Camera Lucida – Roland Barthes (1980)

Camera Lucida (French: La chambre claire) is a short book published in 1980 by the French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes. It is simultaneously an inquiry into the nature and essence of photography and a eulogy to Barthes’ late mother. The book investigates the effects of photography on the spectator (as distinct from the photographer, and also from the object photographed, which Barthes calls the ‘spectrum’). In a deeply personal discussion of the lasting emotional effect of certain photographs, Barthes considers photography as asymbolic, irreducible to the codes of language or culture, acting on the body as much as on the mind. The book develops the twin concepts of studium and punctum: studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it. Camera Lucida consists of 48 chapters divided into two parts. The novel is composed in free form and does not follow a particularly rigid structure. … Camera Lucida, along with Susan Sontag‘s On Photography, was one of the most important early academic books of criticism and theorization on photography. Neither writer was a photographer, however, and both works have been much criticised since the 1990s. Nevertheless, it was by no means Barthes’s earliest approach to the subject. Barthes mentions photography in one of his ‘little mythologies’—articles published in the journal Les Lettres Nouvelles starting in 1954 and gathered in Mythologies, published in 1957 (and in English translation in 1972). The article ‘Photography and Electoral Appeal’ is more obviously political than Camera Lucida. In the 1960s and entering the next decade, Barthes’s analysis of photography develops more detail and insight through a structuralist approach; the treatment of photography in Mythologies is by comparison tangential and simple. …”
Roland Barthes: excerpts from ‘Camera Lucida’, 1980
Roland Barthes and Camera Lucida: Photography and Modernism

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