Sunday, 6 November 2011

Reading a photograph – background notes from reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

I decided to read this book as I have seen references to it in the OCA Student Forum and other texts on the course reading list in relation to the reading of a photograph. It was hard work. I'm not sure if it was because of the translation from French or, more likely, my lack of experience of the language and concepts of philosophy. Luckily, it is mercifully short.

What did I gather from the book? I made some notes.
The two ideas from the book most often quoted in connection to the reading of photographs are:
Studium: described variously as, the field of cultural interest, a kind of general enthusiastic commitment. The studium is passive.
Punctum: wound or impact, an unexpected flash, a sting, speck, hole, a little cut. Allows for the formation of a critical reading, it enables an active reading of the scene.

From Graham Clarke's book, The Photograph:
Clarke refers to Barthes's assertion that the photograph is a transparent envelope.
...misplaced assertion that the closer we look at a photograph, the more we see.
…when we look at a photograph we see something that no longer exists. The moment has passed.
...When Barthes declared that "photography evades us" and is "unclassifiable" , he alerted us to the paradox of something seemingly so obvious and yet so problematic.

I found this summary from Wikipedia:

Photography and Henriette Barthes
Throughout his career, Barthes had an interest in photography and its potential to communicate actual events. Many of his monthly myth articles in the 50s had attempted to show how a photographic image could represent implied meanings and thus be used by bourgeois culture to infer ‘naturalistic truths’. But he still considered the photograph to have a unique potential for presenting a completely real representation of the world. When his mother, Henriette Barthes, died in 1977 he began writing Camera Lucida as an attempt to explain the unique significance a picture of her as a child carried for him. Reflecting on the relationship between the obvious symbolic meaning of a photograph (which he called the studium) and that which is purely personal and dependent on the individual, that which ‘pierces the viewer’ (which he called the punctum), Barthes was troubled by the fact that such distinctions collapse when personal significance is communicated to others and can have its symbolic logic rationalized. Barthes found the solution to this fine line of personal meaning in the form of his mother’s picture. Barthes explained that a picture creates a falseness in the illusion of ‘what is’, where ‘what was’ would be a more accurate description. As had been made physical through Henriette Barthes's death, her childhood photograph is evidence of ‘what has ceased to be’. Instead of making reality solid, it reminds us of the world’s ever changing nature. Because of this there is something uniquely personal contained in the photograph of Barthes’s mother that cannot be removed from his subjective state: the recurrent feeling of loss experienced whenever he looks at it. As one of his final works before his death, Camera Lucida was both an on-going reflection on the complicated relations between subjectivity, meaning and cultural society as well as a touching dedication to his mother and description of the depth of his grief.

Now, having read the book and understood at least this much of it, I was pleased, on reflection to suddenly find a connection to a question in my mind that has been there ever since I read the chapter "How do we read a photograph?" in Graham Clarke's book.
The question was; if we view an seemingly ordinary photograph cold, i.e. with no information of the of the author or of his intent, is our reading of the image more, or less correct or valid than his? And is it right to colour our perceptions with our own experience, or hold back in our interpretation knowing that the photographer's experience and emotions may , in all probability , override our own if they become known to us?
By way of illustration, take a look at the following image:

You might say," interesting sky, reasonable composition, looks like a monument to the poet Tennyson, the empty seat could indicate absence (of the poet, long dead) and the railings, preservation or protection of his memory. If you are a meteorologist , you may interpret the cloud formations.
On the surface, a picture with some narrative given the limited information available. If we add a bit more information and confirm that this is indeed the Tennyson Memorial on the Down that bears his name at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight not much changes unless you equate the sense of place with Tennyson and his contemporary Julia Margaret Cameron. If I add the photographer's name; Richard Down, it will mean nothing because neither I, nor my work are known to any significant number of people.
But this image has an emotional significance (to me) beyond the obvious, so much so, that it has hung above my desk ever since. It is probably the first image that I have made where I can recall exactly how I was feeling at the time, why and how I chose the viewpoint I did . For you to share some of that emotion, I can tell you the date: 12th September 2001. The narrative now changes from what you can read from the photograph to what I now tell you about the circumstances of its making and why it means so much to me.
Still numb after the shock and horror of the previous day's events and not having slept well, I planned a walk from the hotel in Freshwater where we were staying, along the Downs to the Needles walking east to west.  As I walked past the monument, the sky ahead to the west was filled with the dark clouds of approaching rain. In my mind at that time I saw them as a metaphor for the terrorist threat approaching us from the west.  I happened to turn and looked at the sky to the east with these very different cloud formations as a backdrop to the monument. The scene was a distinct contrast and I was compelled to photograph it, not only to record it but to capture the sense of optimism for the future. That was my immediate response and I made the image with very little thought beyond that initial spark.
To me, this picture of a monument has itself become a monument to the events of that day in 2001. The empty seat marks the absence of the thousands who have died on that day and since, as a consequence of those events. That is my personal reading.
To return to my question, has your reading of the photograph changed having read my explanation?
From the highlighted section above, I’m not sure that I agree with Barthes. (assuming of course that I have understood his argument)  Having communicated my punctum, I don’t feel it has been lost (to me) or diminished. Subsequent personal events have reinforced the emotional attachment I have to this image, symbolising as it does, remembrance, absence and optimism. 

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