Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1992
Photogenic Papers
Edited by John Richardson

Camera lucida: Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre and the photographic image

Ron Burnett

One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since "I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor". (Barthes 3)

The eyes of the emperor's brother once looked straight into a camera, in this case "manned" by a photographer whose duty it was to take pictures of the rich and powerful. Jerome's eyes had been privileged enough to look into Napoleon's eyes and as a consequence the photograph established a relay between Roland Barthes, the brothers and the readers of Camera Lucida. This juxtaposition of time and space is at the root of a radically different kind of photographic history as autobiography created by Barthes in Camera Lucida through an openly self-reflexive act of imaginary reconstruction. Barthes provides us with the social and cultural matrix at the heart of his activities as a viewer. Camera Lucida is part analysis, part theory, a personal examination of the role of photography in Barthes' life and an hommage to Jean-Paul Sartre's book, The Psychology of Imagination.

Of course the title of the book is also a play on Camera Obscura and as such refers to the history of the medium of photography, to its origin as a device which transformed the three-dimensions of the "real" world into a flat surface. The deliberate ambiguity of the term Lucida allows Barthes to "look" at photographs both for what they are, and as triggers for bringing out the 'inner' light of thinking and interpretation.

For Barthes the eye is only capable of seeing if the subject who is looking has mastered an understanding of inner vision as well. The eye reflects the tensions of a relationship which cannot be defined through the image as external or the thought as internal. This brings up the crucial question of context. If the image is the fulcrum of a context-dependent interpretation of the relationship between seeing and understanding then images lack specificity. They are the "site" of a continuous process of reinterpretation produced out of the historical context of presentation and performance. This "instability" which is at the heart of postmodernist reflections of the variability of meaning in all texts, foregrounds images as processual - there is no fixed moment of projection or apprehension. (This would have a dramatic effect on the notion of the photographic archive and on presumptions of photographic truth.)

Let us for a moment imagine the photographic scene described above. Jerome goes to a studio or perhaps the photographer comes to his house. The photographer experiences a fair degree of discomfort for indeed there is power in those eyes and a glance in the wrong direction could be misinterpreted. Some days later Jerome sees the photo and declares that, "it is not me". He insists on a touch-up and then requests a proper portrait, painted in oils. To what degree are Jerome's reflections on his photograph a result of a difference in perception between himself and the photographer? Jerome obviously has a self-image which does not match the produced image - the photograph has increased the gap between image and reality, at least in the eyes of the man who has seen the emperor.

Does the absence of finality suggest an endless proliferation of meanings? With regards to interpretation are we dealing with a meta-critical task circumscribed by discourse and dependent on an ideal for which lack is the defining metaphor? In a sense as the boundaries of the photograph expand "it" becomes a trigger, not for a specific repertoire of elements, but for a performance which is more oral than it is visual. It may be the case that to see means to listen, both to one's own verbal explanations and to those of others. This conversational model doesn't end up replacing the photograph as the trigger for discussion but encourages a process for which the photograph may not be the main focus.

Barthes' proposal is that meaning is "more" than text (written or photographic), more than words (spoken or heard) and it is only through an exploration of the gap between self-image and photograph, that is between identity and comprehension, that one can begin to understand the interpretive flexibility which needs to be used in discussing a photograph. This lack of specificity (almost equivalent to a lack of "objectness") makes the dilemma of talking about photographs both open and closed - a contradiction which is paradoxically as postmodern as it is primitivistic. Barthes spends much of Camera Lucida worrying about this tension, about the innocence of a face captured without the knowledge of the subject, which gives that individual "life" but also rips away "their" thoughts and produces a visual object without content. Thus, as much as we might desire it, the photograph does not see although it is somewhat convenient to look at Jerome's eyes as if they have seen Napoleon's. Yet clearly, it would have been possible to generate that image with one's eyes closed, to see "in" the imagination, to be in control of the look through desire.

Photographs and images - I will introduce an important distinction here. The former inevitably plays into questions of sight and object, questions of verification and truth - the latter is the result of an act of consciousness and therefore subject to a different, though related set of questions. The former must be seen to gain status, though as Barthes suggests, a photograph ' ... is always invisible: it is not it that we see' (6). Images cannot claim the autonomy of photographs. Images can never be separated from vision and subjectivity. Images are part of a mental process, the result of an interaction between photographs and viewing subjects. Images are products of perception and thought, conscious and unconscious, looped in a spiral of relationships which are continuous - a continuum. Time, in this loop, does not rely on the movement of a clock but is instead located in the physical periodicity of the photograph. Jerome is seated in a chair which "comes" from the 1850s and this "location" of meaning allows Barthes to assume that history is present though clearly the photograph plays only a fragmentary role in this presumption.

