Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

Grieving for his mother, Roland Barthes looked for her in old photos – and wrote a curious, moving book that became one of the most influential studies of photography

On Monday 25 February 1980, at the invitation of the future French culture minister Jack Lang, Roland Barthes attended a lunch hosted by François Mitterrand. As he rallied support for his presidential campaign of the following year, the leader of the Socialist party was in the habit of entertaining Parisian writers and intellectuals at relatively informal gatherings; political cajolery aside, it was said that Mitterrand simply liked to be apprised of new ideas in art and culture. Barthes, however, had wavered before giving in to yet another interruption of his working routine. It may well have been exasperation or boredom (for he was often bored) that made him decide, when the lunch concluded, to clear his head and walk home alone to his apartment on the rue Servandoni.

At about 3.45pm, witnesses recalled, Barthes paused before crossing the street at 44 rue des Écoles; he looked left and right, but failed to spot an advancing laundry van, which knocked him down. Unconscious and bleeding from the nose, he was taken to the Salpêtrière hospital, where it took several hours to establish his identity. The following day his publisher, Éditions du Seuil, announced that the 64-year-old writer's condition was stable and there was no cause for concern.

Barthes had spent the previous two months correcting proofs, then sending out signed copies, of his latest book – which would turn out to be his last – and subsequently slumping into something close to despair as hostile reviews began to appear in the press. Two days before the accident, his former student Julia Kristeva had spoken to him by phone and had been perplexed by an awkward turn of phrase that she put down to his depression. The book in question, about whose reception he seemed more than usually fretful, was La Chambre claire (translated as Camera Lucida): a "note on photography", as the French subtitle has it, which in retrospect looks calculated to affront. Because what Barthes had written was neither a work of theoretical strictness nor avant-garde polemic, still less a history or sociology of photography. Instead, it was frankly personal, even sentimental: an essay in 48 fragments that deliberately frustrated readers looking for the semiotics of photography they imagined Barthes would (or should) write.

The subjective turn in Barthes's thought and writing had come into view slightly earlier, with the publication of a ludic "autobiography", Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, in 1975, and his anxious anatomy of desire, A Lover's Discourse, in 1977. (In truth, early and late Barthes are not so easily told apart; as Michael Wood has argued, he was throughout his career a writer who engaged head and heart at the same time.) Camera Lucida, however, was different: not so much a knowing application of semiotic methods to intimate experience as a search for the aspect of experience that evaded study or critique. In short, it was a book about love and grief, written directly out of the loss of his mother in 1977, and shadowed by the "mourning diary" (published last year in France) that he had begun to keep after her death. Barthes had composed a ghost story of sorts, in which neither Henriette Barthes nor the book's ostensible subject, photography, could quite be grasped.

Camera Lucida is a distinctly odd volume to have attained, in the 30 years since its publication, such a canonical place in the study of photography. As the scholar Geoffrey Batchen points out in Photography Degree Zero, a recent collection of essays about Barthes's text, it is probably the most widely read and influential book on the subject. But the nature of that influence remains obscure – what exactly does one learn from Camera Lucida? Barthes certainly shrinks from being comprehensive; he has no interest in the techniques of photography, in arguments over its status as art, nor really in its role in contemporary media or culture, which he leaves to sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu. He is allergic to cleverness in photography (much of Henri Cartier-Bresson would surely qualify), disparages colour (in the era of William Eggleston, no less) as always looking as if it's been added later, and calls himself a realist at exactly the moment when postmodernist artists and critics were declaring the image a performance or sham. Worse, he risks this sort of aphoristic provocation: "in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes."

What, then, was Barthes looking for when he looked at photographs? In the first half of the book, he elaborates a distinction between two planes of the image. The first, which he calls the studium, is the manifest subject, meaning and context of the photograph: everything that belongs to history, culture, even to art. "The studium is a kind of education," he writes. It's here that we learn, say, about Moscow in a William Klein street photograph from 1959, or about the comportment of a well-dressed African-American family in a 1926 picture by James Van Der Zee. But it's the second category that really skewers Barthes's sensibility. He calls it the punctum: that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze without condescending to mere meaning or beauty. In the same Van Der Zee photograph, the punctum is one woman's strapped pumps, though it later shifts, as the image "works" on the author, to her gold necklace. This is one of a few curious moments in the book where Barthes blatantly misreads the image at hand; the woman is actually wearing a string of pearls. But his point survives: he has been indelibly touched by the poignant detail.

