Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A reappraisal of Camera Lucida by R.Barthes; speaker Prof. Elton

One of the most beautiful books I have read and one that like no other explores the essence of photography, is Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, a collection of short essays that probe the medium. I wondered what might lead someone to reappraise the book although it does show its' age a little, having been written before the age of digital photography. However, the few references to the chemistry of the medium, seemed unlikely to be a good enough reason to question Barthes in any real way although this might lead one to question Barthes' relationship with the photograph as evidence.

It was surprising to see on the lecture screen at the Photographer's Gallery where the talk was held that this lecture was actually to be "against" Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida as an entrenched attitude was not reflected in information about the talk. I did not like this apparent affront to one of my favourite books if only because the audience had not been warned in advance of the speaker's actual stance. Professor Elkins said that he had received a lot of diverse responses to his book, Photography Theory (the book is recommended by the OCA), and that he now feels unhappy about it…

Might his new book on Camera Lucida, awaiting publication once rights issues have been sorted out, be of similar ilk!?

There are concepts in Camera Lucida that need questioning. It is 30 years since the book was written and yet much photographic theory today still derives from this one work which is regarded as an authority and seldom questioned.  Camera Lucida is mined for its' theories and also as a kind of writing, ecriture. Some books do question Barthes such as Michael Fried’s book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, in which he discusses the punctum while Derrida says that Barthes' manner of writing undermines the theoretical claims of the book. Rosalind Krauss says that Camera Lucida is the moment when such “method” writing was, in a wider sense, recognized. Carol Mauver’s response to Camera Lucida is to suggest that objective writing on photography is next to impossible yet it is rather Barthes’ refusal to accept issues such as sex and racism that is at fault. Much new writing on photography does not explore the origins of Camera Lucida.

I feel I must insert the view by OCA photography course author, Michael Freeman, that Barthes is a philosopher; I feel such an observation helps to make this discussion more realistic.

In his introduction to Photography Degree Zero, a collection of essays on the book by different scholars …

Geoffrey Batchen questions the way Camera Lucida is written yet still recognizes it as a valid history or theory of photography.

Professor Elkins considers Camera Lucida to possess a kind of tiring sentimentality such as in the photograph of the young boy with a dog. There is an easy exoticism such as in the photograph of the sailors, one of whom has crossed his arms which for Barthes is the punctum, a crucial point in his understanding of the image. Barthes is oblivious to his own racism and sexism as in the photograph of the Negro family who interest him because of their conformity and clothes with straps. Barthes has an inability to see anything more than people, memory, love and loss. For Barthes, photography is about the vernacular such as the street photograph, the portrait and journalism; he can’t respond to photographs that are not of people such as Edgerton’s Milkdrop or the image of a bullet passing through a banana. Edgerton’s photographs of balloons exploding that the U.S. Government denied ever happening, rapatronic photographs, are all denied by Barthes because they are not phenomenological; the body does not experience them. Barthes ignores the surfaces of photographs, the little tell tale marks such as evidence of sponging.

Professor Elkins expounded a little more on what photography might be about. It shows us not just objects but the space around those objects, shows us things without a story, shows us things that are otherwise hard to pay attention to and shows us pain more intensely than any other medium.

Camera Lucida is nostalgic with a not-knowing approach (I actually appreciate this approach for its’ Zenlike lack of arrogoance) and compulsion to see the “surround”.

Elkins mentions re-photography, the act of rephotographing places from where photographs have been made before, as seen in the work of Mark Klett who has rephotographed in the mid-west in the steps of nineteenth century photographers …

There is also the photography of living but not human things such as amoeba, made possible though microphotography. Photographs of acoustic scans might also be considered.

One example of pain in photography is in the images of Chinese linghi, a form of torture. Bourgon has objected to the making of such images into aesthetic objects suggesting such objects should only be used for legal, historical or forensic purposes. Hence, photographs of Jews being lead into the concentration camp gas chambers should not be reproduced as such images are hard to look at even years after the events they picture.

In replying to questions, Elkins reiterated Barthes’ racism, in his not offering any apology for the suffering of black people, that he was not in the right frame of mind to write about photography as he was still mourning for his mother and that his beautiful writing rather obscures the weakness of his theories.

I wondered what to make of Professor’s Elkins talk since I found myself interested in his arguments but questioning them in various ways. The following comment about one of his books from the Amazon website struck a chord …

“it's indicative of a type of "high altitude" thinking that's so busy trying to demonstrate it's own all-inclusive authority that it can't be bothered to really attend to the finer grain of other people's concerns or arguments or to do the necessary homework required to "dig down" into what is actually at stake.”

The subject of Professor Elkin’s talk was interesting to someone who has read Camera Lucida yet someone who also finds inspiration in its’ manner of delivery and likes it for not being authoritative or conclusive. Barthes does actually ask the question as to what photography really is about and comes up with answers that are at the heart of the debate rather than the web of theories that nowadays surround it.

If Camera Lucida is dated, it is perhaps in the way that Barthes puts emphasis on the facticity of the photograph; photography in the digital age has become even more unreliable as fact than before.

No comments:

Post a Comment