If you’ve never heard of Roland Barthes, congrats - clearly you were never forced to study structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism or semiotics. Lucky you.

It was as a semiologist that Barthes (b 1915 - d 1980) was best known, and in simple terms, semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and their meaning. For obvious reasons, academic texts that deal with semiotics (and structuralism, and post-structuralism, and deconstructivism) tend towards the abstruse. When the king of the deconstructionists Jacques Derrida (of whose work ‘abstruse’ would count as a highly charitable description) passed away in 2004, satirical website The Onion ran a single sentence headline: 'Jacques Derrida “dies” '. That joke (and variations on it) are, trust me, the only funny thing that has ever come out of semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstructionism. Reading the work of certain semiologists is like trying to argue with a hungry 3-year old who has an MA.

The reason I’m writing about Roland Barthes on DPReview is that Barthes was fascinated by photography, and wrote one of my all-time favorite books about it - ‘Camera Lucida', published in 1980. Photography didn’t attract much academic interest until the 1970s and 80s, and 'Camera Lucida', alongside Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ is among the most influential (and enjoyable) books of its period to deal with photography as a cultural phenomenon, not just in the obvious way, as an art and practise. You do not need to know anything about philosophy to read 'Camera Lucida' and you might actually enjoy it more if you don't.

Photography is an odd kind of art-form. You can’t ‘read’ a photograph like you can text (which is the kind of thing that annoys the hell out of semiologists), and being by its nature infinitely reproducible, a photograph doesn’t have the uniqueness of a painting. Consider also that to ‘make’ a photograph takes no training. In many circles, photography is still considered the poor cousin of ‘real’ art and it’s easy to understand why. Just remember Kodak’s famous slogan: “You push the button, we do the rest”.

As Louis Daguerre said, the photograph “gives Nature an ability to reproduce herself”

Barthes thought that photography is actually closer to theatre than to painting (because of its direct line of connection to life). He was not a photographer - “too impatient for that” - and had no interest in investigating photography as an activity. He wanted to get to grips with what photographs are and what makes them unique.

In perhaps his most famous statement on photography (made before he wrote 'Camera Lucida') he suggests that the photograph is a semiotically unique, paradoxical artifact - unique because it is a “message without a code”. It doesn’t need a code (or shouldn’t) because in theory, the message of a photograph is reality itself. This is the photograph as a purely representational artifact - the product of light rays, entering a camera from the surface of a tiny corner of reality. As Louis Daguerre said, the photograph “gives Nature an ability to reproduce herself”. And he ought to know.

That’s the theory, at least. The problem (the paradox) of course is that despite the fact that a photograph is a mechanically-created object, it’s very hard to imagine a photograph that isn’t highly coded. Everything from how a portrait subject is posed, to the photographers’ choice of background, or camera angle etc., can affect how we feel about a photograph, and ultimately what we take away from it. It’s actually very difficult to conceive of an example of what Barthes calls the ‘brute image’; a hypothetical photograph free from any kind of connoted meaning.

One of a collection of images taken by a relative of my grandmother and grandfather on a honeymoon trip around England in late summer 1939 (you can read more about the project and see more images here).

Because of when they were taken (just weeks before the outbreak of WWII) and how (they were shot on then-rare color film) they're all rich in what Barthes called 'Studium'. For me, the 'punctum' in this shot is my grandparents' cat (bottom of the photograph, in front of the tent, facing the camera) which - apparently - traveled with them.

In 'Camera Lucida', Barthes suggests that there are two elements to every photograph. Borrowing from latin, he calls these the studium (‘study’ - think application or commitment) and the punctum (‘point’ - think puncture or prick).

In simple terms, the studium is all the information which can be gleaned from a photograph which derives from the cultural context in which it exists. As such, the studium is experienced according to the viewer’s personal, political and cultural viewpoint. A good example of a kind of photography which is rich in studium would be traditional western photojournalism. Assuming you’re familiar with the culture in which they were taken, such photographs are pretty easy to ‘decode’ when we see them in our daily newspapers. We know what they are ‘of’.

The punctum, on the other hand, is an element (or elements) of a photograph which don’t necessarily contribute to their overall meaning or intended message, but which grab or ‘prick’ us for some reason. Barthes gives the example of a 1924 photograph by Lewis Hine of a developmentally disabled child in a New Jersey institution, with a bandage on her finger. For Barthes, the ‘punctum’ is the bandage - an “off-center detail” which catches his attention and which provokes a “tiny shock”. The studium, in contrast, is “liking, not [...] loving” - a “slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in [things] one finds ‘all right’ “. The bandage has nothing to do with the studium of the Hine photograph, but it interests him more.

