Until “Camera Lucida” 1961-1980, on Barthes

In the Photographic Message (1961), Roland Barthes approaches photography from Semiology, through denotative and connotative codes, the latter necessarily bound to culture. “Signification is a dialectic process that solves the contradiction between natural and cultural man”. In this process the paradox of photography is presented, where an inert object is converted into language.

 In Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes approaches photography differently, trying to establish the terms of reference – outside of semiology – to understand its essence, or, what differentiates photography from other types of image. In this sense Barthes offers the idea of equivalence between the referent and its photographic representation. To this representation he adds the concepts of studium – the general interest raised by photography – and punctum – the incisive and poignant detail, to arrive at the awareness of photography as “this was”. The association of “this was” with the notion of punctum, expands the equation to include Time, and, necessarily, establishes the link between the photographic image and Death[1]. Connecting these concepts, Barthes proposes the idea of photography as adventure, should the spectator decide to embark.


It is notable that Barthes liberates himself from the semiotic approach from previous work to try and understand photography’s revelatioCamera Lucida shows us the path of this  adventure – personally and culturally loaded – and at the same time points out the limitations of theories originating in linguistics in approaching the photograpic image. Death permeates the work and, I don’t know if by chance, Barthes was killed by a laundry truck while crossing the street, the year Camera Lucida was published.

 [1]. The connection between staging/theatre established in the work also submits to Death.    


Barthes, Roland, Chambre Clair, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1980.
Barthes, Roland,Le message photographique, in Communications 1, (?), Paris1961

*This article was originally written in Portuguese in the context of Art History. This post is the first English version, written in 2014. It was originally published on the blog Photography as Device [PAD] a On photography: Until “Camera Lucida” 1961-1980. That blog is no longer maintained.

The English tittle  “Camera Lucida” is misleading, as it specifies indicates a device instead of a concept.