Often, the assumption is made that photographs have an existence outside the exchange between viewer and object. 'Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way a photograph does'.1 This hypothesis, which is a central one in all discussions about photography, is one to which I will return in this essay. It is the idea of possession which interests me - the notion that there is a reality outside of the photograph for which the print becomes the representation. Berger extends his argument with the assertion that a photograph 'fixes the appearance' of an event. In the moment and flow and flux of everyday life, the photograph preserves what the eye might otherwise not capture. This is the point at which image and photograph must be seen as dramatically different. For although the photograph has an existence separate from the viewer it can never be removed from the process of interpretation. The idea that a photo can capture a moment in time happens to be a specific ideological statement born out of, and sustained by Western cultural conceptions of representation. This has as much to do with notions of the observer and the observed as it does with the presumed relationship of an apparatus to reality.2 The question I am asking here is not what the difference is between the real and the photographic but to what degree, if any, the photograph initiates a temporal and spatial break between consciousness and the process of depiction. Clearly what is of interest to an observer of a photograph is the way in which she can manipulate time, not simply look at a moment torn from a continuum. Control is the key here and unlike Sontag or Berger one must approach the way a viewer marks out the aesthetic boundaries of the photograph in order to deal with the consequences of "taking". This must be carefully linked to the desire to manipulate memory.

Images are seen as "sources" for meaning, their ever present cultural role constituted not be a reversible process of exchange but by a set of intrinsic characteristics to which viewers supposedly respond - the idea of effect. At one and the same time then, the image "leads" by example, refining its helmsmanship as it presumably gains more power, whilst also representing the culture within which it operates. Suggestions about effect must be seen for what they are, interpretive responses to both the experience of viewing and to the institutions of image creation and distribution. And this must be understood as the kind of contradiction which provides our culture with the ideological framework for the production of meaning in the image. The question of effect however, generates an even greater confusion in which the image becomes the "object" whose visible properties are equated in a literal sense to "the furniture of the world". The presumption of this argument is that the image converts what it has appropriated into pictures, leaving intact those properties of the world of "things" automatically retrieved by the camera. Thus in the simplest sense the name of an object is not transformed as it mutates into an image. This would then suggest that there be no conflict between its classification in language and the manner of its usage as a photographic print. The image as a result, is defined as an amalgam of the real and the representational, as a kind of bricolage between different modes of signification. But what are the criteria which can be used to compare the image and the object? Can one make sense of those criteria by privileging the meaning of the object upon which it is then assumed the image relies? And if the image and object are always to some degree "representational" then at which point does the image intervene to confirm that a process of signification has taken place? If the image merely translates the already given set of representations which have been conferred upon the object, then does that exhaust the possible range of meanings which can be attributed to the image?

Images are seen as carriers of meaning and as such there is an assumption of fixity which is often equated to a powerful effect. Effectivity is then used as an argument to explain the referential power of the image. For without reference the image would not mean, yet clearly, the object named "gun" is dramatically different from the image named gun. The naming, the classification, is not the same in both instances. For example, the state-ment that the image of a magnum dominates the film Dirty Harry, by Don Segal, creates more than a simple equation between reference and the language of interpretation. The gun, its use, its context, the function which it has in the film, have all been raised and this rather complex discursive field exceeds, transforms, even re-names the object. It is this discursive field which makes the connections between object and image arbitrary. There is no pure moment of the gun as image which escapes its placement and the use to which it has been put. In this sense there need be no synonymity between image, language and object. If there were, the actual work of interpretation would simply rely on a presumed unity of reference, discourse and representation. An objection could be made here that a gun is after all a gun. But it is precisely the desire to negate the significance of discursivity, of enunciation, which leads to the conflation of representa-tion, language, and the image. Images cannot exist outside of their context of use. The context may dramatically alter the way in which an image fits into a referential category established through natural language, and may upset the criteria used to establish reference in the first place. The contrast then between object and image is a fundamental one. The gun as image must be validated, whereas the gun as object doesn't have to be.

The photograph is vaguely constituted as an object, and the persons who figure there are certainly constituted as persons, but only because of their resemblance to human beings, without any special intentionality. They drift between the shores of perception, between sign and image, without ever approaching either. (Sartre in Barthes 20)

Crucially then, the photograph is often confused as the site of perception, as if it has qualities which evade the glance in its direction. As soon as there is a spectator for the photograph an image results.

