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Monday, May 31, 2021

A Sense of Place

The second half of "Camera Lucida" is a maze of weirdness, which I noticed recently is explicitly called out as a repudiation of the first half (where all the studium/punctum business is explained.) He's trying to build some different theory of photography here, around his reaction to the infamous "Winter Garden" photo of his mother, aged 5, to which photo he reacts more or less hysterically after her death.

His theory is largely incomprehensible, although it is here that he arrives eventually at: representation is bullshit, all a photo does, all it can do, is attest that something was there and was seen. Everything else is just us reacting. Which seems right to me, but leaves us with the elephant: our reaction(s).

To be honest, I feel like there must be more to it, because he spends 10 or 15 thousand words on it and his conclusion can be stated a little more compactly than that; I'm not sure he's marshaled an argument at all. So, not sure what all the other words are for. My thinking here is kind of a work in progress, I am still making extensive, probably futile, notes.

After chewing on these things for a long time and cudgeling my tiny pea brain more or less endlessly, and also taking a lot of naps, I have arrived at some sort of synthesis of, maybe, what he's going for except in my own terms.

There are at least two endpoints in the spectrum of possibility for how one can be in a place, how one can shape one's awareness, one's presence there. Assuming that one is paying attention at all. I exclude the also-quite-normal forms of presence that do not include any meaningful awareness of place.

At one end is a kind of totality of awareness, a kind of vaguely Buddhist notion, where you're gently, lightly, aware of a very broad slice of what's available to perceive. You are, mentally, soaking in the presence of the place. You see the dapple of light, your attention flits to the squirrel, to the rock, to the man in the distance. You feel a total sense of what it's like there, you perceive widely, you feel the place-ness of it.

At the other end, you're looking for your coffee cup. You are pretty narrowly focused, you're noticing almost nothing of the surroundings. You're inspecting flat spots that you habitually put your cup on to the exclusion of all else. Or you're looking for the bun shop everyone says is on this corner, or you're crossing the street and noticing nothing except the oncoming cars and the walk signal. You have almost no total sensation of the place, you have only a handful of details. Probably, you have those details firmly in hand.

Ironically, when people are "out taking photos" they are, as a rule, present in the second manner because that's how you see the relationships of form and light that everyone thinks are so important, and this is, quite specifically, why most photographs are meaningless drivel. You need to be present in the first way to make pictures that mean anything, that have any connection to place, context, etcetera and so forth.

Now let us consider the way we are present in a photo, when we look at it, when we examine it, and when we (figuratively) enter it. We are in an attenuated way there: but how?

After some thought, I conclude it is very much in the latter way. We attend to a few details that we can see in the picture, perhaps a few add-ons based on the imaginative way that we build out a world to surround the picture. We do not "soak in the place-ness" in any meaningful way, we're very much more in that narrow, specific, way of being present. We feel no particular breadth of perception with respect to the place we're visiting, the time and place, the moment, we're visiting. It might feel complete, wide, but our awareness is restricted mostly to what's in the photo. It's somewhat dreamlike, in that we think, we feel, that we "know" the larger world around the photo, but if we try to actually see it, to look at it, it will slip away and elude us.

In this sense, experiencing a photo resembles my attempts to pre-visualize a photo. I know there's a dog in the photo, I can see it clear as day, but when I try to work out whether it's in the center or off to the side it slips away. I don't know where the dog is. I can't actually see my pre-visualized photo, I just think I can. I can, of course, then place the dog somewhere in my mental image, but now the clouds and the table and the tree are lost in the same way. The feeling is clear, the general shape of it is clear in my pre-visualization, but I have to take the picture before I know much about the details of what things are where, and what's actually in the frame.

A slight shift of direction now, bear with me if you would:

A not-completely-unknown trope in Science Fiction is the pocket universe. Usually, for some reason, some of the characters get stuck in a loop of time that is split off from the main universe. They're stuck in a repeating mini-universe, and have to escape (something like the movie Groundhog Day but usually with fewer jokes and more space lasers.)

In a way, the world we "enter" in the photo is a kind of pocket universe, a time loop of zero duration.

The photo of the riot from 1969 is the riot. Upon inspection of the photo we are, in some sense, at the riot. We experience it, in an attenuated way. But it is not the real riot, obviously. It's a pocket universe, a time-loop zero seconds long, that was split off from a moment during the real riot. We can go there, and experience it, in a sense.

It is the riot, in a sense. But it does not go on, it does not continue to the end of the riot, the people in the picture are real, they are at the riot, but those people do not go on. They remain forever in their zero-length time-loop pocket universe, the photograph. They are real, they are themselves, and simultaneously they are not.

