Condensing Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida

Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, et al. wrote a small book, Camera Lucida, on the nature and essence of photography. Although the book focuses on the lasting emotional impact of the medium, there are intensely personal passages in the book. It is, therefore, sometimes difficult to separate the discussion of photography from the personal. Even so, if you are studying photography, this book will likely be on the top of your curriculum. What is significant about the book is the taxonomy that is laid out.

The taxonomy is wrapped around several keywords: operator, spectator, stadium, spectrum and punctum. If you read through his book you will find them defined in the following list. Where possible I have tried to let the author speak through quotes from the book.

  • Operator: the photographer whose emotional reaction to the frame limits and perspectivizes the surprise he is creating. In viewing the image, he is linked to the framing process.
  • Spectator: those who look through photographs but are not linked directly to the emotional framing of the operator.
  • Studium: “it is this element which arises from the scene and  shoots like an arrow, and pierces me.” “It is about liking not loving, it is vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds ‘all right.'” “To recognize the stadium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions to enter into harmony with them, to approve or disapprove of them, but always to understand them, to argue them within me, for culture (from which stadium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers.” In other words the stadium speaks to the politician, linguist or cultural interpretation of the photograph.
  • Punctum: “The second element that will disturb the studium… punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole… that accident that pricks me.” a marked break – often a detail of higher value – Power of expansion or metonymic isolated by the photographer. In other words, the punctum of a photograph is the personal detail that establishes a relationship with the object or person within it.
  • Spectrum of the Photograph: the eidolon (a spectre or phantom) emitted from object, or spirit, Cultural Knowledge. “…the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the spectrum of the photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relations to “spectical” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.”

One could say a good photograph, according to his taxonomy, should have a “punctum” that disturbs the “spectrum” and, as a result, creates a “studium” that arrests the spectator suddenly or unexpectedly.