The image is never able to dilute its continual role as a pivot for the pro-cess of substitution. There is no prior moment in time when an image gains the status of an object. It cannot acquire that status through the photo-graph. The image has to transform the object in order to represent it photographically, which means that the object has ceased to exist in one form, and new conventions have been introduced to give it meaning in another form. All that remains is its name, or the representational system used to classify it. In that sense we can say that images are representations which represent, representations. As such they operate at a level of autonomy which does not bind them to a set of pre-determined referential properties. However, the status of reference as a property cannot be eliminated. We can then begin to talk about autonomy and reference co-existing, and the image being stripped of its referential qualities in order to make a discursive field in which new forms of reference and linguistic description are possible. What purpose is there then, in drawing an equation between photograph and image and language? Reference tends to become pin-pointed as the term of an inevitable identity when it is precisely the site of a process of construction.

Photography both initiated and sustained an institutional structure to uphold the idea of the memory trace - a concept not born in an ontological sense from within the properties of the medium itself. Crucially, it is vantage point which is the central raison d' tre for the conceptualisation of trace, since it is founded on a Cartesian perspectivalism which makes it possible to theoretically envision a moment outside of subjectivity. Yet the photograph never functions with that kind of intrinsic autonomy. What must be recognised here is that the photograph is a subset of the image. At an institutional and a cultural level there is nothing to prevent the photograph from being separated from the image. The choice, once it is made, tends to transform the observer's gaze into a function of the photograph, which as Barthes has so eloquently argued naturalises the artifice of the exchange. The result is a reversal of image and photograph with the latter taking precedence over the former in a chain of relations which are then described as representational. In other words, the process of thinking which is simultaneous to the act of viewing is sub-divided into an opposition of representation and depiction. The viewing subject becomes a witness to representation as if they have not created the interaction. In this sense the photograph comes to signify an absence, but it is not so much the real which is missing but the viewer themselves.

Jerome "saw" an image. In other words he saw himself as if the foreground provided by the photograph was not filled with a specific or expected meaning. He looked through, in the Barthian sense, at an absence and created a presence. Yet he claimed the photograph was at fault - that the photograph was incorrect and not his vision of it. In part, he confused the relationship of image and photo. In the "royal" sense, he assumed that his perception was correct and the photograph was wrong.

This act of replacement where the photo takes on a life of its own, and thus a power separate from the eye which views it, confers a status upon the object which in fact eliminates the eye. Thus it is not so much the photograph which disappears but the capacity of the viewer to reflect upon his or her relationship to the picture. Consciousness, sight and photograph are seen to be one and the process of visualisation is presented as dramatically different from the imagination.

Though Jean-Luc Godard quite wisely inverted the following opposition between the Lumire brothers and Georges MŽlis, it remains at the heart of debates around the production of meaning in images. For Lumire an image was photographic if it matched the requirements of human vision, that is, if it had something like a recognisable form so that the screen (in the case of the cinema), or the photographic print, would display the needs of the "eye" within it. To MŽlis on the other hand, the eye was impoverished and conditioned by every day life to exclude the real source of its capacity to "see", which was the imagination. The durability and longevity of this opposition has, among other factors, been a conditioning element in discussions of realism with regard to images. For our purposes however, images are in need of a quite different set of definitions, and thus the opposition suggested above - illusion versus reality - connotes a rather complex bind from which it may not be possible to generate any clear conceptualisations. Godard's assertion that Lumire was a creator of fantasy and MŽlis was a true realist does not confront the possibility that the polarity may not exist within the framework put forth by the filmmakers themselves, and thus Godard's inversion may fall pray to the very ideology which he was trying to avoid.

Barthes takes up this debate by asserting that photographs are never, in a general or immediate sense, distinguished 'from their referent': ' ... it is not possible to perceive the photographic signifier, but requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection' (5). Barthes via Sartre: 'To determine the properties of the image as image I must return to a new act of consciousness: I must reflect. Thus the image as image is describable only by an act of the second degree in which attention is turned away from the object and directed to the manner in which the object is given' (Sartre 1).

