mirror.  When I saw her mirror it was FULL of words, with a small space to see your reflection.  Mel, I’d always like to improve photography, well, really just learn about it.  But especially for the trip. 

  6. i kept reading down the list of words, thinking, “there has GOT to be ONE i know!!” But, though i thought i recognized a couple, none had a definition attached in my brain.

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