By Cory Rice
There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” — Ansel Adams
A strong photograph is a marriage of concept and skill. Just as a brilliant idea falls apart in the hands of an inept photographer, even the most beautiful exposure is wasted if the scene it reproduces is not worth looking at. Countless tutorials and gear guides fill the Internet, aimed at tempering our seemingly genetic predisposition for dwelling on the nitty-gritty details of our craft. But what about the big picture? Enter photo theory.
I can already hear the groans… Books are for building makeshift tripods, not reading! Point taken. The aim of this article is not to pull you away from your camera — for too long. Nevertheless, we only stand to benefit from considering the perspectives of others from time to time. Becoming too comfortable or self-assured in one’s practice inevitably leads to stale images. Theory makes us question the things that we take for granted. Its value is different than that of a “how-to” instruction because it speaks to us in universal terms. Results are not immediate. Theory lingers behind the scenes — surfacing in conversations between shoots or during brainstorming sessions.
Roland Barthes was an immensely influential French thinker who wrote at length about photography throughout his career. He is among the most frequently quoted voices on the subject, and his work offers a solid entry point into the world of photo theory. Barthes’s background was in semiotics, a fancy word for the study of signs and the things that they signify. The majority of his work focused on language, since it is the most common system of signs used to communicate ideas. In his early writing on photography, Barthes studied it the way that he studied language, methodically picking apart advertisements and press photos. Later, he adopted a much more subjective perspective in an attempt to isolate what it is about a photograph that makes it able to affect us in such a strong, personal way.
What is a photograph?
“The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing… but an awareness of its having-been there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction of the here-now and the there-then.”
Much of Barthes’s writing on photography focuses on the deceptively simple task of coming to terms with what makes a photograph a photograph. In contrast to earlier art forms like painting, which has only incrementally changed over thousands of years, photographs, in less than two centuries, have transformed from delicate traces of silver on highly polished, mirror-like plates to heavily manipulated computer files that can be printed on virtually any surface at any size. With this in mind, pinning down exactly what all of the images that we call photographs share in common becomes a somewhat daunting task.
Barthes’s answer to this question pivots on the unique way that photographs embody time and space. When your camera’s shutter is released, a moment is simultaneously immortalized and gone forever. When we look at a photograph, we are confronted with what Barthes labels the “having-been-there” quality of its contents. It is a testament to the existence of a specific thing in a specific place at a specific time. I can paint your portrait from anywhere in the world, but I can photograph you only when you are in front of my camera. Similarly, a photograph offers a view of the world that you will never have access to except through the photo. You can look but you cannot touch. A photograph can only show the past — but it represents it in such a way that it appears in the present. This paradox lends every photograph a touch of nostalgia or longing.
How does a photograph communicate?
How does meaning get into the image? Where does it end? And if it ends, what is there beyond?
Barthes famously described a photograph as containing “a message without a code.” Unlike language, which usually consists of a system of signs with only arbitrary connections to the objects that they represent (e.g., there is no reason why a cat is signified in English by C-A-T instead of any other string of letters), photographs have a direct, physical relationship with the objects they represent (e.g., a photograph of a cat, no matter how abstract, first requires the presence of a cat in front of a camera). A photograph does not require knowledge of an intermediary code the way that language does. The content of its message is relayed directly by the image. A photograph of a cat looks like a cat.
Barthes defines two types of messages characteristic to photographs: denoted messages and connoted messages. The denoted message consists of the knowledge that one acquires from looking at a photograph. This is what such-and-such looks like. A product of photography’s chemical and mechanical nature, it promises a connection to its subject that the painter or sculptor cannot. The denoted message is the objective side of photography — beginning and ending with what the photograph represents. It is the having-been-there aspect of the image. On the other hand, the connoted message consists of the meaning that we add to a photograph. It is the subjective side of photography — what an audience brings to the image. Such-and-such makes me think about…
Consider the photo below. The denoted message describes its content: the balcony of a new apartment building whose renters have set out decorative pillows that spell out “YOLO.” Its connoted messages build upon this information and can change depending on who is looking at the image. For example, YOLO, a by-now dated acronym standing for “You Only Live Once,” speaks positively to a specific demographic — namely people in their early to mid-20s who choose to express their hedonism through hash tags and decorative pillows. On the other hand, for an audience who was raised in the rapidly gentrifying part of Brooklyn where this building stands, the polished architecture and ironic decoration signify an uninvited change in character and affordability to the neighborhood.