This assertion of a primary and secondary level to the act of perception is in Sartre's case related to an activity of inner reflection. Barthes has transposed this to the photograph and in so doing has made the photograph a part of consciousness - photo to eye. The viewer is able to engage in a secondary act as a result of the way in which photographs carry their meaning within them. The idea that 'the photograph carries the referent within it' sine qua non means that the viewer has not engaged in a process of construction of meaning in the first instance, just as the photographer has only been an accessory to a process over which he or she has no real control. This presumption, to which I will return, assumes that a photograph of a house carries the meaning of house with it. But the argument can be made that there is no logical necessity for the house to be so named nor for the photograph to be dependent upon the external meaning, house. The drift between internal and external is crucial here. For while the photograph establishes a boundary which marks off the "real" it also disavows its own limitations. As the photograph is transformed into an image those limitations expand or contract through the language which is used. But what would happen if the photograph of a house were described as an image of a lion sleeping in his lair in Africa? There is an explosion of possibilities, a surrealistic juxtaposition of potential constructs which reveals that the photograph changes into an image at the instant it is "apprehended".

There is a tendency to look for meaning in the photograph, which as a result becomes a container to be filled, as it were, with the traces of the signifying properties of the objects or subjects it enframes. Here, vision becomes an accessory to what has influenced the process of depiction - the unsteady eye is replaced with a truthful picture - an image produced by technology to make the act of viewing possible. Paradoxically, because of this, the photo can at one and the same time be a vehicle of debasement and/or an arena of scientific activity. A crucial assumption is invoked: to understand a photo means distilling what is visible, that is "visualising" in the most concrete way possible those elements which presumably communicate information.

Fundamentally, the photograph takes on the qualities of a subject and generates processes of interpretation through its mapping of a referential structure, and this produces the paradoxical notion that photographs have a language. The suggestion is that their meaning is organised along linguistic lines, which of course is only possible - even if we have the most reductive notion of language itself - if the photograph has a consciousness.

There is an ambiguity to reference in photographs and it lies with the paradoxes of materiality and loss, the simultaneity of presence and absence. The following example illustrates this. When Neil Davis, an N.B.C. cameraman, died in Thailand during an abortive coup (1985), he fell after being shot, but his camera continued to run. His death, according to the news media who used the footage, was recorded by him. Of course that is an impossibility. But what it points out is a fascination with visualising that which can never be seen, preserving the process of dying as if life and death can conjoin through the power of the image. To "see" death in a photograph, or for that matter on a screen, one must see the death of an-other. But what then is one seeing? The photograph of Neil Davis showed his body in the arms of his sound man. It was on the front pages of many newspapers. But even as I say this my language is, so to speak, simplifying the complexity of the relationship between the newspaper picture and the work of interpretation and analysis. Yet it is precisely this process of simplification which converts the image into a photograph and reverses the relationship between apprehension and perception. I saw Davis' dead leg and lifeless torso. His leg was twisted into an impossible position and then frozen. I didn't see his face because he was holding onto his camera. Yet this description only hints at the profound sense of disgust which I felt at the way in which his death brought to life my own fears, at the need which I felt to personalise an event which had taken place many thousands of miles away from my home. In so doing I located his death within the confines of the photograph and confirmed my narrative of his pain as a function of what I had seen. To return to my previous point, this is why the photograph seems to slip out of the control of the viewer even as she reasserts control by placing the meaning back into the photograph.

During the Vietnam War Bhuddist monks burned themselves in front of the television, movie and still cameras. It was an act of supreme sacrifice, supreme protest. But it remained, once preserved in the form of a photograph or on the screen or on television, not the record, not even the preserved etchings of death, but the death of our separation from the act itself. One saw, through an empathy for those men, what it meant to be seen dying. The monks knew that the substance of their protest was visual, spiritual and political, but they also understood better than anyone else that "seeing" death was only possible from within life, and even then there was no guarantee that anyone would mourn. Thus, the act of preserving their self-immolation photographically was itself an activity of death, because the "visualisations" provided by images cannot be quantified, cannot be reduced to the convenience of the image as a representation. And what the image replaces is not the reality from which it has been "taken" (Does the camera remove some part of the real onto celluloid? Is the piece of reality which the photograph appropriates replaced or returned after it has been taken? Or is reality in any case merely an image awaiting some form of recognition by the camera?) but the viewer, who is seen as an appendage to a set of givens which seemingly delineate for him or her, the boundaries between cognition, fantasy and the visible. Thus, my conversion of Neil Davis into a dead body is as much an act of the imagination as it is a recognition of the event itself. And the possibility that the real and imaginary can act together at one and the same time to produce my experience of Davis' death suggests that this photograph may be playing a far less significant role in the networks of meaning which I put in place to understand my experience.

