Roland Barthes: A Philosophy of Pictures

Roland Barthes: A Philosophy of Pictures
roland barthes philosophy of photography


Have sure images ever triggered an indescribable feeling in you? If that’s the case, you’re not alone. For Roland Barthes, the most effective images had been in a position to wound the onlooker. However what precisely is that this ‘wounding’ mechanism? And why does Barthes consider it pertains to loss of life? On this article, we’re going to comply with Barthes to the foundation of what makes images a self-discipline in its personal proper.


Pictures Earlier than Roland Barthes

view window gras joseph nicéphore niépce
Level de Vue du Gras (View from the Window at Le Gras), by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1827, by way of Harry Ransom Heart, Texas.


For a lot of its brief life, critics noticed images as a software in service of its material – as a method to an finish. Criticism at this level targeted on two major modes of study. Both, images was analyzed in relation to the picture it captured – be it a historic occasion, commercial, or style – and its relevance to society. Alternatively, criticism targeted on its technical features.


Vital discussions centered on historic tendencies akin to pictorialism, or on genres, akin to landscapes and photojournalism. Pictures was thus by no means seen as a medium, or an finish, in itself – not like movie or literature.


It was on this important context that the French thinker Roland Barthes revealed Digital camera Lucida in 1980, answering the very query that had not but been correctly requested:


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What’s the essence of images?


In different phrases, what’s the ingredient that unites all images, and distinguishes the medium from associated areas, akin to cinema?


What Makes a {Photograph} Completely different?

lunch atop skyscraper charles clyde ebbets
Lunch atop a Skyscraper, by Charles Clyde Ebbets, 1932, by way of Wikimedia Commons


Barthes started his investigation by discovering out what images was not – by seeing the way it differed from associated disciplines.


Pictures as a Mechanical Course of


Barthes’ investigation began in an earlier essay, ‘Rhetoric of the Picture’ (1964), during which he made the essential statement that:


‘[A photograph is] captured mechanically, not humanly.’


Take portray for instance. When a painter sits earlier than a bowl of fruit and begins to place paint onto their canvas, the ultimate picture that comes out is a human interpretation of actuality. The bowl of fruit is captured ‘humanly.’ The painter takes the actual, and transforms it into the unreal, within the act of interpretation.


When the photographer, however, clicks the shutter-release, the method is only mechanical. There isn’t any inventive transformation of the actual into the unreal, because the {photograph} is a literal replica of actuality. After all, there may be an artwork to getting the composition of objects proper, in addition to within the modifying course of, during which mild and shade might be distorted for inventive impact. But, even when these components might be influenced, the photographed object stays an actual, mounted level of reference. And thus, the {photograph} continues to be a mechanical copy of actuality.


On this sense, we will say: work characterize, whereas images current.


v j day times square alred eisenstaedt
V-J Day in Occasions Sq., Alfred Eseinstaedt, 1945, by way of Nationwide Archives, Maryland


Pictures as Pre-Cultural


With this in thoughts, Barthes (1964) made one other statement:


‘Pictures is a message with out a code.’


This may look extra advanced at first, however the idea might be damaged down.


Have a look at a novel, for instance. In a novel, the textual content (the phrase selection, the construction) is the ‘signifier.’ And the objects, individuals, and occasions that the textual content describes are the ‘signified.’ The way in which the writer represents (signifies) the individuals and occasions (the signified) of their novel is decided by their very own creativity. In different phrases, they will affect the signified as they so need. Due to this fact, we will say that there’s an open relationship between the signifiers and the signified in a novel. And on account of this open relationship between signified and signifier, there may be room for numerous interpretations.


Nonetheless, in images, the connection between signifier and signified is completely different. As we’ve already established, {a photograph} is ‘captured mechanically, not humanly.’ It’s an actual copy of the actual. Thus, the signifier is the signified. In different phrases, this photograph of an apple signifies this apple that was photographed. It doesn’t characterize however relatively presents. The hole between actual and unreal, object and illustration, from which we will posit numerous interpretations, doesn’t exist in images. As the truth of the photographed object is mounted, so too is our interpretation of it.


valley shadow death roger fenton
The Valley of the Shadow of Dying, by Roger Fenton, 1855, by way of Wikimedia Commons


Can a {Photograph} be Interpreted?


