Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. [Part I]

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York, Hill and Wang, 2010.


In the first half of Camera Lucida, Barthes unpacks the experiential reading of photography. Uninterested in empirical, rhetorical or aesthetic perspectives, he not only offers language for the affective photography experience, but also asserts that the sensations produced and received [and intra-acting] are in fact born of pre-lingual desire, and that the most powerful vibration of this experience, the punctum, can only prick if it is unnameable. As Geoff Dyer mentions in his foreword, Camera Lucida is a collection of beginnings, rather than conclusions. Part I is just that–a collection of potentialities, not-yets.

Keywords: photography, punctum, studium, Death, Operator, Spectator, Spectrum, affect, culture, interest


  • I was overcome by an “ontological” desire (3).
  • the Photograph always leads the corpus back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This … what Lacan calls the Tuché, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression (4).
  • a photograph cannot be transformed (spoken) philosophically, it is wholly ballasted by the contingency of which it is the weightless, transparent envelope … the Photograph is never anything but an antiphon of “Look,” “See,” “Here it is”; it points a finger at a certain vis-à-vis, and cannot escape this pure deictic language (5).
  • It is as if the Photograph always carries its referent with itself, both affected by the same amorous or funereal immobility (6)
  • Myself, I only saw the referent, the desired object, the beloved body; but an importunate voice (the voice of knowledge, of scientia) then adjured me … I found myself at an impasse and, so to speak “scientifically” alone and disarmed (7).
  • I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image (10).
  • I don’t know how to work upon my skin from within (11)
  • I pose … but … this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from any effigy (12).
  • it is as if we repressed the profound madness of photography: it reminds us of its mythic heritage only by that faint uneasiness which seizes me when I look at “myself” on a piece of paper (13).
  • Photography transformed subject to object (13).
  • the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject not object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis) (14)
  • Death is the eidos of that Photograph [taken of me] (15).
  • cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing (15).
  • the best word to designate (temporarily) the attraction certain photographs exerted upon me was advenience or even adventure. This picture advenes, that one doesn’t (19).
  • my phenomenology agreed to compromise with a power, affect; affect was what I didn’t want to reduce; being irreducible, it was thereby what I wanted, what I ought to reduce the Photograph to; but could I retain an affective intentionality, a view of the object which was immediately steeped in desire, repulsion, nostalgia, euphoria? (21)
  • the anticipated essence of the Photograph could not, in my mind, be separated from the “pathos” of which, from the first glance, it consists … I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think (21).
  • What I feel from these photographs derives from average affect … it is studium … application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment … but without special acuity (26).
  • A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me) (27).
  • The studium … mobilizes a half-desire, a demi-volition; it is some sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds “all right” (27).
  • if Photography seems to me closer to the Theater, it is by way of a singular intermediary … by way of Death … a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead (31).
  • the photograph becomes “surprising” when we do not know why it has been taken (34)
  • the punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste: the punctum cannot be ill-bred (43)
  • I notice, by that additional vision which is in a sense the gift, the grace of the punctum … However lightening-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion … I see, by means of this “thinking eye,” which makes me add something to the photograph (45).
  • the detail which interests me is not, or at least not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful (47)
  • we say “to develop a photograph”; but what the chemical action develops is undevelopable, an essence (of a wound) (49)
  • I am a primitive, a child–or a maniac; I dismiss anything from another eye than my own (51).
  • What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance (51).
  • the punctum could accommodate a certain latency (but never any scrutiny) (53).
  • The photograph touches me if I … allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness (55).
  • [punctum] is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there (55).
  • the figures [the photograph] represents do not move … they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies. Yet once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is devined) (57).
  • The punctum [in erotic photography] is a kind of subtle beyond … toward the absolute excellence of a being, body, and soul together (59).
  • the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire (59).

Citations [breadcrumbs from Foreword]:

  • Barthes, Image-Music-Text, The Pleasure of the Text, Mourning Diaries, and Mythologies
  • Victor Burgin
  • Susan Sontag, A Barthes Reader
  • Martin Amis, The War Against Cliché


  • I am finding conflicting treatment of “encounter[ing] photographer’s intentions” (27). First, I am not entirely sold on the assumption, particularly given the experiential framing of Spectator as seeing through felt desire/personal history. But Barthes repeatedly stresses that he is unable to speak to the Operator experience. Also, he values the experience of not knowing intention (34). Something feels strange here. I wonder if this might be a hiccup in translation? [wishing I’d studied French!] Or, perhaps conflict/complication is to be expected of a collection of inconclusive beginnings.
  •  Still not sure about this “reading of punctum” (49) business either. At times Barthes discusses it as felt experience (prick), other times he locates it in the photograph (detail), and then still other times punctum is positioned as an in-between-ness (what is there, but also what he, as spectator, brings to it). Maybe I should think of punctum as within the margin of indetermination or as transition/relational movement or as flux or as bodyevent–not so rationally locatable. [overcome by an ontological desire]

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