Reading Question 1/23

“Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the intention according to which I look at it) is Death: Death is the eidos of that Photograph.” (Barthes,15)

“The camera obscura, in short has generated at one and the same time perspective painting, photography, and the diorama, which are all three arts of the stage; but if photography seems to me closer to the theater, it is by way of a singular intermediary (and perhaps I am the only one who sees it) : by way of Death.” (Barthes,31)

“Now it is this same relation which I find in the Photograph; however “lifelike” we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of an apprehension of death), photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.” (Barthes, 31-32)


Technically this is only three sentences, although lengthy, I thought they were all good explanations on Barthes thought process on photo in relation to death. As readers, we are made aware in the introduction that the death of Barthes mother had a great impact on him and has been argued that this is the reasoning for Barthes relating photography to death throughout the book. The quotes above showcases his beliefs that death is the idea of photography and that theater and photography are linked closely together and represent death. He explains that theater and photography strive to be “lifelike” and they are the imitation of the dead. As soon as a moment has passed, it’s dead, according to Barthes.

Because of my interest in social media, I started to wonder what Barthes would make of it. How does social media play into this idea of death? I can’t help to think about snap chat or Instagram where people post “stories” of multiple photos and instances. Is it just a timeline of death? Are we fighting against this moment of “death”? Or what about when videos are posted as well? I have to wonder if his perspective would change or stay the same.

Glossary Entry – 1/23/17

Advenience/adventure: According to Barthes, advenience or adventure is “the attraction certain photographs exert” (19). A picture that advenes has adventure and is what makes photography “exist.” In other words, if a photograph does not move onlookers in any significant way, whether through its aesthetic appeal or something on the inside that ignites curiosity or interests to explore that photograph’s depth, there is no photograph. This attraction that Barthes says causes a specific photograph to move past being an image but fluctuates between objects and persons is caused by its animation, “the attraction that makes it exist” (20). [JW]

Referent: A photographs referent is “not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph” (Barthes, 76). This notion of a photographs referent is contrasted with a painting, which can impose reality, never being seen by the artist. A photographs referent interjects that the thing has been there (76) whether that be the objects, humans, or event that is captured. [JW]

Big Idea: Barthes & Sontag

Whether it is because of a memory or an oddity, the punctum is what stands out to the spectator creating an element of recognition. The photographs show pieces of experiences that can be altered (Sontag 2); however, the photographs do not show what is not in the picture, like Barthes remembering fragments of his mother’s movements, but not the rest of the movement or the moment in time (65-66). Neutrality is not a trait of photography as Barthes decries the lack of it in his own body (12); neutrality contradicts punctum.

Reading Questions (Barthes)

“This question grew insistent.  I was overcome by an “ontological” desire: I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography was “in itself,” by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images.” ( Barthes, 3)

When I first read this question in Camera Lucida, I expected that the entire book was going to be about divorcing the photo from its subject, focusing instead on the rhetoric that comes from its physical attributes.  Although a photo’s physicality is discussed extensively throughout the book (paintings are meant to show a constructed reality whereas photos presumably illustrate an actual reality, frames within a film are fleeting while a photo is observation of a single frame, that being printed on paper illustrates its impermanence), the majority of the book discusses how Photography represents the reality of its subject to the observers of it (what the operator wants the observer to see vs what actually draws the observer’s eyes- studium vs. punctum, how little details define the time and situation in photos more than shocking details do, and how photographs illustrate the impending demise of its subjects due to Time).   Still, I couldn’t shake the thought of the rhetorical effects of a photo’s physicality.  So my questions are these: what are the rhetorical effects of the physical body of photography, without considering its subject?  How would you compare or contrast them to the rhetorical effects caused by the subject?

Brooke Notes: Camera Lucida


Barthes, R. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York, New York: Hill and Wang.


In an effort to discover what photography was “in itself,” French philosopher and critic wrote Camera Lucida in 1980 (3). Although not a photographer himself, Barthes was fascinated by photography, particularly in contrast to other medias like film.

In Part I, Barthes goes on a personal journey; he delves into the ontology of photography, seeking a phenomenological self-understanding. Barthes identifies the three persons (or things) interacting with a photograph: the operator, or the photographer, the spectator, or ourselves as audience, and the spectrum, or the object being photographed. From there, Barthes maps the relations between the three roles. Barthes notes how the operator must intrude upon the spectrum: “they turn me, ferociously, into an object, they put me at their mercy, at their disposal” (14). Honing on his phenomenological response to a photo (“an internal agitation, an excitement, a certain labor too”), Barthes denotes the boundary between a spectator’s studium and punctum. Barthes constitutes studium as “a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, but without special acuity” (26). In contrast, punctum refers to the “element which rises from the scene, shoots out like an arrow, and pierces me” ; demanding attention, the punctum interrupts the studium (26). In sum, photographs are subjectively meaningless until they “animate” the spectator and spark punctum within her (20).

In Part II, Barthes, noting pleasure to be “an imperfect mediator,” leaves a part of himself aside in an attempt to discover the eidios of photography (60). When viewing a personally meaningful image of his deceased mother, the Winter Garden Photograph, Barthes discovers “something like an essence” of photography (73). From there, Barthes derives the nature of photography from “the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation” (73).

Barthes notes the codependence of the photograph and its referent, or spectrum. Photography “can never deny the thing that has been there,” and that the spectrum’s necessary presence is not metaphoric, but rather “the living image of a dead thing” (76, 79). Throughout Camera Lucida, Barthes darkly makes reference to the presence of Death (and concurrently, History) in photography. Barthes even concludes that “Death is the eidos of the photograph” (15).

