Nothing is more present or more mysterious, still, than the
Photograph - so one blinks only at Barthes' assumption, at the
start of these meditations on its nature, that he is doing
something exceptional. More unusual, for such endeavors and for
Barthes, is his directness (rendered in limpid prose by Richard
Howard). What is there in certain photographs, he asks, that
attracts me? The investigation, then, is subjective - no
visual-arts touchstones, no socioeconomic ballast. Barthes
distinguishes between a general interest in a scene, which he calls
(with his penchant for coining terms) the stadium, and something
"which arises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and
pierces me": the puncture. Though he errs in supposing that the
punctum, in the photographs he cites, is necessarily accidental
(surely the Nicaraguan nuns were as important to photographer Koen
Wessing as the Nicaraguan soldiers), he exactly names the sort of
detail which, from photographer to photographer, surprises: "one
boy's bad teeth" in a William Klein scene of Little Italy, the dirt
road in a Kertesz picture of a blind gypsy violinist ("I recognize,
with my whole body, the straggling villages I passed through on my
long-ago travels in Hungary and Rumania"). Other recognitions,
other distinctions emerge - between "landscapes of predilection"
(where one feels one has been, or is going) and tourist
photographs; between erotica ("disturbed, fissured") and
pornography. But it is in searching back through photographs of his
mother, after her death, that Barthes arrives at the essence, for
him, of photography: one childhood picture, not reproducible ("It
exists only for me"), but a "just image." Grander statements appear
- to the effect, for one, that photography alone authenticates
existence and foretells death - but it is the emotional experience
of photographs, ordinarily the preserve of fiction, that resonates
here. Readers of Susan Sontag's On Photography will find Barthes a
gentler, more private, also insinuating voice on the subject.
Roland Barthes's last book, combining a selection of photographs with reflections on photography. It begins as as an investigation into the nature of photographs, and then, as Barthes contemplates a photograph of his mother as a child, the book becomes an exposition of his own mind.
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