It's this (in academic terms quite scandalous) embrace of the subjective which allows Barthes to begin the quest that makes his book so moving. Having lost his mother, with whom he had lived most of his life, he goes looking for her among old photographs; time and again the face he finds is not quite hers, even if objectively she looks like herself. At last, he discovers her true likeness, the "air" that he remembers, in a picture of Henriette aged five, taken in a winter garden in 1898. (In the journal entry that recounts this discovery, Barthes simply notes: "Je pleure.") In narrative terms, it's an astonishing moment, comparable to the onrush of memories as madeleine meets teacup in Proust, or the scene in Citizen Kane when the maddened Kane first grasps the snow globe, emblem of all he has left behind. Barthes, however, is a temperamentally discreet narrator, so never shows us the photograph: "It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture."

Camera Lucida is a short book, but with the winter garden photograph it begins all over again. Suddenly every photograph is for Barthes a memorial; the very essence of the medium is its spectral conjuring of death-in-life. Contemplating a portrait by Alexander Gardner of the condemned Lewis Payne – sentenced to death for the attempted murder of US Secretary of State WH Seward in 1865 – Barthes sees only this fearful temporal paradox: "He is dead and he is going to die." And his book starts to sound weirdly premonitory: here is Barthes surrounded by his glum little icons, fantasising his own "total, undialectical death".

Heaven knows what students schooled to think of Barthes as a rigorous semiotician must feel today about this lugubrious turn in his final book, more in keeping with one of Poe's portrait tales than a work of cultural theory. If there are critical legacies to Camera Lucida, the first is probably its insistence (not as obvious as it seems) that photographs are always photographs of something. The book's more penetrating influence has certainly to do with photography and mortality: both the memorial uses to which photographs have long been put – one thinks of Victorian mourning portraits, or the profusion of post-9/11 mementos – and the vertigo we can feel in the face of even the most vivid and living subject. But few of Barthes's heirs – and Batchen's essay collection reprints three decades' worth of critical appraisal and envy of Camera Lucida – have ever reproduced or fully accounted for the strange air of searching and susceptibility that permeates his brief "note". As the art critic Martin Herbert has put it, "I don't go looking for 'ideas about photography' in that book; I read it for a certain kind of vulnerability."

Perhaps it is artists and writers who have come closest to capturing and developing Barthes's insights, whether consciously or in parallel projects that explored the mnemonic powers of ordinary snapshots. In his composite photograph Every Page of Roland Barthes's Book Camera Lucida (2004), Idris Khan has presented the book as a blackened palimpsest, its famous images mere blurred phantoms among illegible lines of text. And artists such as Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski, Tacita Dean and Fiona Tan have all amassed archives of everyday portraits that owe much of their allure to Barthes's "imperious sign of my future death". In fiction, WG Sebald admitted a profound debt to Camera Lucida; in Austerlitz, the protagonist's search for an image of his lost mother is clearly modelled on Barthes's desire for a glimpse of "the unique being".

Barthes himself lingered with the living for about a month after his accident. As a tubercular young man, he had spent time in a sanatorium, but it seemed to his physicians that his long-weakened constitution could still recover from the recent shock. Students and colleagues gathered at the hospital. He spoke of the "stupidity" of the accident with intimates such as Michel Foucault and Philippe Sollers. The latter would write later of the crushing boredom and the "complications with boys" that had afflicted his friend in the three years since Henriette's death. Barthes's condition began to worsen; his breathing faltered, a tracheotomy took away his voice, and it seemed to those around him that he had lost the will or interest required to live. He died of "pulmonary complications" on 25 March. The last manuscript on which he worked (an essay on Stendhal, left on his desk on the day of the accident) had been entitled "One Always Fails to Speak of the Things One Loves".


Brian Dillon

The GuardianTramp

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