Reflection on Barthes on/and/in photography

Whilst it is unsurprising that Barthes is very widely cited in photographic theory and by practitioners (having dedicated a book to analysis of photography), coming to this with a familiarity with his work from other disciplines (sociology, cultural theory, linguistics), it is interesting that the form of this influence is tangential to, from my viewpoint, his major contribution to 20th Century thought. Camera Lucida, published just months before his untimely death in a traffic accident, for a large part, focuses on subjective responses to photographic images. The early sections draw heavily of the language of semiotic analysis (to which Barthes’ contribution has been remarkable, and has left a mark on diverse areas of scholarship, research and practice). In fact, it is difficult to see how much sense can be made of some of these sections without some knowledge of semiotics. This passes quickly (with periodic reprise, through the ebb and flow of unexplained semiotic analysis and personal reflection), however, and through the application of the distinction between studium and punctum, focus shifts from semiosis to interest, rumination and emotional response.

The question here is, do we actually need Barthes (the semiotician) in order to think through the relationship between our image making and the interest of the reader? What exactly is, for instance, Idris Khan saying, in describing how he made his composite images, when he states that ‘I used 70 to 100 images for each picture. I wouldn’t necessarily take the whole image, but fragments of images, and bring them together on the computer. I would try to choose something that really stands out in the photograph. Roland Barthes called it the punctum’ (New York Times Magazine, 2012)? What is gained by invoking Barthes (to say that in selecting parts of images, Khan looks for those which are likely to be of interest to the viewer), and what does Barthes have to offer in understanding the appeal and impact of Khan’s work? The idea of the punctum, certainly as it appears to be understood by many photographers, sits apart from Barthes’ theory and analytic method. So having invoked Barthes, there is nothing of further value to be gained from engaging with his work in making sense of these particular images. Khan undermines his own apparent point, as Barthes places the punctum beyond the direct control of the photographer.

Barthes’ analysis of this particular aspect of the photographic image, besides providing a ready at hand point of reference for a relatively mundane (as utilised but not as conceived) concept (outside the wider semiotic project), thus offers little scope for development. That sits in contrast to the richness of forms of semiotic analysis, which flow from his conception of the sign and the processes of signification, and the exemplary cultural analyses that he offers. So, to what extent do we need Barthes to say that an image has a visceral point of interest to a reader? And is there more that we can gain from engagement with the more challenging, and conceptually developed, aspects of his work?

As a work within the corpus of Barthes’ writing, Camera Lucida stands as an example of application and extension of his method, not as an induction into the form of analysis and the concepts on which this is founded. This poses a problem for those with a specific interest in photography, but without a grounding in semiotics. The book has clearly entered the corpus of ‘critical theory’ in the study of photography and acts as a point of reference in photographic discourse (as in Khan’s commentary on his own work), but isolated from its intellectual base (as a lone reference to Barthes work, and semiotics, and its extensions, more widely), can offer only a truncated resource for critical and analytical discourse. The citation signifies a form of familiarity with ‘theory’, but is otherwise empty of meaning. There is so much more to be gained from engagement with Barthes.

Pretty as a Thousand Postcards, The New York Times Magazine, 1st March, 2012 ,