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Trip to the Sontag Archive

As part of my research for the Barthes project, I recently went to visit the Susan Sontag collection at UCLA to look at a special edition of the French periodical Le Nouvel Observateur La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida). Don’t bother looking for the reference to it in any English version of the text, as all references and citations are inexplicably left out of English translations, but in the original French Spécial Photo II, which was notoriously difficult to find, it is listed clearly.

After arriving in the special collections reading room to take a look at the magazine, I got a few inquisitive looks because of all of the photographs I was taking/ general noise I was making, but I wasn’t too concerned. I got a chance to look around at some other bits of the Sontag archive, but was in a hurry to get out primarily because I wanted to upload the photos and share what I’d found. The most alarming finding, I think, was just how many of the photographs were from this one magazine. I had assumed before finding the magazine that Barthes’ choices were very specific and thought out. In other words, it seems like the magazine informed the work he did. As the Assistant Director, was able to sum this up in a very direct way: In some sense, the book is almost a long winded critique of the magazine.

That this magazine would be found in Sontag’s personal archive has some poetic resonance, I think, given that her On Photography is one of the most notable photographic theory works alongside Camera Lucida. it appeared only a few years before Camera Lucida, and it’s difficult to imagine that Barthes wasn’t aware of the work while he was writing Camera Lucida. I probably could have found some early drafts of her essays if I had looked around more, but was in a hurry to get out primarily because I wanted to upload the photos and share what I’d found. Although the trip didn’t answer all of the questions we had, it did significantly clarify exactly how Barthes went about writing Camera Lucida.

Visiting the Sontag collection remind me that doing archival research, for the most part, is really enjoyable. There’s a dead silence that permeates collections reading rooms that’s difficult to find elsewhere. If anything else needs tracking down, I’d love to do some more digging.


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