Geoff Dyer

Cameras Are Clocks
for Seeing

Roland Barthes’s 1980 Camera Lucida reads
as a discursive novel (written by a mother-mourning French theorist) presciently preoccupied with photography as a technology of the past.

Discussed: Grief, Beginnings and Pre-beginnings, Glib Radio Interviews, A Signature Style of Compression and Flow, The Digital Tense, The Blurred Opposition Between Punctum and Studium,The Foam of an Over-Scented Bubble Bath, The Most Famous Bracket in Postwar Literature, Chimping
Image: Idris Khan, <em>Every Page... from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida,</em> 2004. 40

In 1914 Alfred Stieglitz responded indignantly to a reader who had cancelled his subscription to Camera Work, the journal in which he had sought to “establish once and for all, the meaning of the idea photography.” Roland Barthes claimed to be delighted by only one of Stieglitz’s photographs, but the book in which he made this confession addresses the very issue that had obsessed Stieglitz to the point of mania. For many readers the effect of Camera Lucida was exactly the one Stieglitz claimed for Camera Work: “photography suddenly assumed a new meaning.”

Barthes had long been fascinated by photographs, but his exploration of “the phenomenon of photography in its absolute novelty in world history” had its specific origin in a request from Les Cahiers du Cinéma to write something about film. The idea did not appeal. As he told friends, “I’ve got nothing to say about film, but photography on the other hand….” Having agreed to write a short piece for Les Cahiers, Barthes’s reflections on photography (photography “against film”) grew into a book written—according to his biographer Louis-Jean Calvet—“at one go, or almost, during the period between 15 April and 3 June 1979.” His mother had died in October 1977 and the book became bound up with his grief over her death. Barthes himself said in an interview that the book was “symmetrical to A Lover’s Discourse, in the realm of mourning.” The whole of the second half of Camera Lucida, in fact, is based around a photograph of his mother—the so-called “Winter Garden” photograph—taken when she was five: “Something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture.” Just how profoundly Barthes’s private grief and the subject of his professional scrutiny had become intermingled, is made poignantly clear by the upcoming publication of Mourning Diary.

Barthes liked “to write beginnings” and multiplied this pleasure by writing books of fragments, of repeated beginnings; he also liked pre-beginnings: “introductions, sketches,” ideas for projected books, books he planned one day to write. So when Nathalie Léger, editor of Mourning Diary, describes it as “the hypothesis of a book desired by him,” she is accurate in that it was neither finished nor intended for publication; but she is also describing the typical or ideal condition of the books that were published. In a sense Camera Lucida is the desired book of which Mourning Diary is the mere hypothesis, while itself being a more elaborately formulated series of hypotheses—not a definitive account, but a Note sur la photographie, as the French edition was modestly (and confidently) subtitled. Barthes’s preferred way of presenting his hypotheses was in the form of linked aphorisms, and, as Susan Sontag noted, “it is the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding.” The paradox, then, is that this man who liked first words (and adored paradoxes) offered his provisional findings as if they were the last word. Needless to say, this last word was always susceptible to further elaboration and refinement, to further beginnings. This is how Barthes’s prose acquires its signature style of compression and flow, a summing up that is also a perpetual setting forth. The result, an ever-increasing subtleness or delicacy of assertion, approximates the defining quality of his mother, as captured, uniquely, in the “Winter Garden” photograph: “the assertion of a gentleness.” If there is a consoling appropriateness about this, then, by the same token, there was a cruel inevitability about Barthes’s work being curtailed by his early death (less than two months after the French publication of Camera Lucida). He was one of those writers whose life’s work was destined, by increments, to remain unfinished.

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  • This essay is adapted from the author’s foreword to Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes, translated from the French by Richard Howard, to be reissued next month by Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Foreword © 2010 by Geoff Dyer. All rights reserved.

Geoff Dyer’s many books include Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a novel, and The Ongoing Moment, a sort of history of photography. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays and reviews, will be published by Graywolf in April 2011.

Image: Idris Khan, Every Page... from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, 2004. 40" x 50".

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