The key feature distinguishing the denoted messages from connoted messages is what the viewer brings to the image. Denoted messages are shared by everyone; they relay visual information. Connoted messages, however, are rooted in subjectivity. The same photograph can mean different things to different groups of people. Media outlets and ad agencies are experts at selecting photographs to illustrate specific ideas for their target audiences. For example, the balcony photo could accompany a news story about how apartment renovations in Brooklyn are catering to rich party kids and forcing local residents to find cheaper and quieter neighborhoods. The tension between photographic denotation (objectivity) and connotation (subjectivity) occupied much of Barthes’s early writing on the subject.
Who authors a photograph?
“In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.”
Barthes’s most famous work on photography, Camera Lucida, offers a much more intimate approach to the subject compared to his earlier writings. It is the end product of an obsessive quest to understand why certain photographs are able to move us in ways that no other medium can match. To do so, Barthes dials-down the analytic tone of his earlier essays and writes openly about his personal experiences with photography.
He is quick to dismiss his own efforts taking photographs, opting instead for a position as subject or audience. Any portrait photographer worth his or her salt is familiar with the small battles waged in the name of creating a compelling image of another person. Throw children or animals into the mix and you are looking at full-on war. Barthes’s observation while sitting before the camera contains an interesting observation and one of the surest ways to start a spirited debate among a group of photographers. Who is the author of a photograph? The photographer? The subject? The camera? You can’t have a photograph if any of the three is missing, but who or what is actually in control of the resulting image? I’ll leave this question to be resolved once and for all in the comments section at the end of the article.
How does a photograph affect us?
“Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it.”
In Camera Lucida, Barthes adds a new term to his photo dictionary: the punctum. A word he derives from Latin, meaning to prick, punctum refers to an unexpected detail in certain photographs that affects us on a personal level. It catches us off guard, eliciting an instant, visceral response. The punctum cannot be anticipated by the photographer and is rarely shared among viewers. It shouldn’t be confused with the shocking, in a general sense, which is typically a collective experience, foreseen as the shutter is clicked or the photograph is printed. The punctum sneaks into the photograph; it is a surprise every time. The detail that Barthes might experience as the punctum in a photograph is different from the one that I might experience, which, in turn, is different than the one you might experience.
The punctum is the most powerful, even dangerous, aspect of photography for Barthes. It is what moves us in ways that cannot be tempered, let alone rationalized. Frustratingly, it is the most difficult aspect of a photograph to articulate in words. A byproduct of the mechanical nature of the camera, it is often located in a detail that the camera registers but the photographer overlooks. It could be a pose, a piece of clothing, a strand of hair — anything at all. What affects one viewer most deeply is often perceived as a banal, even forgettable detail by everyone else. To this end, it strikes the innermost core of our subjectivity in a way distinct from any other visual form.
Barthes was neither the first nor the last writer to take a shot at coming to terms with the photographic image. Much has changed in the photo world since the ’80s. Most notably, writers today have to grapple with the impact of digital technologies on photography, something that was only in its early phases while Barthes was alive. Nevertheless, his work continues to influence generations of artists, critics, and lovers of photography and serves as solid starting point for those interested in photo theory. Agree or disagree with his ideas, his writing promises to get you thinking about photography in ways that you may never have expected.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980.
Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Batchen, Geoffrey. Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Boston: MIT Press, 2011.
 Image, Music, Text, 32.
 Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” reproduced in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 17.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 13.
 Camera Lucida, 117.