What Photography Is

A return to Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

Words by

James Elkins

© Debora Francis | I’m Not Telling You a Story; I Am Showing You Who I Am

It has been thirty years since Roland Barthes published his “little book,” Camera Lucida. In the intervening years photography has become a major part of the international art market, and a common subject in university departments of art history and philosophy. An enormous literature has grown up around photography, its history, theory, practice, and criticism. 

This is the preface to the book What Photography is by James Elkins.

I think that three interests drive the great majority of current writing. First is contemporary fine art photography as practiced by the internationally prominent figural photographers such as Jeff Wall, Beat Streuli, Thomas Struth, Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky. That literature includes texts by Wall, Michael Fried, Diarmuid Costello, and numbers of newspaper critics and commissioned writers. What matters for it is modernism, postmodernism, the gallery system, the art market, and the status of photography as fine art.

Second is photography’s social significance, a subject that has attracted a host of writers including contributors to The Meaning of Photography (2008) and Photography Degree Zero (2009), Margaret Olin, Georges Didi-Huberman, Paul Frosh, and even the novelist William Vollmann. What matters for those writers is photography’s use as social glue, as witness to war, as mirror of the middle class, as medium for constructions of race and gender, as a political tool, and as a principal determinant of our visual culture. It matters that photographs are made by the millions, sent by email, uploaded to photo-sharing services, sometimes even printed and framed. Much of the academic study of the history of photography also involves these issues.

© Alexis Vasilikos | Dark Matter(s)

The third subject is photography’s way of capturing the world. Writers who care about this meditate on how photography provides us with memories, how it preserves the past, how it seems real, how it captures time, how it shows us other people’s lives. For these writers, many of them philosophers, photography is centrally about representation, time, memory, duration, presence, love, loss, mourning, and nostalgia. This literature includes Roland Barthes’s book, and also texts by Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida (Six Derrida Texts on Photography), Serge Tisserand, Henri Van Lier, and many others.

I am not much interested in any of these subjects. I refer to the recent literature throughout this book, but the references are not systematic. Photography is a fine art “as never before,” as Michael Fried says; and it has been a mirror and model of society since its inception, as Baudelaire knew. Often enough it is about time and representation. But for me photography is essentially not about art, society, or representation: I find seeing is essentially solitary, and photography is one of the emblems of that solitude.

While I was writing this book, I was editing a book called Photography Theory, which assembles thirty scholars’ opinions about how photography can best be conceptualized. Photography Theory is skewed somewhat to a discussion of one theory in particular (the “index,” which I will mention later on), but the book is reasonably representative of the directions of current thinking, and well stocked with references. The principal writers on photography are there—Liz Wells, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Rosalind Krauss, Joel Snyder, Geoffrey Batchen, Margaret Olin, Victor Burgin, Nancy Shawcross, Anne McCauley, Margaret Iversen—and so are the major points of reference, from Vilém Flusser and Pierre Bourdieu to the strange and encyclopedic Henri Van Lier. By comparison this book is wayward and badly behaved. If this book seems unhelpfully disconnected from current concerns, you might turn to Photography Theory or other recent scholarly books on photography such as The Meaning of Photography, Photography: Theoretical Snapshots, Photography Degree Zero, Fried’s Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before, Joan Fontcuberta’s Photography: Crisis of History, or the new journal Philosophy of Photography. If you are a historian of photography, or a critic engaged with the currently famous photographers, please don’t expect this book to be either helpful or relevant.

What I propose is to return, once again, to Camera Lucida.

What I propose is to return, once again, to Camera Lucida, but in order to write against it, to find another sense of photography. Despite the rapidly growing literature, Barthes’s “little book”—so he called it, reminding us how much is really in it—remains a central text. The punctum—little point of pressure or pain, hidden in every photograph, waiting to prick the viewer—is still one of photography’s indispensable theoretical concepts, and Camera Lucida itself is widely assigned in classes and mentioned by critics, historians, and artists in a bewildering range of publications.

Camera Lucida is both scapegoat and touchstone, marginal and model. It is cited in passing, trivially; but it’s also pondered at length. For many people, it is too familiar to re-read, but it is still taught in college classes. At one moment it seems intensely scholarly, and in the next refreshingly free of academic pomp. It is understood as part of the history of postwar art theory, but it is also taken as a source of insight into photography.