I think this last bit is what ol' Roland is driving at with his obsessive Death Death Death drumbeat in the second part here.

It feels like he's doing that shitty pomo reversal trick: well, the photo captures their Life and by being about Life it refers to not-Life (Death) by the absence of Death so, ta-da, it's really been about the exact opposite of its apparent subject all along! This is a stock rhetorical gambit and, once revealed, is obvious sophistry. X by its mere statement suggests not-X and by leaving not-X out, by absenting it, and so whenever anyone says X they automatically mean the exact opposite, not-X, oh do shut up.

This is... to an extent, what Barthes is up to. The bootprints are fairly clear. And yet, he is aiming at something bigger, he feels something. Perhaps if he'd read more Science Fiction he'd have come up with the pocket universe theory.

Anyways, lest any super-woke idiots get confused: a photograph does not actually trap copies of people eternally in pocket universes where they are tortured for all eternity. It just feels like they're trapped in a pocket universe, so don't panic. And for god's sake, don't start writing papers about the violence of photography as a method for trapping people in pocket universes.

So now we are left with the following, I will confess quite outré, theory of how to take photographs:

Be present in the first sense, the Buddhist, total presence way. Snap photographs from that position of total presence, so they feel contextualized, complete, a part of a whole, whatever.

Viewed, we experience the photos in the manner of the opposite sort of presence, a presence of details closely noted, of un-totality. The totality itself is obscured, a sort of dream-like cloud of mere feeling, a vague sensation that won't stand up to examination. Our attention cannot flit to anywhere else, to flit is to obliterate. The vague cloud, with a few details in it, constitutes a kind of separate universe, a split-off copy of reality, just as real and yet static, limited. It feels almost as real as a real world, even though it is rather cloudy when examined.

Our total presence as we snap informs, but some alchemy I cannot explain and which might be bullshit, the sense of completeness in the pocket universe of the photo. It makes that cloud of impression, of dream, of imagination, feel more complete. The illusion of completeness that surrounds the un-total presence we take up inside the photograph is bolstered.

Every snap of the shutter spins off one of these little pocket universes, cheaply made, without much detail and with the dimension of time eliminated entirely. A shoddy knock-off universe, but one that we can visit and revisit, not much good for a vacation, but we could look for our coffee cup or a bun shop in it.

Sometimes we find out mother in there, but not really, and it's very upsetting. Apparently.


  1. I suspect you're on to something here, but I've no idea what you could do with it. The thing people so rarely mention, though, is the complete absence in a photo of the sense data -- sounds, smells, the feel of the air -- that constitute such a large part of our "sense of place at a particular moment". In a pocket universe they can't hear you scream...

    The thing about Barthes, I think, is that he was (a) a strange and repressed man, and (b) French. The French are in love with their own language in a way few English-speakers are, hence their tendency to make meaning out of ludicrous puns, neologisms, and overstretched etymologies with a (very) straight face. This stuff does not translate easily.


    1. I have been checking against the original pretty regularly to see if something in a particularly knotty sentence has been lost, but so far it's just "nope, that word is just the same in French"

      Currently I have a note to check a pun on the word "flat" which I feel cannot *possibly* have translated exactly. I mean, really, a pun? Or really, rather, a case where he's (translation-Barthes is) is using the word "flat" in two different senses and apparently hoping that you don't notice, or that you'll be entertained if you do. Can this possibly be a literal translation?

      Almost all of the labor is sifting through what are obviously histrionics, and meant as such, to see if he's actually saying something or whether this is yet another passage of flavoring. I am finding that there is... eh... maybe content in more places than I thought.

  2. Betcha Barthes never said anything remotely like this:* "The camera shutter has been a weapon of the white male imperialist hegemony since its invention. It's sold as a window into other worlds, but in practice it's a door -- through it the empire can enter, expropriate and destroy, and then shut the door behind them."

    Should cameras be licensed like guns, as a leading exponent of '#photoethics' recently implied? Open carry?

    *Full disclosure: I haven't read any Barthes. Maybe he did say it? Andrew?

    1. I am aware of no such remark, but I am fairly certain he would have thought the idea absurd. By the end of his life he was thoroughly convinced of the almost complete non-power of photographs.

    2. This is very much one of those things which you say, only more vigorously than the last guy did, to signal your allegiance to the Proper Team. It's an infinite game of ante-upping, "no no it's much more violent than that, it's literally decapitating its subjects and shitting down their necks!"

      "No! You're wrong! The photographer sets the victims on fire first, and THEN decapitates, etc.."

      "No! I am more loyal than you are, let me explain how bad photographers are! First.."

    3. I have to say I find this stuff endlessly amusing.

      The jokes write themselves!