Most of us take pictures of places, people and things, without spending a lot of time thinking about their content beyond whether it appeals to us aesthetically

This might all sound very abstract, but it’s actually a really useful way of thinking about how we take photographs. Try categorizing your own work by Barthes’ definitions. Are you someone whose photography is all about the studium? I suspect that most of us are. Most of us take pictures of places, people and things, without spending a lot of time thinking about their content beyond whether it appeals to us aesthetically. We can learn from photographs like this, but it’s generally (literally) surface-level stuff.

The punctum is more valuable, says Barthes, because it’s unexpected. Uncoded, and more interesting. And to return to the comparison with painting, a punctum of the kind that Barthes describes could only exist in a photograph, because of the unique way in which photographs are created.

By the time I was able to really know my grandparents they were old (and my grandfather died when I was in my early teens). For me, working on these images offered an amazing opportunity to encounter them them as young people. In Barthes words, I was "gradually moving back in time" with these people, both of whom are now dead.

Thanks to a DPReview reader, I even know what happened to the car.

Even in translation. Barthes is a great writer. He’s smart (obviously) but also funny. He’s wonderfully catty about types of photographs and photographers that he doesn’t like, and he correctly identifies one of the most creatively destructive traps that you can fall into as a photographer: thinking that just because you took a picture of something, it must be important. Ouch.

To me, the main appeal of 'Camera Lucida' is that it’s much more than just an academic dissertation - it’s a deeply personal, very emotional book. Less philosophy in many places, and more biography.

The latter part of the book, especially, contains some quite beautiful writing. This is highly unusual in a work of philosophy (trust me). Perhaps the reason for the switch to a less academic and more personal mode of writing is that while he was working on 'Camera Lucida', Barthes’ beloved mother Henriette died. And after she died he went looking for her. Not literally, but emotionally, hoping to find the essence of her in family photographs.

He talks about this process in terms of a “painful labor”, “gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved”. He describes “straining towards the essence of her identity, [...] struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false”. What he was finding in the photographs, to his frustration, were merely “fragments”.

And then, finally, he made a breakthrough. He found what he was looking for in a single photograph of his mother as a young girl. Among a mass of pictures of Henriette as an adult, it was in this photograph of a five year-old child - a child of course who he never met in life - that he truly recognised the person he had known and loved.

Barthes doesn’t exactly admit defeat in 'Camera Lucida', but he does concede that maybe things are a little more complicated than he once thought.

In the final chapters of 'Camera Lucida' (it’s a very short book, most chapters are little more than a single page) Barthes revisits his central premise of the studium and the punctum, and revises it, suggesting a third element. Specifically, another type of punctum, not of form, “but of intensity”. This second punctum is Time.

In 'Camera Lucida', Barthes the famous philosopher gives way to Barthes the grieving son. Yes, much of the first half of the book is more or less standard fare for someone with his academic preoccupations (and indeed it picks up from his earlier work on the same subject, exploring the photograph’s potential as a purely representational object) but he’s not just flexing his intellectual muscles for the sake of it. Barthes is writing about time (he has a wonderful description of cameras as ‘clocks for seeing’), memory, and death. When it comes to the ultimate challenge of ‘penetrating’ photographs to find their meaning, Barthes doesn’t exactly admit defeat in 'Camera Lucida', but he does concede that maybe things are a little more complicated than he once thought.

A girl bathing by Stiffkey bridge, in Norfolk. August 1939. Looking at this picture I can't help thinking who she is, what kind of life she had, and whether she's still alive (if so, she must be in her late 80s or 90s now).

'Camera Lucida' may not make you a better photographer (it might actually make you pause before picking up your camera again!) but it will probably make you a more thoughtful one. There is a reasonably good chance, too, that it will make you cry. There's a a lot of post-war Continental philosophy that might have the same effect, but for very different reasons.

I hope that after reading my shallow analysis of it, you do read 'Camera Lucida'. And if you do, I hope that it will remind you of the unique role that photography has in our lives, and of its power. Photographs let us travel back in time, and in that way they enable us to maintain relationships with people that we’ve lost. In the end, it’s a book about love.


Is there a particular book which made a difference to your life as a photographer? We'd love to hear from you – and you might even get featured on the DPReview homepage. Leave us a short note in the comments and if you have a longer story to tell, send it to us, and we'll take it from there.