Friday, June 4, 2021

On Camera Lucida Part 2

Yes, yes, we're still stamping around in this same swamp. Barthes, despite his flaws, seems to have been one of the few people who have thought seriously about how photographs actually work. So, you know, interested.

First, as is my habit, let me clear a little underbrush. Part 1 of this book is where all the studium and punctum business that nobody understands is. At the end of Part 1, Barthes wraps up with a very short chapter which says, in effect, "yeah well, not so much. this doesn't get to the essentials, so now I will make my recantation, my palinode." A palinode is a poem that retracts a previous poem.

He's not saying that studium, punctum, and blind field are all wrong, but he's definitely saying they're not the answer. So he wrote a whole second half of this damned book about other stuff, which nobody every seems to mention. The second half is where the so-called "Winter Garden" photo appears, the possibly fictional photo of his mother and uncle as children, taken in a conservatory.

As an aside, it is notable that mostly we don't even see blind field referred to, despite the fact that inducing it is literally the definition of punctum. My working theory is that almost nobody has made it to Chapter 23 of the book (which has 48 chapters) let alone all the way to Part 2.

The standard take on Part 2 is to interpret Barthes' ecstatic reaction to this photo, in which reaction he finds his mother's true essence, as one of punctum and to pretty much stop there. This is not only incomplete, it's simply wrong, as we shall see. He's talking about something else.

The more sophisticated readers will drone on a bit about Death, because Barthes does talk something about Death in this section, and while that's probably not wrong, there's rather more going on here.

So, what is going on, smartass? Glad you asked!

The essential thing a photograph does is this: it testifies that something was there, and that someone saw it. It does nothing else but that. I photograph a can of beer, you see the photograph; you have no idea where the beer is now (you can probably guess, if you know me, but you don't know). You know that there was a can of beer, and that the photographer saw it.

This is very much absolute. Yes yes photoshop, I've heard. Also trick photos, etc. The point is that those are the exceptions. The photograph's testimony of that-has-been is far more definite than anything else we have. If I tell you about the can, if I write about it, if I paint it, draw it, if you recall it, etc, none of those have the same weight or the same character as a photograph of the same can.

Throughout, Barthes is comparing History with Religion, although you have to pay attention to notice the Religion. Much of the material about Death is actually Religion in disguise. Religion, as I see it, is a stand-in for a greater/older culture that is built on myth, story, song, tradition, and so on.

500 years ago, we understood ourselves as people by way of these latter things. We had songs and epic poems and traditions. We had religion. We had stories. These things mutated and evolved. They lived. Some of the material was frankly squishy, some of it was pretty darn firm, but even the firm stuff you might dress up the stories with some local color. We're goat people around here, so let's make the Sermon on the Mount have some goat people in the crowd. The guys in the next valley raise sheep, so their priest chucks in shepherds from time to time. The stories live even if we're very particular about, for example, the exact words Jesus spoke.

At some point History comes along, and now we're dotting tees and crossing eyes that previously needed no such decorations. While History is framed this way or that depending on fashion and necessity, once framed the details are filled in statically, in a way that does not live in the same way.

Folk singers are less likely to extemporize, and more likely to give us a period-correct rendering of the version from 1798, and possibly get involved in fistfights about the ordering of verses.

History pins our understanding of ourselves as a people, as a culture, a little like butterflies in a display case. The whole point is to nail it down and render it as certain and immobile as possible, to render it lifeless. History replaces culture, and religion. Or rather it subsumes them. There's a fair bit of religion around, but we're rather oddly consumed with it as history considering that it is by its very nature mystical.

In the same way, the photograph consumes our personal understanding of ourself, ourselves, our family.

Once, our families were built on traditions about grandmother's grandmother and the story of the badger. Was it really grandmother's grandmother, or has a generation been inserted or deleted somewhere? Was there really a badger, or is it really a mashup of two stories, one involving a cat and the other a skunk? Who cares? The point is, our family histories lived, and stretched back, back, back in a living braid of story.

Now we have a photograph of great-grandma, and her name is pencilled on the back, and that is the end of it. When the photo gets lost, great-grand is also lost.

Both History and The Photograph behave the same way, and for the same reason: they are definite, they are certain. They cut off all possibility of change, or evolution, and thus render lifeless and exact what was once inexact and living.

Ok, so that's Barthes' point, and he's not wrong. It might be a bit dramatic, but there it is.

So what's the deal with this Winter Garden Photo?

There is a thing, Barthes suggests, that can happen in a portrait. It is analogous to punctum but he doesn't call it that so we can reasonably assume that whatever it is, it's not punctum.

The effect of this thing is an inversion of punctum's effect. The punctum spontaneously generates a kind of ecstatic direct access to a belief in the larger world that surrounds the photo; the punctum causes our visceral understanding of the photo to abruptly, ecstatically, expand outwards past the edges of the frame, through time and space. This other property causes the inverse effect, although with the same ecstatic, visceral, violence: we believe in, we perceive the essential character of the subject of the portrait. It is an expansion inwards, rather than outwards, an inversion.

Barthes sees his mother's essential nature in the Winter Garden Photo. He exclaims "there she is!" is what I think simply has to be a sly reference to "Ecce Homo!"

He insists that the photograph is not resurrection, even metaphorically, it is purely reference to what was. A portrait, indeed, does the opposite of resurrect, it directly implies the Death of the subject. They were, that is all.

This new property Barthes has invented he called air which seems to mean exactly the same in French as in English. It's "air" in the sense of "manner" more or less, but with a more mystical nature (of course.)

It is the air of his mother in the photo that transmutes a basic that-has-been (and now she's dead) into there-she-is! (Ecce Homo!)