Interestingly, all intextual photos in Camera Lucida have human spectrum. In order to spark punctum in Barthes, humans must be the subjects, the objects, the spectrum; they are his punctum. “Air,” as Barthes describes, is “that exboriant thing which induces from body to soul–animula, little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another” (109). Humans throughout Time and History ground Barthes’ philosophy of photography.

Barthes warns the reader of society’s concern “to tame the Photograph,” to extricate punctum (117). Barthes instead encourages the reader to pursue “the strictly revulsive moment which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy” (119).


“This fatality (no photograph without something or someone) involves Photography in the vast disorder of objects–of all the objects in the world: why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other? Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences” (6).

“Most [photographs] provoke only a general and, so to speak, polite interest: they have no punctum in them: they please or displease me without pricking me: they are invested with no more than studium. The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interests, of inconsequential task […] the studium is the order of liking, not of loving […] to recognize the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions, to enter into harmony with them, to approve or disapprove of them, but always to understand them, to argue them within myself, for culture (from which the studium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers. This studium […] allows me to discover the Operator, to experience the intentions which establish and animate his practices” (27-28).

“I had to conceive […] how Photography’s Referent is not the same as a referent of other systems of representation. I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph […] Photography can never deny the thing that has been there” (76).

“The photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time” (89).

“It [photography] is a denatured theater where death cannot be “contemplated,” reflected and interiorized; or again: the dead theater of Death, the foreclosure of the Tragic, excludes all purification, all catharsis” (90).

“Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it. To do this, it possesses two means. The first consists of making Photography into an art, for no art is mad […] the other means of taming photography is to generalize, to gregarize, banalize it until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself, assert its special character, its scandal, its madness […] This is what is happening in our society, where the Photograph crushes all other images by its tyranny: no more prints, no more figurative painting, unless henceforth by fascinated (and fascinating) submission to the photographic model […] one of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-reperoitore. Consider the United States, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and consumed […] when generalized, it (the Photograph) completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it” (119).


  1. Can non-human spectrum spark punctum?
  2. What does punctum feel like in you?
  3. How would Barthes react to photos on social media (like Instagram)?
  4. Why camera lucida? What not camera obscura?


Alpert, A. (2010). Overcome by photography: Camera lucida in an international frame. Third Text, 24(3), 331. doi:10.1080/09528821003799486

I found this text through a Halle Library E-Search. In this text, the author traces Barthes’s satori, coming from translation studies, the author offers a revision of Barthes’s theory of photography, namely that the photograph represents a surplus, not a direct equivalent.

Olin, M. (2002). Touching photographs: Roland Barthes’s ”mistaken” identification. Representations, 80(1), 99-118. doi:10.1525/rep.2002.80.1.99

I found this text through a Halle Library E-Search. In this text, the author argues that the significance of the photograph is not the relationship between the photograph and its referent, but between the photograph and its viewer or user, in the messy slippages of identification that happen in that interaction.

Sliwinski, S. (2004). A painful labour: Responsibility and photography. Visual Studies, 19(2), 150-162. doi:10.1080/1472586042000301656

I found this text through a Halle Library E-Search. In this text, the author argues that images of suffering create moments in which beholders realize their inability to respond, but that this limitation provides opportunity to question ethical relationships.

Starrett, G. (2003). Violence and the rhetoric of images. Cultural Anthropology, 18(3), 398-428. doi:10.1525/can.2003.18.3.398

I found this text through a Halle Library E-Search. In this text, the author engages in a discussion of Barthes’s Camera Lucida to argue that the mediation of social relationships that come from the first interaction of the photographer and the witnessed violence makes photography the coin of political communication.

Brown, E. H., Phu, T. (2014). Feeling photography. Durham: Duke University Press.

I found this text after following a rabbit-hole of looking at multiple sources’ bibliographies and then confirming that an Ebook version of the text is available through Halle Library. The collection takes on the material and affective response to photography through a variety of theoretical perspectives and through the analysis of multiple artists and photographic technologies.


Reading Question: Barthes (1/23)

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, New York, Hill and Wang, 1980, p. 56.

Examining this photograph, Barthes argues that Queen Victoria sitting regally on the horse is the studium because it is the “historical interest” that draws in the viewer and leaves a general impression of liking or disliking the photograph (57). He also argues that the Scotsman holding the bridle is the punctum because this detail “‘brings out’ the Victorian nature,” though this nature is not named (57).

I’ve struggled with these two terms–studium and punctum–throughout Camera Lucida because I am unsure of their origins. The way Barthes identifies the elements of the photograph above seems to imply that studium and punctum simply exist, and have been captured by the photographer. Studium and punctum are supplied and/or created by the photograph itself. Other excerpts from the book seem to support this argument.

Yet, I can’t help but think that studium and punctum are much more subjective than Barthes is articulating and illustrating here. For instance, if someone could not place the woman on the horse in her historical context, he might not be drawn into the photograph, or if he focused on other detail than the holding of the horse’s bridle, the photograph’s punctum would be different. Earlier in Camera Lucida, Barthes even mentions that he interprets photographs with his studium (28), which suggests that viewers, or spectators, are the ones that bring studium and punctum to a given photo. These two concepts are created through an individual viewing and interpretation of a photograph.

With these two conflicting interpretations, I’m left with the following question (that I had throughout the entire first part of Camera Lucida): Where are studium and punctum located in the photo-viewing interaction? I.e. Who/what creates a photograph’s studium and punctum?