© Sofia Dalamagka | Evanescentium Memento

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It seems hardly a symposium goes by without an appearance of the punctum or the “Winter Garden photograph” (the photograph Barthes describes, showing his mother as a little girl). In autumn 2003 I attended a conference on visual culture in Nottingham; in his closing remarks the event’s organizer, Sunil Manghani, asked why nearly every speaker had alluded to Barthes. We were surprised, I think, to realize we had each mentioned him, even though we hadn’t all been talking about photography and even though we came from fields as different as geography and journalism. Manghani proposed that Camera Lucida is still read because the writing is beautiful. There isn’t an easy way to assent to that because the text’s beauty, if that word could ever be the right one, is not clearly linked to what it has to say. Yet Manghani’s remark wasn’t wrong, either, and no one demurred. The conference ended there, with Barthes briefly on everyone’s minds.

© Carroll Granville | Divergence

Camera Lucida is unstable

Like its author, who had recently lost his mother, Camera Lucida is unstable: on one page it lectures, and then suddenly it becomes a rhapsody or a soliloquy; at one point it is lucid, and then instantly nearly incomprehensible; in another place it is gentle and calm, then almost demented with sadness. The text pricks you, and then softens the hurt with prose: it mimics the punctum and its sterile salve, which Barthes calls studium. (For Barthes, studium is the punctum’s often uninteresting counterbalance: it means the transmissible analysis of images, whatever is public and publishable and makes sense in classrooms. Studium has become the daily business of visual studies, a field Barthes would have disliked.) What kind of reading can follow that ebbing and flowing of voice, authority, and purpose? It seems Manghani’s remark could never be wholly irrelevant, but neither could it ever be enough to describe what happens in Camera Lucida. As Geoffrey Batchen has pointed out, the photographs in Camera Lucida amount to a “carefully calibrated” “full survey” of photography, covering most decades from the 1820s to the 1970s, and ending, in suspense, on the question of what photography had become. (Meaning of Photography, 76–91.) So it’s a document of its moment, the same moment that puzzled Susan Sontag, Rosalind Krauss, and others: true, but as Batchen says, that does not explain why it still speaks to so many people.

The text pricks you, and then softens the hurt with prose.

It is essential, I think, to sit down with Barthes’s strange little book and take time to absorb it, consider its felicities and opacities, what it declines and admits, and above all what kind of writing it gives us. (Not only what kind of photography, but what kind of writing: the two are commingled.) One of my intentions is to read Camera Lucida as well as I can, and to give it back to current practice in a new and more problematic form: one that takes on board what Barthes did with writing, and what he did to writing. The format of this book mimics Camera Lucida’s format: I have written brief numbered sections, and, as in the English translation of Camera Lucida, each section begins with a numbered black-field drop capital. The idea, which I will try to justify as I go along, is to write about photography by writing into or through Barthes’s book— ventriloquizing if necessary, inhabiting the book, writing at first from inside it, in order finally to be outside it.

Too full of light

Like Barthes, I will be arguing about photography as well as working with writing, and my argument is that Barthes’s book is too full of light to capture what photography does. Camera Lucida is generously lit with metaphors of memory and sentiment, but its thoughts are very carefully tended, as if its subject were tender and prone to wilt in the glare of harder inquiry. Of the many things elided in Barthes’s book—not least of them his own lifetime practice of structuralist analysis, which he throws over to make room for his personal search for his mother’s image—the most important is photography’s inhumanity. For me, Barthes gets photography perfectly right when he sees how it hurts him (and how, although this cannot be a different subject, it hurts his habits of writing) and badly wrong when he imagines it mainly as a vehicle of love and memory. Camera Lucida is at the beginning of a flourishing interest in affect, feeling, and trauma in the art world, and that may be the best explanation of its staying power. Before the art world was caught up in affect and identity, Barthes’s book was an anomaly, which needed to be rectified to be used. Now it seems much closer, and its warmth and weirdness feel just about right. In a sense, then, this book is against everything I think Barthes’s book might be charged with starting—but none of that is aimed well, or done systematically or carefully.