Now, if Barthes had left his evaluation right here, there could be a really damaging implication for images.


If images is solely a brute file of what’s/what was, then the picture is nothing greater than a mirror of actuality and has nothing to say – no interpretation to derive. Tradition essentially comes earlier than interpretation. Thus, if images don’t have anything to say, then they’re pre-cultural artifacts, as interpretation is culturally influenced.


Due to this fact, we will now not interpret the which means of images as to do that is to impose a cultural angle, and thus misunderstand their very nature (i.e. as being pre-cultural).


That is certainly damaging for images as an artwork type. But, this conclusion contradicts our personal experiences of images, and the intimate which means we learn into them. So what’s to be achieved?


water rats francis meadow sutcliffe
Water Rats, by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, 1886, by way of Getty Museum


Roland Barthes provided an answer. The shortage of a code, he argued, turns into the very code of images. That’s, the signified which means of {a photograph} turns into goal, because the factor photographed is essentially actual. In contrast to a portray, whose panorama might be imagined, the thing of the {photograph} should essentially exist. This superimposes actuality and the previous onto the {photograph}, opposite to cinema and literature.


This, Barthes concludes, is the distinctive ingredient – the noeme, as he calls it – of images: that it captures ‘that-has-been,’ and that what it signifies is essentially actual.


The Expertise of the Topic

blind woman paul strand
Blind Girl, by Paul Strand, 1916, by way of Wikimedia Commons


Once we pose in entrance of a digicam, Barthes (1980) says we expertise ourselves in 4 other ways. Directly, we’re the particular person:


  1. We expect we’re
  2. We wish others to suppose we’re
  3. The photographer thinks we’re
  4. The photographer makes use of for the aim of his artwork


Consequently, we are inclined to really feel inauthentic when posing for {a photograph}. It’s as if we expertise a mini identification disaster each time earlier than the lens. As described by Barthes (1980) himself:


‘I’m neither topic nor object however a topic who feels he’s turning into an object: I then expertise a micro-version of loss of life.’


This ‘micro-version of loss of life’ is a key idea for Barthes. Dying is a basic ingredient of the {photograph} for each the topic and the spectator. This concept shall be additional analyzed later. For now, let’s flip to the expertise of the spectator.


The Expertise of the Spectator

prostitute new orleans bellocq
Prostitute, New Orleans, by E.J. Bellocq, 1912, by way of Wikimedia Commons


When finding the essence of images – ‘that-has-been’ – Barthes targeted on the experiences of the ‘spectator.’ The spectator is the particular person viewing the {photograph}. For the spectator, there are two separate components in {a photograph}:


  1. The studium;
  2. The punctum.


Let’s now have a look at these two Latin ideas.


The ‘Studium’


In line with Barthes (1980):


‘The studium is that very extensive area of unconcerned need, of varied curiosity, of inconsequential style.’


Put merely, the expertise of studium outcomes from a sure cultural data that enables us to establish:


  1. The intentions of the photographer;
  2. The implications of the {photograph}.


My schooling, as given to me by tradition, permits me to see each {photograph} for instance of one thing.


For example, {a photograph} depicting poverty and baby labor could stimulate my broad curiosity in inequality, and point out the intention of the photographer – akin to that the financial system was/is in want of change. The {photograph}, on this sense, appeals to the studium – it requires a sure data (the results of tradition) and appeals to this data as exemplifying a case of one thing.


breaker boys lewis hine
Breaker Boys, by Lewis Hine, 1911, by way of Wikimedia Commons


The studium operates at two ranges of which means: the denoted and the connoted.


Denoted which means is solely the very object it captures: this apple, that king, the poor.


Connoted which means, however, is that which the {photograph} implies in its symbolism: for instance, that the poor stay beneath an oppressive regime, in want of change.