For those of you in the know, or who have googled it, "Ecce Homo!" (See, the man!) is what Pilate says when he presents Jesus to the mob, and we all know what happens to Jesus.

The Winter Garden Photo bridges the worlds of History and Religion. It is a dead, static, incontrovertible testimonial to the effect that once a little girl stood with her brother on a little bridge in a conservatory, and that someone saw her, and that she is probably dead by now. It is simultaneously a metaphorical resurrection of that same little girl, Barthes' mother, a myth of his mother, a legend, a song, a poem of his mother. It is a memory of her, that visceral living thing we keep inside and which is, all too often, killed by the literal, intractable, unarguable, testimony of the photograph.

This, says Barthes, is madness.

At this point, I must say, he seems to open himself to the possibility that this kind of bridging is possible with more photos, or perhaps even with all photos. We don't allow it, because we reject madness, and so we neuter photographs and retreat to the banal, to the mere that-has-been testimony of the things as Art, or as bland and endless Media Fodder.

There is an analogy here with Part 1, and I suppose you could describe Part 2 as an expansion on Part 1, but I think it is in fact different material.

The that-has-been testimony is the normal operation of a photo, it's what it does. You could say that this is kind of like studium, that also being the normal operation. They are both normal operations but on, as it were, different planes of operation. The testimony is what the photo is in its essence, but the studium is really what you, the viewer, do in response.

You could argue that air is a kind of punctum except that the effects of each are inverses of one another.

Finally, blind field is kind of like that direct perception of a person's essence, induced by air.

There is a fair analogy here, but these are not the same things in any meaningful way.

What do I think of all this?

Well, for starters I think it's important to keep in mind the extremely limited frame he's set himself within. He's investigating this whole thing purely, willfully, and explicitly, in terms of his own reactions, his own sensation, his own perceptions of things. He is not, for example, trying to make sense of these things in neurological terms, or in terms of Art History, or some sort of generalized theory of perception.

In some sense, we kind of have to grant him whatever he sees, then. If this is what he experiences, well, that that's what he experiences, no?

On the other hand, his experiences do not seem to generalize. These ecstatic, visceral, responses seem to be an exclusively Barthesian thing.

My take is that he has both punctum and air upside down. He views them as disturbances to, as additions to, the normal operation of the photograph in one sense or another.

My position is that the normal operation of the photograph as a social, cultural, visual actor is almost exactly the effect he ascribes to punctum and to air, minus the ecstasy and violence.

It is certainly true that the photograph, in its nature, only testifies to that-has-been and it is true that we read photos in terms of cultural codes, we make sense of them in terms of the ways things we see mean in our social context, and our own ideas of culture, etc, (studium.) So, he's right about those, but these are not particularly relevant.

What is relevant, to both me and, I maintain, to Barthes, is that we believe the photo first. Our first response is that visceral one, where we believe in the blind field, where we believe we see the character and essence of the subject of the portrait. Both the outward and inward expansions of the photograph are normal, baseline. They are acts of imagination which we perform without thinking.

These somatic reactions, these nearly biological reactions are the basis, and it is the reading of cultural codes, the recognition of the static, fixed, testimony of the picture, and all that other machinery which disturbs that. The studium, if you will overrides, obliterates, the effect of the punctum which was already there.

So in some sense I agree with Barthes. I agree, in general, that there are these opposing effects going on, and the general shapes of them. Where we differ is in the relationship between them, which ones are on top as it were. I also think we have more control than Barthes seems to imagine. He seems to lean toward spasmodic responses beyond our ken, beyond our ability to control, spontaneous and violent.

I, on the other hand, think that the somatic responses are not merely basic, underlying, but can be recovered by the attentive reader. Yes, it's tempting to wander off into the cultural meaning of the policeman's uniform, or the expensive shoes, or the tumbled-down house and the un-mowed lawn. One does that kind of thing. It's tempting to fade away from the reality of the scene, and to consume a photo as merely banal media. Another celebrity, another riot, another dog, ho hum.

We can choose to recover the visceral reality of the thing, the sense of knowing the scene, of knowing the person, if only we consciously reach for it. We can set aside the banal, the static, the cultural, and find that living, breathing, beating heart of what is in the picture, simply (I think) by taking a moment to look for it.

We know it's there, or we ought to, all we have to do is open our eyes for a moment.

The photograph is nothing more than testimony to that-has-been but that's all it needs to be. We do the rest.


  1. y'all go watch the movie Coco [stone seal]

    1. The animated Disney flick about a Mariachi player?

    2. The one about photographs and family and death and stories, about how photographs vitally mediate and vitally maintain memory, and about how that process can be twisted, and reality subverted… and there’s a bridge… and a little girl… and yes, a whole variety of mariachi players. [stone seal]

    3. Yeah, just wanted to be sure I had the right one (ISTR there was a biopic about the perfume lady). I definitely heard good things about the animated one.

      Thanks for explicating the relevance, because I sure AF don't watch no Disney feature on a whim, unless it's got Johnny Depp playing a pirate in it.

  2. Can we get this man some oxygen, please? The damn fool claims he's just summitted Mount Barthes... I know! Crazy talk... There's nothing up there but thin air and optical illusions.

    But, really, this is an exemplary and impressive act of engagement, Andrew: I might even read the damned thing again myself, now. If so, I may never forgive you.


    1. Thank you! It involved about 20 pages of notes which I re-read obsessively in a desperate effort to maintain some sort of context.

  3. Replies
    1. Ugh, yeah. He hasn't really read the thing, at best he's skimmed it looking for whatever bits confirm the standard summary.

      I suppose it's a blessing that he doesn't claim "punctum" as a detail or something?

      Everyone's writing about Barthes these days.

    2. Well, he scratched an itch.

      So there's that.