Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida
(The MIT Press)
US: Oct 2009
Roland Barthes is well known for his writings as a literary critic and semiotician, but literature students who have had his essay ‘The Death of the Author’ shoved down their throats to the point that anything resembling post-structuralist thought induces a gag reflex, and many may not be aware that his later work displayed a softer, less theoretical side. This began in 1975 with Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, in which he playfully constructs a sort of autobiography, and continued with A Lover’s Discourse, a series of novelistic fragments written as if spoken by a fictional lover. However, his most influential later work is his last book, Camera Lucida, published in 1980.
The mixture of the autobiographical and the critical persists in this text, with one of these two strands being dominant in each of the two sections the book is divided into. In the first, Barthes sets out his theory of photography, analysing photographs and defining terms, while the second section is more personal, focusing on a photograph of his mother, who died in 1977. Barthes was very close to his mother, and Camera Lucida has often been read as an elegiac piece of writing, or even as an act of mourning.
Many of the contributors to this new collection of 14 essays on Barthes’ swansong approach the book in this way. There seems to be consensus that Camera Lucida is not necessarily valuable as a work of criticism; rather it is a meditative, mournful, autobiographical text, between novel and criticism. But Photography Degree Zero (whose title is a pun on Barthes’ early critical work Writing Degree Zero) is itself very much a book of photography criticism, so there is something of a gap between this book’s premise and its subject.
This gap is bridged by the contextual approach to Camera Lucida that is taken. Barthes’ book is treated not as a snapshot of a single moment in time, but as an indication of past and present, and a part of his wider oeuvre. This is very much in keeping with Barthes work as critic: in ‘The Death of the Author’ he famously wrote, ‘We now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.’
Victor Burgin writes in his essay ‘Re-reading Camera Lucida’, included in this book, that ‘If Barthes had never written specifically about photography he would still be a figure of primary importance for the theory of photography because of his pioneering work in “semiology”’. This sums up Barthes’ wide-ranging significance as a writer, and tells us why a slender volume like Camera Lucida, which in the 30 years since its publication has been the subject of innumerable essays, deserves to be assessed once more in this book.
Photography Degree Zero is a rather limited collection in that the essays contained within it are confined to those written in English – surely many worthwhile essays written in French, and indeed other languages, have been translated? The upside to this Anglophone bias is that some interesting points regarding translation issues are made. However, these are often repeated by a number of the volume’s contributors, as are several other points about Barthes’ book.
This is of course hard to avoid in a collection of essays about a single work, but since most of these papers have previously been published elsewhere, some judicious editing might have helped Photography Degree Zero flow more smoothly when read in its entirety. The chronological ordering of the essays certainly encourages such a reading, as it imparts the feeling of a continuous narrative, and this book is often at its most interesting when the essays reference one another.
As might be expected, there are several recurrent themes. Barthes conceived of the terms ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ in Camera Lucida; the studium denotes the general theme and content of a photograph, and is something that is observed by any viewer, whereas the punctum is a single detail that effects a viewer for a particular reason. These concepts are considered in most of the essays included here, at times in highly original ways: Margaret Olin’s suggestion of the displaced punctum is particularly worthy of special mention.
The areas from which Camera Lucida is approached are pleasingly varied, ranging from psychoanalysis to Buddhism, and figures such as Freud, Benjamin and Proust are brought into play, often in refreshing ways. Writing about race in Barthes’ book, Carol Mavor adopts the partially autobiographical style of her subject, resulting in an essay that is fascinating for the same reasons that much of Barthes’ work is. Interestingly, Mavor’s essay is the only one in this collection that is illustrated by photographs; this is another feature it shares with Camera Lucida.
The fact that Photography Degree Zero is at its strongest when it is closest to Barthes’ style is testament to his importance not only as a critic, but also, more generally, as a writer. This is in some ways a flawed collection, but it nonetheless has value as an addition to scholarship on Barthes.