© Alexis Vasilikos | Dark Matter(s)

A poignant prick of mortality

Camera Lucida hides photography’s non-humanist, emotionless side. Photography is not only about light and loss and the passing of time. It is about something harder. I agree with Barthes that at one of its limits, ordinary photography of people has something to do with the viewer’s unfocused ideas about her own death. But I also think that photography has given us a more continuous, duller, less personal kind of pain. Again and again photographs have compelled people to see the world as they had not needed or wanted to see it. Photographs have forced something on us: not only a blurred glimpse of our own deaths, a sense of memory as photographic grain, a dim look at the passage of time, or a poignant prick of mortality, but something about the world’s own deadness, its inert resistance to whatever it is we may hope or want. Photography fills our eyes with all the dead and deadening stuff of the world, material we don’t want to see or to name. I am after a certain lack of feeling, a coldness I miss in Barthes.

But for me the famous punctum is just a pinprick.

The beauty of Barthes’s book, its watery spill of ideas, its gracious turns of phrase, the cascades of evanescent thoughts and throw-away terms that don’t always quite follow from one another . . . all that beauty works hard, drawing my attention away from the other face of photography. I think Manghani is right that Camera Lucida’s beauty is a principal reason the book is still on our bookshelves, and I am going to take that beauty seriously in the pages that follow. (Even if I won’t be calling it “beauty” any more.) But for me the famous punctum is just a pinprick. I think the wound is much larger. Photography insistently gives us the pain and the boredom of seeing, and the visual desperation that can follow. The strategy of this book is to find that less pleasant, less emotional photography by writing directly into the one book on photography that is both inescapable and too often avoided.

© Sofia Dalamagka | Evanescentium Memento

Intoxicating sharpness of academia

Another book, What Painting Is, is intended to be uniform with What Photography Is. The two are not companion volumes in the usual sense, and if you are coming to this book after What Painting Is, you would be right to see no connection, no common argument. Neither book is a summary of the consensus views about either medium, and neither is a reliable guide to the preponderant directions of research. Both books abandon much of what has come to matter to their two media. They are personal attempts to capture what I care about when I am not preoccupied with academic concerns. There is career and community, and then, for me, there are also sources of visual pleasure and fascination that just do not fit with current critical discourse. It’s like Freud’s division of desires into “love” and “work.” I see that for many of my colleagues, there is a fairly good match between the things they love about visual art and the writing they produce as scholars. For me, love and work have finally been coming apart. It’s not a divorce, exactly: I still spend most of my time writing as an academic, contributing to books like Photography Theory. But increasingly I find that it matters a great deal to resist the tremendous tidal pull of academic discourse, to recover and nourish the things I have seen and felt on my own. So many scholars are overwhelmed by the oceans of words that well up from the past, by the intoxicating sharpness of academia, by the occasionally riveting language of scholarship, by the glow of hard-won approval. They come to forget that they are not writing about what it is in art that gives them pleasure, that transfixes them, that makes them speechless. Or they think they are, but what they are producing is books that only other scholars read, where moments of encounter are braced by hard argument or safely cosseted in soft footnotes. That kind of writing can produce rewarding careers, but not books that speak beyond the conference circuit. It is dangerously easy to live a full academic career, imagining that your writing expresses your best thoughts about art, when in the end it never really has. What matters in scholarship is research, argument, persuasion, and originality, and those ideals make it easy to spend your entire working life without thinking of your own voice. I know that almost nothing in this book can be justified as scholarship, or even as criticism, but it is what I want to write because it is what I have seen for myself.


Someone once wrote an essay with the lovely modest title “Part of What a Picture Is.” That is more or less what I would say about this book and its deliberately very distant companion.


James Elkins is E. C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of Pictures and Tears, How to Use Your Eyes, Stories of Art, Visual Studies, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?, Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, and Master Narratives and Their Discontents, all published by Routledge. He is editor of Art History Versus Aesthetics, Photography Theory, Landscape Theory, The State of Art Criticism, and Visual Literacy, all published by Routledge.

What Photography is.
First published 2011 by Routledge
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Simultaneously published in the UK by Routledge
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© 2011 Taylor & Francis





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