“What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
The French literary theorist, Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980), explores the power of photography in his 1979 book, Camera Lucida. In this explosive work, Barthes demonstrates how still images simultaneously represent and affect the psyche. It is no wonder that he focuses on the way photography can communicate loss and grief more effectively than any other artistic endeavors.
“Before it was the metaphor for objective knowledge, as with Rousseau, or of perspectivist knowledge, as in Marx and Nietzsche, or of the unconscious, as in Freud, the camera obscura was a technical apparatus which served as a model for vision. At the very moment that Marx employs it as a metaphor for ideological inversion, science begins to think that the problem of inversion is a false one.”Freud uses the camera obscura to describe the unconscious. Marx uses it to illustrate the false consciousness of ideology, and Nietzsche suggests it illustrates forgetting. Kofman writes,
“Freud’s use of the model of the photographic apparatus is intended to show that all psychic phenomena necessarily pass first through an unconscious phase, through darkness and the negative, before acceding to consciousness, before developing with the clarity of the positive.”In this striking and compelling short book that he writes shortly after the death of his mother, Roland Barthes suggests the exact opposite of these three thinkers: camera lucida serves as a better metaphor for describing the unconscious, reality, and memory. Meanwhile, he offers a new way of seeing and understanding photographs. Roland Barthes invites readers to consider the power of the photograph to ratify the memory that it represents which has everything to do with the relationship between the signifier and the signified that he attempts to complicate:
“In front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory (how many photographs are outside of individual time), but for every photograph existing in the world, the path of certainty: the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what it represents.”In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes speaks of the copresence of two elements in every photograph: the studium and the punctum. The studium accounts for the desire to study and understand the photograph. This is the socially accepted interpretation of the photograph’s meaning. The punctum, which translates from Latin as “point” resonates with the Greek word for trauma, pointing to the point of the wound or damage depicted in the image.
In an attempt to preserve the memory by standing in for experience, the way Jean Baudrillard suggests the map might stand in for the territory, the medium – the photograph – not only contains the wound by depicting the point of trauma, it becomes the very point of trauma it seeks to reflect.
Yet the studium, the social interpretation is still there, always offering the hope of understanding or recognition. Photography, then, is a promise that we share this world.
“The power of the punctum comes from its attempt to annihilate itself as medium — to be no longer a sign but the thing itself.”If the punctum points to the trauma, then it brings the unconscious to the surface instead of hiding in obscurity. Trauma becomes clear — lucid. In an attempt to preserve the memory by standing in for experience, the way a map might stand in for the territory, the medium – the photograph – not only contains the wound by depicting the point of trauma, it becomes the very point of trauma it seeks to depict. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari assert the unconscious is a producer and its product is real, which Barthes faithfully illustrates in his explication of the photograph. The photographer and media theorist, Kasia Houlihan, discusses the complexity of this idea:
“It is as if the photograph brings out the unconscious; it also represents the unconscious, while at the same time, it denies all of these relations of meaning. The photograph allows for the sight of self, not as a mirror but as an access point into a definition of identity—identity associated with consciousness, thus housing a whole; for it is in the photograph ‘where being coincides with self,’ a, ‘true being, not resemblance.’”In other words, the photograph captures a kairotic moment of the real and preserves it for as long as the medium survives. The photograph captures what Walter Benjamin defines as aura, anticipating Henri Bergson’s cinematographic mechanism of thought. It requires a kind of artistic observation that Ernst Cassirer believes is the gift of the artist. When we start to treat the product of the unconscious as real, then we can hold it in our hands, turning it over to feel the emotional quality of that image of thought. Like Walter Benjamin’s storyteller, we begin to read by assimilating the text instead of imagining it. And in our contemporary moment, what is felt, is paramount.