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Barthes, the Sensualist

When I began this fellowship, I was more invested in interrogating why Barthes’ strange, middling work had endured than affirming its position as the pinnacle of photography theory. Not only is Camera Lucida subjective, but it is also dense, meandering, partial, and unfocused — the opposite of what theory is supposed to be.

I’ve been researching the broader implications of Camera Lucida; how it has been received over time both in and outside of strictly academic settings; what exactly went into writing the book, and whether or not any of the claims in the book at all can be confirmed or justified. I find, part of the value of the book is its shock value — how radical of a departure the book was from Barthes’ previous work, especially his early work in semiotics. Readers were expecting to find an exhaustive guide to reading the “language” of photography, but instead found an elegiac, and at times deeply personal, journal on photography, death, and the loss of Barthes’ own mother.

Much of my research so far suggests that Barthes’ approach to Camera Lucida probably wasn’t very well thought out. He references photographs that seemingly don’t exist, confuses dates, and seemingly pulls everything from memory rather than going about his writing methodically. Likewise, it seems like he pulls the vast majority of his photographs from shockingly few sources, which suggests that he references these particular photographs out of convenience rather than any substantive deliberation. At times, quite literally, it seems like he’s making it up as he goes along. For somebody in the process of trying to track down all of the loose ends that the book leaves, this is a baffling and frustrating combination.

In spite of all of this, the book has endured not only in the popular imagination but also in my own thoughts. Barthes set out with an impossible thesis to begin with, to affirm the subjectivity of photography. In thinking about why Barthes’ work has endured, the novelty of the work itself is important to consider. Barthes wrote something unclassifiable, at once a journal, an elegy, and an essay. Concepts like studium and punctum have had a curiously long half-life in part, probably, because the book itself is so unique.

In trying to classify exactly what Camera Lucida is, I revert back to the formal, antiquated use of the word essay, which more or less means an attempt: Camera Lucida seems like an attempt to make sense of why some photographs haunt us and some don’t, about why photographs have a hold on each of us in an entirely unique way. Like the photographs themselves, Camera Lucida seems to haunt. For better or for worse, it sticks around.

— Jeremy

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