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Monday, 21 March 2011


This was the only book they had in our (photography!!!) college library dealing with the philosophy behind the medium of photography. It is dense with ideas and thoughts, all of which need time to unravel in your mind. It's a pity I never got beyond chapter 2 before I finished the 3 year course... I am trying to hunt down a used copy now.

there's a local independent library that have camera lucida copy i,ve been wanting to borroww, but it's been over a month missing (borrowed but not returned). currently borrowing and reading photographers on photography (1966) a compilation of writings by reknowned artist edited by Nathan Lyons. nice reading so far

Contains my favorite phrase encountered so far used to describe photography: "matte and somehow stupid."

Haven't made it past page 10 yet, but that's because I still need to get through Gerry Badger's latest book before I have to return it.

yeah, I can recommend Barthes as well, and now I really have to read 'La chambre claire,' thanks, Mike!

Mike -- I generally trust your recommendations re all things photographic (though the recent praise of Julie Blackmon came as a surprise). And, so, maybe I'll take a third crack at Camera Lucida.

But I readily confess that despite having an M.A. in philosophy, and some experience with French philosophy as well as photo theory generally, I found the book essentially incomprehensible on the first two reads. And what I did comprehend was so obvious as to make me wonder what I must have missed.

It would certainly help me if you or someone else can distill, in one or two paragraphs (in Plain English, please), what Barthes was trying to say in the book. Maybe the 3rd trek through will then prove to be more fruitful ....

I read it when I was studying photography some 6 years ago and it was indeed the book that made me question the importance of theory on photography.

I enjoyed it and found it interesting at the time but I don't know if it's a book that may change one's way of taking photographs. I guess that people who intend to read books like this have already a deeper interest on photography and don't get satisfied with the "make technically-perfect snapshots" approach of the majority of publications.

I feel that I learn way more appreciating the work of photographers I admire and to read or hear their toughts on it: theory + pragmatism = authenticity.

But you did make me think about read it again, if only to see if my mind changed that much over the years :)

I agree that Camera Lucida is a difficult read but worth the effort. Barthes explanation of "studium and punctum" really affected the way I take and look at photos. Barthes explains how photos can create an emotional impact on the viewer in a way that seems useful to a working photographer. After reading Camera Lucida I've found that almost every photo that I enjoy viewing contains a punctum and studium. Taking a photo with a good punctum is a bit of a challenge however.

"It would certainly help me if you or someone else can distill, in one or two paragraphs (in Plain English, please), what Barthes was trying to say in the book."

I know you're in earnest and not trying to be funny, but that made me laugh.

Maybe it's a job for the Lance brothers....

Art History Summary


"what Barthes was trying to say in the book. Maybe the 3rd trek through will then prove to be more fruitful".

He was not "trying" to say something, as in delivering some formulae. The book is a series of distilled instrospections, as you may perhaps figure it out at your next attempt at trying to understand Barthes. You may have a different approach if you would think of it as the author having a series of Proust's madeleine moments, and sharing these intimate reflexions in writing with his readers.

I must publicly admit that Camera Lucida did not make a positive impression on me, Mike, even after two readings. (@ Ricardo: To be fair, I don't think it ever had intentions to change one's photography. Barthes was no photographer, merely a French philosopher.)

But that's just me. The older I get the less tolerant and patient I'm becoming of pure visual studies navel gazing. Meanwhile, many people my age are heading in the opposite direction and finding "new meaning" in works such as Barthes's.

If you're in this latter group may I make an additional recommendation that you might find entertaining? A few years ago I was involved in providing photography for a project associated with W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor at the University of Chicago's art history department. Rather humorously, there were a few project participants (mainly academics) who seemed incredulous that the name was unfamiliar to me. So I dived into one of his works, titled "What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images". Although not specific to photography, I think that folks who enjoy "Camera Lucida" will certainly enjoy at least some of the essays in this collection.

To me this book is totally over rated. The only thing it adds is the obvious punctum stuff, and that yes, we all get sad when viewing photos of dead relatives, specially if its your mother and your time is approaching (Barthes case).
I think Sontag's On photography adds several much more ideas about the medium than Barthes.

"...it's not something you'll get much out of with the TV on and a reactionary chip on your shoulder".

Hmmm, I don't completely agree. The reactionary chip on my shoulder is precisely what got me through Camera Lucida years ago. Being able to parse the shit from the sugar is what kept it interesting, and made it useful as I developed as a photographer.

The first chapter is incomprehensible, but the rest of the book is a gem. I got in trouble from the chairman of the art department of the local college for assigning this book to my first year photo students. He said it was way beyond their capacity to understand. I countered that it would be good for them to stretch their brains a little bit. By the way, he hadn't read the book.

Long live the punctum — may it rule over the studium forever.

A wonderful gem of a book which, like all good discourse, holds few answers but is a treasure trove of better and better questions.


For the German-speaking readers out there: in its German version the title translates to "Die Helle Kammer. Bemerkung zur Photographie". The book appears in Suhrkamp Verlag:


I only read this book for the first time last fall, as part of a history of photography course. As a series of meditations, and as a glimpse into a real thinker's mind, it comes off very well. I don't understand all of it, nor do I ever expect to. But it's thought-provoking on many levels, and is valuable for that alone.

Mythologies, also by Barthes, was part of the foundations program for Art Dept. undergraduate majors at Cal Arts in 1985. Either way, it was too advanced. Barthes would have been better in an undergrad photo junior/senior seminar class - which they did not have at the time.


A true philosopher never provides answers, a philosopher "merely" excels at asking the right questions. At least that was what my philosophy teacher explained the first day we were attending his lectures.......now personally I derive the importance and the quality of a picture from it's powers to state a question.

Greetings, Ed


I will be buying via link later. I made this decision based on your item and that in The Guardian - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/26/roland-barthes-camera-lucida-rereading?INTCMP=SRCH

I studied other essays by Barthes in a critical studies course. Not an easy read but rewarding. Note one commentator in the Guardian article points to another review.


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