It doesn’t feel entirely correct to be writing ‘a review’ of Camera Lucida or anything written by Barthes. This brief book, the last that he wrote, is one I’ve read various times over the years. I don’t know what made me return to it, but it’s slim and taxing and encapsulates the way in which Barthes writes in what appears to be a complex, intellectual fashion, but in fact his words are imbued with passion about issues of emotion, humanity, love and how we live our lives in our brief span.
Ostensibly this is a book about photography, about what makes a photograph a photograph (as opposed to a film or a chair or an ice cream.) Barthes analyses a range of photos, pursuing his personal reactions, trying to see what they have in common. This leads to a succession of observations about the way in which photographs function, and what makes, from his point of view, one photograph more interesting than another.
However, this leads him to the most important photograph he knows, which is one of his late mother as a child. The value of this photo is that it, in some alchemical way, for him, captures something of the essence of his mother, in a way no other photograph did. Barthes explores his relationship with this unseen photograph, which leads him towards the relationship between photography and death, the way in which the photo would appear to renege death, it becomes one of the only human inventions which can stand in its way. Whatever has been photographed has been, and its existence cannot be denied. Thus, the book becomes an investigation into the connections between time, death, memory and truth.
Without trying to summarise his thoughts in any great detail, its perhaps safe to say that Camera Lucida is also a requiem for his mother, and, given the irony of the fact that this is the last book he wrote before he died, himself. That the essence of a person should live on, that mortality can adapt itself through the interference of light on paper, (or now, pixels) is some kind of strange modern achievement, of which photography itself is barely cognizant. However, Barthes observes, even this is a deception, for photographs themselves fade, the ink receding with time, and the truth that is written in the arrangement of ink on a page is transient too. In this sense, it could be that photographs are a kind of liminal purgatory, a whisper of breath, of the soul, which clings to the material, knowing this is a futile gesture, doomed to obsolescence.
It is entirely fitting that there is no photograph of Barthes himself in the book. However, as he must have been aware, his words contain more of his self, whatever that is, than any photo ever could. But that’s another story.