'I look at a portrait of Peter. Through the photograph I concentrate on Peter in his physical individuality. The photograph is no longer the concrete object which gives me the perception; it serves as material for the image' (Sartre 21). So arbitrary is this relay of relationships that the notion of convention is often used to explain the repetitive appearance of what Sartre describes as the 'indifference' of the object to what it signifies. The photograph appears over and over again, millions of times, creating an associative network of meanings. However habitual, conventions are only as solid as the cultural and social institutions which sustain them. The relative impermanence of the photograph is the reason why it can function as an accessory to memory but never be memory itself. This is because memories are a function of consciousness and not of the photograph. The family album doesn't inform the viewer about the past as much as it makes possible a narrativization of memory.

The moment of the photograph can never be repeated, which is at the heart of the nostalgia which is felt for the events or people depicted. Any resemblance between Peter and his photograph can only be posited or proposed if Peter exists within the moment of his image, forever. This suggests that we are inevitably dealing with various levels of approximation which paradoxically tends to harden the notion of convention and thus of representation. 'The entreaty to perceive Peter has not disappeared, but it has entered into an imaginary synthesis' (Sartre 23).

This imagined synthesis is based on truth. Whatever the constraints, the assertion will always be, "that is Peter." There is an irony which haunts this relationship between truth, representation and image and it has come to the fore with notions of the post-photographic. It is now the case that most photographs can be digitally altered through computer technology. This movement from the chemical to the electronic has provoked some serious questioning about the photograph as a representational device, particularly with respect to photojournalism (Ritchin). The paradox is that as computers allow for a complete redefinition of photographic representation the argument is that chemically based images were somehow more faithful to what they depicted. The post-photographic construction of meaning becomes the site for precisely the same kinds of questions which have always haunted photographs, questions centred on whether or not the truth is present. The beauty is that digitally remastering if not digitally producing photographic prints merely points out what has always been the case. Photographs have always been subject to design and redesign, to constructivist and deconstructivist practices which have made truth the playground for imagination.

Sight is a mental construct since the connections of seeing, perceiving and knowing are at best only available to us through hypotheses about the result of their interaction. When we speak then of seeing, are we speaking of a process? or of the products of that process? And as the word process suggests, the maelstrom of visual activities which accompany the viewing of a photograph cannot simply be reduced to the technological insistence represented by the print. The desire to make the print the pivot for all of this says more about the desire of the viewer than it does about the photograph itself.

The visual properties of a photograph are quickly enhanced by the activities of viewing. This transforms photographic prints into an image. Meaning is in large measure defined by the context in which the image is viewed, not as a result of the aesthetic constraints initially put in place by the photographer.

This process not only creates the possibility of substitution (I substitute myself for what I see), but also transforms the object of sight (what I see is no longer separate from me, thus, though it speaks, I only hear what I have said). The activity of viewing allows the spectator to engage in projecting as well as transforming the image into a site of meaning. What we have then are not simply photographs, they do not represent the activity of perception within them. They can only be understood as instances of viewing, or if one were to give them a topographic description, images are found between print and spectator. This does not mean that every image is different for every viewer. Rather it means that what is shared by an audience, and there is much which is shared, cannot be located outside of the exchange process which in an endlessly circumscribed fashion establishes, denies and re-establishes the limits of spectating.

I would suggest that there is very little permanence to the photographic print. It merely permits a viewer or viewers to speak (or write) about image-based configurations which are subject to almost continuous interpretation and re-interpretation. This lack of fixity seems to be in direct contradiction with the status of print itself. But as image, a print merely provides a context. It does not have the status of a language, does not speak to the viewer. The spectator, in speaking to it, generates the potential for reference which is a part of what Godard recognised when he claimed that Georges MŽlis was a documentarian. In other words, Jerome's eyes see nothing other than hypotheses of himself as a viewer. He has not looked into Napoleon's eyes, even though, in an imaginary jump, Barthes proposes that he has.

Sartre suggests that the notion that ' ... an image is inherently like the material object it represents' (3), is deeply flawed. The disjuncture between mind and object is so profound that it is the idea of the image as a join between consciousness, reflections upon experience and the object, which legitimises all three aspects of what seems like a similar process of exchange. Thus the photograph enters into a performative context in which the imagination plays a far more significant role than the print itself.