The studium is intentional. The photographer is aware of that by photographing a selected scene, with a selected composition of individuals and objects, they enchantment to the studium.


A specific {photograph} that captures the accidents and plight of civilians in conflict serves for instance of the generalized notion of the brutality of conflict – a cultural notion. Right here, the denoted and connoted which means is apparent.


In distinction, the second ingredient of {a photograph} is unintended – the photographer doesn’t intend it to be there. That is recognized, based on Barthes, because the punctum.


abolish child slavery
Abolish Little one Slavery, Unknown, 1909, by way of Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


‘Punctum’ in Latin refers to that which ‘stings,’ ‘cuts,’ or ‘wounds:’


‘{A photograph}’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but additionally bruises me, is poignant to me).’
(P. 27)


In Digital camera Lucida, examples of the punctum vary from a person’s unkempt fingernails, to a boy’s outsized collar. These are all incidental options that trigger an sudden response within the spectator.


The punctum is non-obvious, unintended, and evokes a deeper emotional response within the spectator. It’s thus the very ingredient that pulls us to sure images, and is past denoted and connoted which means.


Very broadly, let’s imagine that the studium appeals to the mind, whereas the punctum appeals to the feelings.


On high of this, the punctum is:


‘What I add to the {photograph} and what’s nonetheless already there’ (Barthes, 1980).


child laborer newberry south carolina mill lewis hine
Little one Laborer in Newberry, South Carolina Cotton Mill, by Lewis Hine, 1908, by way of Library of Congress, Washington, DC.


There’s a paradox right here. The punctum requires the spectator, but it exists independently of them, as it’s ‘already there’ to be found. So, is Barthes merely figuring out his private subjective expertise of images as a component belonging to them, relatively than one he brings to it?


The brief reply is not any. Barthes saved his problematic definition of punctum by arguing that we will relate again to images’s essence – ‘that-has-been.’


Roland Barthes: Pictures, Time, and Dying


Within the second a part of Digital camera Lucida, Barthes introduces a brand new variation of punctum, which is time itself:


‘This new punctum, which is now not of type however of depth, is Time […] its pure illustration.’


The concept of time is current in each {photograph}. It’s mentioned {that a} {photograph} freezes time, however in actuality, it’s a mirrored image of time’s fixed, unrelenting nature.


bandits roost mulberry street jacob riis
Bandits’ Roost, 59 1/2 Mulberry Road, by Jacob Riis, 1888, by way of Museum of Fashionable Artwork, New York.


Once we have a look at {a photograph} of a relative, we all know – given the essence of images (‘that-has-been’) – that this particular person did indisputably exist. But, viewing this {photograph} within the current, we’re reminded that this particular person will die or has already died. And additional, we understand that this current, during which we view the {photograph}, will likewise turn into the previous of the longer term, and that we, too, will die. Each {photograph} thus combines previous, current, and future, embodying time and implying loss of life:


‘Whether or not or not the topic is already lifeless, each {photograph} is that this disaster’
(Barthes, 1980).


This variation of punctum – as time itself – transcends the subjective expertise of the spectator.


On the one hand, it exists impartial of the spectator: the photographed topic did exist, and can sooner or later die. And however, it’s what the spectator provides: they see the ‘imperious signal of [their] future loss of life’ (p. 97) on this intersection of previous, current, and future.


Thus, the punctum is the consequence of images’s essence (‘that-has-been’), and is certainly what’s already there, along with what the spectator brings.


sergeant dawson daughter john mayall
Sergeant Dawson and his Daughter, by John Mayall, 1855, by way of Royal Assortment Belief, London.


Conclusion: Pictures are wounding. Their unintended particulars – these that are outdoors the intentional narrative – are the weather that seize our feelings. And past the subjectivity of our feelings, it’s the unifying theme of time, and its implication of loss of life, that really wounds us. So the following time you end up misplaced in {a photograph}, suppose again to Barthes, studium, and punctum, to higher perceive that indescribable feeling.