Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Camera Lucida

Almost seven years ago, when my blog was relatively new, I wrote a post about Roland Barthes' concept of "punctum" as an essential element of an effective photograph. He introduced this idea in a book called "Camera Lucida," which is regarded as one of the quintessential books about photography.

At the time, I had not read "Camera Lucida" -- I'd only seen a friend's summary of Barthes' ideas. But ever since then I've been wanting to tackle the book and see what else Barthes has to say. I finally bought it on Amazon a couple of months ago and started it over the weekend.

Now, I am not really into philosophy. As I sometimes say, I am not a "big ideas" person. So perhaps it is not surprising that I found "Camera Lucida" a tough slog. Barthes, after all, was a philosopher, literary critic, theorist and "semiotician" (whatever that is). This was a guy who seriously lived in his head.

I am interested in how people perceive photographs -- in what they find good, effective and moving, versus well-composed but dead. I think that's a problem with many of my own pictures -- at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I think I have an eye for composition, but often the result is not particularly deep or compelling. Many of my pictures are merely pretty. That's not a bad thing, but I would like to reach for more.

Anyway, I am (not really) sorry to say that I have set aside "Camera Lucida," after forcing myself to read sentences like:
First of all, I did not escape, or try to escape, from a paradox: on the one hand the desire to give a name to Photography's essence and then to sketch an eidetic science of the Photograph; and on the other the intractable feeling that Photography is essentially (a contradiction in terms) only contingency, singularity, risk: my photographs would always participate, as Lyotard says, in "something or other": is it not the very weakness of Photography, this difficulty in existing which we call banality?
I am just not smart enough for this book. It instills in me the same frustration that I often feel reading philosophy. I want to tell the writer/philosopher to STOP THINKING and go DO SOMETHING. I really believe there is an almost masturbatory self-absorption inherent in overthinking anything, photography included. Barthes, I fear, is overthinking.

His book is not really about the act of photography so much as the theory of photography. I'm not sure it's really even a useful book for photographers, though I do continue to find the idea of "punctum" interesting. (Barthes, by his own admission, was not even a casual photographer.) "Camera Lucida" is more about what photography represents to an individual and to society.

I got to page 32, and then I put the book down. I may have given up entirely; I am not yet sure. I've moved on to a Jay McInerney novel from the library.

(Photo: No particular "punctum," but an interesting building in Marylebone, last Friday morning.)


Ms. Moon said...

There are thinkers and there are do-ers.
We need them both.
And sometimes, you just can't finish a book for whatever reason and that is okay.

37paddington said...

punctum. well. i think a photograph either resonates with a viewer or it doesn't and the reasons can be utterly unconscious and subjective. so punctum is probably one of those concepts that is a fluid and wide ranging as there are viewers. your photos have plenty punctum to me.

Reya Mellicker said...

I'm so impressed that you can force yourself to read these books. When I don't like one, I put it aside.

JennieB said...

I think that you were brave to take the above photo. Those guys look as though they might have crossed the road to shove your camera down your throat ( or some other cavity!)

Anonymous said...

After reading that one sentence all I can say is...You got to page 32 ?!?! And half way through that sentence all I could utter was Huh? I know what I like and don't like and I know I have to work harder at this craft of photography. Right now I will work on getting through the many technical books I have. My head still hurts over that one sentence...LOL BTW...great brave photo :)