Can we gain access to what Jerome is thinking by looking at his photograph? Obviously we can in some respects, though in so doing the photo becomes part of a wider field of meaning - image - the deviations of which are both arbitrary and ambiguous - his thoughts are my own though I confer the act of possession upon him. Jerome, as such, does not enter my consciousness in a direct sense. The image however, does permit an endless narrativization of Jerome's potential thoughts - stories within stories - the reason Camera Lucida is an essay written in the first person as if it is about to become a fiction. This tone of contingency is at the heart of Barthes' project, an analytic strategy in which representation and signification are never fixed. This means that the photograph is always on the verge of becoming an image and is therefore dependent on the degree of investment which the viewer wants to make of it.

What is at stake here is how we can talk about the production and reproduction of knowledge in our society. As well, there are important questions which have to be asked about the object we wish to study. An over-emphasis on the visual characteristics of the image often results in a kind of detached definition of meaning and comprehension. Thus images are often labelled as sites of fantasy and illusion, and this is meant in a pejorative sense as if images stand outside of our culture while at the same time producing it. The further suggestion which grows out of this is that specific images have a determining effect on the way in which viewers think and act. This then confirms a power source, so to speak, which seems to be coming from a place beyond the social and cultural relations which are at its very base. What interests me is not whether images have an effect, but why so much power is imputed to them.

The image (in order to function, to work) always breaks away from the technology which produces it. The result is not simply an "object". Ironically, the viewer is engaged by a time-bound moment of communication simultaneously framed and unframed, magnified, flat, ghost-like, which to be experienced cannot simply be observed. This is of course a rather unpropitious instance since the validation for the experience must be found in a relationship and not simply in the object.

Herein lies the problem and it is one which Barthes explores in great depth. It is always easier and convenient to conflate Jerome with the idea that he was the brother of Napoleon. It is seemingly more concrete to talk about the photograph by prioritizing its content. This gives a presence to Jerome which makes his otherwise ambivalent status as an image transparently dependent upon his status outside of the image. It is the received history of Napoleon which acts on Barthes, and it is those texts with which he is engaged. There are an infinite number of things which Barthes could have said about the photo, and yet he chose to mention his own shock at the historical connection to Napoleon. It is not an accident that of all the photos in Camera Lucida the one which is missing is the photo of Jerome.

Let us consider this piece of paper on the table. The longer I look at it the more of its features are revealed to me. Each new orientation of my attention, of my analysis, shows me a new detail: the upper edge of the sheet is slightly warped; the end of the third line is dotted ... etc. No matter how long I may look at an image, I shall never find anything in it but what I put there (Sartre 7).

Sartre's subjectivism is taken up with a vengeance in Camera Lucida. There clearly is a need to place some mediators between the discourse of the imaginary as it is externalised by a subject and the piece of paper or photograph.

[T]he range of that which suggests itself as really photographable for a given social class (that is, the range of 'takeable' photographs or photographs to be 'taken', as opposed to the universe of realities which are objectively photographable given the technical possibility of the camera) is defined by implicit models which may be understood via photographic practice and its product. (Bourdieu 6)

Bourdieu goes on to discuss the cultural norms which he feels are at play when a photograph is taken. These norms, he suggests, are class based (he never mentions ethnicity or gender) and this is perhaps the least interesting element of his argument. For our purposes, Bourdieu develops a clear argument for the social and cultural configurations which he feels constrain the popular imaginary from conceiving the photographic act in anything but the most limited of ways.

The contrast here between a phenomenological and objectivist approach is most pronounced in the following quotation from Barthes:

In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W.H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. [Author's note: Barthes' term for a process of perception which doesn't have an immediate effect, meaning is not apprehended in an instant.] But the punctum [the opposite of the studium - immediacy, almost shock at the recognition of meaning] is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is at stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe. (Barthes 96)

Thus as Sartre has also suggested (Psychology of Imagination 23-24), the image is a place within which endless additions can be made because the activity of "observation" is immediately enriched by the imaginary. But for Barthes the question of the death of Lewis Payne somehow brings the photograph to another level. He is able to confirm the death although he will never "see" it, able that is, to bring history into the argument at the same time as he poeticises both his discourse and the event. As an additional example he sees his mother as a child and anticipates her death. The visible then pivots on the photographic in much the same way as the photographic anticipates its relationship to the historical moment which it is forever creating and denying.

Let me reverse the terms of the argument for a moment. How then, does an image become a picture? It would be difficult to talk about an image without also talking about the pictorial. The pictorial is a quality which one attributes to the image. It would be incorrect to assume that the pictorial is based, in a simple sense, on the visual. If there is a picture in an image it acts somewhat like a proposition, proposing that is, the relationship between a concept and a visual trace. A trace, however, doesn't have to have a relationship with that which it is designating. A visual trace can have a life of its own but it is ultimately a performative device fitting into a context of communication and exchange. Its structure is not sequential, that is, a series of traces need not be related, one to the other, for there to be meaning. A visual trace pivots on the space between meaning and communication. In that sense its materiality will not be the result of any one cause. Its materiality can in fact be produced by the absence of the photographic.

