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’s 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, 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.
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