Taming of Photography in Barthes’ Vision

In his posthumously book, ‘Camera Lucida’, Roland Barthes tries to learn what is the essence of photography, reaching various conclusions. The one that Barthes ends his book with is related to how society reacts against photography and how it tries to domesticate it, starting the last chapter of the book considering that “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 order to discuss this affirmation, I will relate it not only to Roland Barthes’ ‘Camera Lucida’, but also to certain situations in which the realism of photography is limited, manipulated or even totally concealed. Besides presenting Barthes’ ideology, I will mention and debate the work of renowned practitioners who had to deal with the taming society or who tended to temper photography. In this respect, I have chosen to discuss the work of August Sander, German photographer, who published the portrait series named “Man of the 20th Century”, and the work of Richard Billingham, the author of the family photographs series “Ray’s a Laugh”.

Firstly, if I want to approach the taming of photography in Barthes’ vision, I have to relate my argument to the ‘Studium-Punctum-Death’ axis which leads to this assertion at the end of ‘Camera Lucida’. In the first part of the book, by analysing various photographs, Barthes patents the terms of ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’, widely used since then in many essays on photography. Firstly, he establishes that some photographs ‘please or displease me without pricking me… The ‘studium’ is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste. To recognize the ‘studium’ is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions’ (Barthes, 2000, p.27). Briefly, ‘studium’ is the term used by Barthes to sum up all the visual information found in photographs. Still, as Jane Gallop’s (2009, p.48) interpretation of ‘Camera Lucida’ suggests, a photograph that has only ‘studium’ ‘is like representation, everything is enclosed within the field of the picture’.

But there are so many photographs that can make somebody feel moved. In this way, Barthes (2000, p.26) introduced the term of ‘punctum’ in the photographic medium, an element in the photograph that Barthes thinks it will break the ‘studium’. For Barthes (2000, p.27), ‘punctum’ is ‘that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’. Therefore, ‘punctum’ is related to a personal event experienced by the viewer, a tragic one, a trauma. Considering these, ‘punctum’ is not something that an individual finds in a photograph, but is something that the viewer adds to the photograph, and this is how ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ draw the meaning of one image. In a geometrical representation, ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ would be symmetrical to the eyes of the viewer: the ‘studium’ would be in front of him, in brief what he is able to see, while the ‘punctum’ would be in his conception, related to his trauma, summarily in his brain.

While in the first part of his book he looked upon photographs placed in the public environment, in the second one Barthes started to mainly discuss a photograph of his mother, the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’. He does not reproduce the picture in the book exactly because there is a ‘punctum’ just for himself, arguing that ‘at most it would interest your ‘studium’’ (Barthes, 2000, p.73). Further on, by examining the themes of presence and absence in photographs, Barthes (2000, p.96) discovers another ‘punctum’, ‘no longer of form but of intensity’. The second ‘punctum’ is ‘Time’, a tearing intensity of the meaning of photography. The presence of an individual suggest that one day it will come the time when he will no longer be alive and this is how Roland Barthes (2000, p.97) relates the meaning of photography (‘noeme’-‘That has been’) to the concept of death: ‘each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death’.

Given the fact that death is an idea that frightens people, an idea that cannot really be controlled, society tries to stop thinking about it or to put it in a better light than it should, thus keeping a general order in world. One way to do this, according to Barthes (2000, p.117), is to domesticate photography, ‘to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it’, because photography, in his conception, is about Death. In this respect, Barthes presented two means to tame photography: photography as Art and photography used in the commercial medium.

In the first case, by reaching the rank of art, the photograph becomes idealized, distracting the viewer’s attention from the real meaning of photography by its noble status gained in an exhibition or album. Barthes (2000, p.117) wrote that he cannot exclaim ‘That has been!’ while watching a photograph that was published in an artistic context. When it comes to the second way of tempering the photographic image, Barthes (2000, p.119) suggests that even through photographs, the viewers are told what to think and do in order to gain immediate happiness, being made to forget about the ‘noeme’, the tragic meaning of photography: ‘they today consume images and no longer, like those of the past, beliefs’.