It may be necessary now to refine the concept of the image and to talk about projection, a process which performs the visual, disrupts linearity, and which undermines the presumed equilibrium between signification and representation. The performance of the visual produces a series of traces and what results is an "afterimage", but that describes very little of what happens to the pictorial when it is transformed into an impressionistic configuration of shades which alter what at "first-sight" seems to be immediately accessible. First sight, lost sight, memory of sight, the indicators of displacement and replacement. The traces of which I am seeking here are not signs, but lost sights. Their power lies in their contingent nature and their incompleteness.

One would have to introduce here, a variety of different questions. Is there a difference between an image which is succinct and one which is not? Can one talk about an image as a schemata? Can the inherent plurality of the image be disengaged? Is there a system which organises visual traces into coherent expressions? Can the boundaries of the image be clearly and easily established in relation to the viewing process?

For Edison and Lumire the image was a scientific instrument which could research the real by capturing its essence. In part this was done so as to be able to see what the eye could not. Thus ironically, the fragmentation of space, the stopping of time, and the reduction of movement to a pattern of visual traces, became vehicles for seeing more, not something different, thus expanding vision, going beyond the real to a level which could explain and simultaneously duplicate it. The desire to make patterns of movement intelligible (the galloping horse, the running motion of a human being) made it seem as if science and image were natural partners. History was also subsumed under the same process, and newsreels were not accidentally named. The play on the words real and reel reflected the need to constantly assert truth, in a sense to force truth into and onto the image. To produce truth meant to duplicate reality, that is to replace projection with reproduction.

Yet, if we are ready to accept that images do not simply reconstruct the real or just re-contextualise its properties, then we must also accept the reciprocal effect which the transformational qualities of the image confer on reality. The projected image represents a relationship between a number of different levels of meaning. And it is the stresses and strains of that relationship which produces the idea of a photograph. Acting more precisely at the level of a relation, the image is the clearest evidence of the difficulty which photographs have with replication. Meaning will not be found as a result in reality, or in the image, or in the process of projection, but in the manner in which all these elements interact, in the very "site" which is created in their interaction. None of these parts of what is an endlessly divisible whole are the privileged site of truth because they can never claim to be outside of the links which unite them. As a result, images do not express a real which is absent from the photograph and then brought to life by projection. This is where the relationship between image and projection breaks down even further because of the inability of the technology to reveal or verify its own limits.

Clearly the relationship between the photograph and reality is one of inter-dependence but it is precisely the reason why a photograph does not display reference. Photographs taken in the home for example have to be context-ualised by the life narrative into which they are placed. What they display are the traces of a process which is both descriptive and interpretive. A photo is a meta-communication about an event, a person, an object. It is not simply "acting in place of", "standing for", "replacing" what it seems to be picturing.

Often the photograph is described as a window or a mirror of the real. The power of these metaphors lies in their equation of the visible with the communicative. But the visual can only be communicated to someone, which means that the window will never be static and the mirror will not have an easily definable frame or a simple surface. A photograph opens up many questions about degrees of communication, about levels of replacement and substitution, and it may be very important to ask whether a photo can ever be emptied of meaning. While it is true that pictures communicate quickly and quite universally, those characteristics tell us very little about the depth of the relationship which the viewer develops with a photo. Photographs do not only exist for recognition but play a rather complex role in relation to identity and knowledge. Thus, the home photo album is as much a source of story-telling as it is a pivot for the illustration of memory. But what it comes to exemplify is not simply what we recognise in it, but the capacity which we have to produce a narrative out of its contents. The photograph communicates about itself and about its viewers, but crucially neither part of this process can be isolated from the other.

Often there are hints of this circular self-reflexivity in the photographs themselves, as when a smile is missed or a frown is caught. The artifice of making the photographic appear natural contributes to its aesthetic as if the photo can transcend the subject it pictures. The limitations of the act of taking a photograph are precisely that it puts in question the possibility of subjectivity, which is in part why it is scary to be photographed. At the same time, subject, photograph and photographer share the same relay of voyeurism which they are afraid of revealing at the aesthetic level.

