Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Roland Barthes deconstructed


A year or so ago a friend of a friend asked me to be a guest speaker at the beginning photography class that he was teaching at a small local college.  He, the teacher, is not a photographer but instead was a freshly minted MFA and adjunct faculty member of their fledgling art department.  He felt that having a real live photographer talk to the class, show some work, and participate in the class critique of the student's assignment for the week would be a good idea.  I agreed to do so and it turned out to be a lot of fun.  I spoke about why I do the work I do, how I do it, whose work I admire and why, and how I get my work shown.  The class was about evenly divided between students who needed a liberal arts credit and students who were really interested in photography. 

Near the end of the Q&A session following my talk one of the latter, a young woman who had already asked several perceptive questions asked: "Have you read Barthes?" (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida).  I allowed that I had, indeed, taken a run at it several years ago but had found it nearly impenetrable and had given up on about page 10.  My answer elicited a growl of agreement from the class so I enquired why she asked that question.  It turned out that they had been assigned to read Camera Lucida as an introduction to the appreciation of photography as an art form.   Their instructor, looking a bit sheepish, allowed that the class had found it to be a difficult read.

Time passed.

I happened upon a copy of Camera Lucida in a used book store for a dollar and decided, with 20 or so additional years of reading about photography under my belt, that I would take another shot at it. 

Yep, it is a difficult read.  This time, however, I soldiered through to the end.  Here's my synopsis:

Photography has a unique ability to record what something or somebody looked like at a specific time and place.  This gives it the power to be a window into the past that no other visual art has.  Some photographs are interesting, even compelling simply because of their historical, cultural, or anthropological content.  Others, less common, are fascinating beyond that.  The latter photographs have a property that isn't related to specific subject matter or photographic style because they are scattered through many genres and many photographer's works.  He would like to discuss these two attractions to certain photographs using the methods and vocabulary of philosophy but can't figure out how to do so even though he has given them borrowed Latin names.  Since the methods of philosophical discourse don't seem to work his next strategy is to examine some photographs that exhibit the latter and try to infer the general from the specific. 

At this point, about 40 pages into the book, I was pretty excited about it -- apart from the fact that he took 40 or so pages of very convoluted text to get through the paragraph above.  I, too, feel that some photographs have some property that I cannot articulate that makes them very special.  I, too, have examined every photograph I find that I feel possesses this magic quality (which my friend Bryan calls foo-ness – see the footnote) and have attempted with very limited success to infer the general from the specific.

Several days later I picked up Camera Lucida and opened it to the bookmarked page (page 90) and read the lead sentence of the first paragraph: "I can put this another way."  The words that popped into my mind were: "Oh, please don't!  Spare me!"  In the intervening pages he had described a variety of photographs that  move him deeply and concluded that they do so because of some detail, often trivial, in them that related to his own life experience -- a landscape (urban or rural) in which he feels he could habitez, more like "inhabit" than "live there".  In the case of a James Vanderzee portrait of a family, one of the women is wearing a necklace that reminds him of one that his mother wore.  These connections are, of course, intensely personal and he opines that there must be something more universal.

He then went through an exhausting (not exhaustive) examination of a series of photographs of his mother ending up with a snapshot of her at about age five and winds his way back to what he started with in the introduction -- photography is unique in the art world because it works only if the photographer (operator) aims the camera at the subject (referent) and pushes the button at a specific instant.  [Obviously, he did not consider the work of Jerry Uelsmann.]  By so doing the photograph opens a window into the past. 

In the final 30 or so pages, he continued to belabor the notion of a photograph as a window into the past and as a reminder of death either already happened or yet to come.  This is an issue I sometimes think of: "This lovely young woman was dead before I was born."   However, his "This was but is no more." while true hardly seems like a pivotal reason why photography is different from every other visual art form. 

In 119 pages (less a few pages of photographs) of very dense and convoluted text he has looped back to what he stated in the introduction with the sole addition of the memento mori reference to the photograph as a reminder of death.

Moreover, contrary to my going in opinion (at page 40) that he was trying to track down the properties that make specific photographs "special" while others are not his goal was to uncover the universals that make all photographs different from other visual art mediums.  Moreover, he is attempting to wrap words around something (he was a professor of lexicology, after all) that I am convinced is essentially visual -- that may not even have words to describe it -- and that's ok with me.

I'm glad I slogged through this swamp but it is clearly a Bryan type 1 experience (something for which once is definitely enough) and no help at all in my quest for foo-ness.  Leave out the memento mori and the late Bill Jay, teacher of photography and prolific (and highly opinionated) writer about photography sums it up in two sentences:

Photography has the unique ability to show what something or somebody looked like at a specific time and place.  The only hard bits in photography are which way to point the camera and when to push the button.

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*About foo-ness:

The term "foo" originated, as far as I know, in the absurdist comic strip Smokey Stover -- although the strip's author, Bill Holman, contended that it means "good luck" in Chinese.  Smokey was a fire-fighter (foo fighter).  I wonder if the members of the post-grunge band, Foo Fighters, know about Smokey or were even born when the strip was current.

Holman made a serious but ineffectual effort to introduce "foo" into the English language, perhaps inspired by the possibly apocryphal story about a wag who introduced "quiz" into English overnight by hiring urchins to write the word on walls all over Dublin.  However, "foo" did enter a language -- just not English.  Practitioners of the computer language LISP (in my opinion an absurdist computer language) adopted "foo" to mean something, anything, important but not yet defined.  From LISP, "foo" migrated into C, C++ and likely a lot of other computer languages that have evolved since I stopped even trying to keep track.

When I began trying to identify the mysterious properties that made a few photographs so extremely compelling, my friend Bryan suggested that the property was obviously "foo-ness" -- important but not yet defined, perhaps indefinable.

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