For example a photographed face (as in Sartre's example of Peter, above) is a face which has been photographed, which means that from the outset the viewer has to reconstruct it. This produces a conflict which is the "site" of an intervention by the spectator. As a result, the viewer has to produce the illustrative qualities of the photograph. The photographed face as a portrait exists at a different level from the face to which it seems to be referring. However, if the referential process is itself subject to a variety of con-tradictory constraints then reference may be the least important aspect of what is from the beginning a relationship of transformation. This inevitably prioritises communicative exchange over reference.

Crucially then, a photograph of Clint Eastwood, to take another example, has at best a very distant connection to the "real man". The various levels of signification which constitute his symbolic existence pivot not around his absence but around the impossibility of his presence. In that sense a photograph doesn't replace him, but is merely part of a vast system of signification into which he is constantly placed and which precludes the possibility of Eastwood ever coming to life as an exemplification of what he has come to signify. It is in this sense that he is a production. Inter-views with the "real man", newspaper articles about him, films in which he acts, all of these merely confirm a continuing spiral away from the simplicity of reference.

In a similar sense, the creation of meaning in an image is not a process which is either internal or external to the real - its signifying processes do not reflect the real of which they are a constituent element. For an image to reflect that which constitutes it, the reflection must cease to be a representation. The distinction between signification and the real, especially as it is applied to the image, produces a division between reflection and repro-duction. Yet significations are precisely the material upon which the real must also be built or constructed. For as soon as the distinction between the real and signification is introduced, the material world is "represented" as having greater significance. The connection is then re-introduced as a function of duplication which tends to stress the power of the symbolic over the real. Yet clearly, neither can exist without the other. The notion of reflections denies relations of meaning and creates a context in which a neutral technology generates a neutralised content. Thus, reflection strips the visual of its conceptual framework while asserting that concepts can be expressed and explained through representations.

The image in and of itself, does not name what it depicts. It merely sets in place a process of potential identity. The visible is therefore merely a fragment of what is signified. Take the ironic name, newsphoto (which is related to newsreel). The name softens the effect of the disjuncture between information and picture, and an aura of truth is created around that disjuncture. The truth may be in the way that disjuncture is suppressed. The picture of that suppression can only be included in the photographic with great difficulty.

One can then say that the "material" does not exist prior to signification. Rather, meaning is material. It becomes possible for a representation to represent a representation and so on. What is important is where we choose to place the boundaries. The boundaries of the photographic print are in part shaped by the distance of the spectator from it. The closer one gets to the print, the more the boundary is disrupted. The print has not changed but our relationship to it has. There is here, potentially, an endless series of relationships. The pivots for meaning will be found not in some "pure" visual apprehension, but in the conjuncture of boundaries chosen to produce the visual, that is, the way the conjuncture is understood, related to, constructed.

Barthes, confronted by all of these paradoxes, collapses the contradictions into the theoretical proposition that the photographic act and the apprehension of meaning are imbued with a kind of 'madness' which various institutional, social and cultural processes attempt to control. The madness is situated in the lack of control which viewers have over their relationship to understanding, because, for the most part, the photographic process drains as much as it confers. In the end he returns to an argument which denounces the lack of authenticity produced out of this process and calls for an abolition of the image.

I will not conclude this article with a wrap-up statement to explain Barthes' anxiety, or provide an easy answer to resolve the dilemmas he described. Suffice to say, for the moment, that Barthes anticipated the arguments of Jean Baudrillard in the latter part of Camera Lucida, and in so doing returned to the existential tradition outlined by Sartre in The Psychology of Imagination. The image and the photograph become bearers of loss and yet remain the subject of discussion. It is precisely this "endless" flow which must be grappled with in a continuum of image production which will always be responding to paradox as well as generating contradiction. Unlike Barthes, I see no need to confront the breaks as if they must be soldered together. Rather, and with jouissance, I embrace the irony that we must never give up learning why all of these "breakdowns" are a necessary condition of modernity and the postmodern context.


1. John Berger, "Uses of Photography", in About Looking (New York: Pantheon, 1980). Berger's essay is dedicated to Susan Sontag and he quotes her as follows: 'A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask' (50).

2. See Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1991).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Noonday Press, 1981.

Berger, John. "Uses of Photography". About Looking. New York: Pantheon, 1980. 48-64.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography: A Middle Brow Art. Trans. Shaun Whitside. Stanford: Stanford U P, 1990.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Ritchen, Fred. "Photojournalism in the Age of Computers". The Critical Image. Ed. Carol Squiers. Seattle: Bay Press, 1990. 28-37.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Psychology of Imagination. London: Methuen, 1972.

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