By the way of these two strategies, society enforces a generalized use and meaning of photography, creating an illusion of it by concealing its threatening madness. In the last paragraph, Barthes (2000, p.119) suggests that every individual has the power to choose between tame or mad: ‘The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality’.

Further on, I will discuss Barthes’ statement considering the work of August Sander published in ‘Faces of Time’ (‘Antlitz der Zeit’, 1929) and the body of work of Richard Billingham, English photographer, who, in 1996, published the book called ‘Ray’s a Laugh’. I have selected two photographs from each book and, analysing the context in which they appeared and how they had influence over society or how their publication was swayed, I will relate them to Barthes’ vision, in which photography is a domesticated medium which is not allowed to ‘explode in the face of whoever looks at it’.

In 1910, August Sander started his project on study of faces which had its result in the ‘Antlitz der Zeit’, a collection of 60 portrait photographs. According to Reinhold Misselbeck (2009), ‘Sander developed a philosophy that placed man within a cyclic model of society’. In this way, Sander divides his portraits in different social classes: peasants, workers, intellectuals and, finally, ‘the Letzte Menschen, the insane, gypsies and beggars’. Although he published his work in many volumes, Sander never succeeded in gathering all his photographs, thousands of them, in a big series, as he planned. Unexpectedly, in the 1930s, Sander turns his attention to working mainly in landscape photography. Further down I will present the reason of this unfortunate turn.

In the last chapter of ‘Camera Lucida’, Roland Barthes affirms that one means of taming photography is to ‘generalize, to gregarize, banalize it until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself, assert its special character, its scandal, its madness’. This is what Sander didn’t take into consideration at the beginning of the 20th Century, but this is what the German authorities applied on Sander’s work: ‘Sander had hoped, through an archive of 1500 to 2000 photographic images of German people, to make a “physiognomic portrait of the nation”, but ultimately his aim was defeated […] by the destruction of many of his negatives by the Nazis’ (Wallace, 2002, p.153). What was the reason for that? John von Hartz (1977) considers that it was Sander’s ability to expose the truth about Germans. It can be clearly observed in his pictures that Sander didn’t bother to make the most of German society as he acted like an objective photographer towards his subjects: ‘he shows them as they would wish to be known’ (Wullschlager, 2010). In the preface of one book of Sander’s work, John von Hartz (1977, p.9) states that ‘He simply showed the Germans – including the Nazis – as they were. This was not only a violation of the totalitarian state’s propaganda; these truthful pictures were condemnation in themselves’. Even he didn’t make a purpose of it, Sander was against the generalization regarding Aryan race and the bad influence of the Semitic people (referring only to Jews here) that the Nazi wanted to impose. Relating this issue to Barthes’ ideology, it can be said that in the 1930’s photography was generalized and banalized by the Gestapo (the secret police of Nazi Germany) by destroying Sander’s work.


These statements are simply proven by Sander’s photographs and in order to illustrate this I have chosen two images which should be suggestive. In 1914, in one of his trips to countryside, Sander took a photograph of three peasants, in Westerwald, who were going to a Sunday dance (Fig.1). One can see no Aryan person in this picture, only three German men proudly wearing suits on their free day. What is intriguing about this picture is the difference between the two men in the right side and the one from the left side. This opposition is sustained by their pose but by the different facial aspect of the peasant from the left side, too. The second image that I have chosen was taken in Düren, in 1930, in a circus camp (Fig.2). In this picture, Sander exposed the ‘Letzte Menschen’ (The Last Man), here strange people used for entertainment. The strongest character in this image is probably the black man on the right, considering the fact that in Nazi Germany the fate of black people was related to persecution.

In this way, by not following the Nazi ideology but, on the contrary, defying it, Sander’s fate was painful: ‘Sander’s book joined other works of art that were driven from the marketplace by the Gestapo, its printing plates destroyed. The photographer’s archives were searched’ (von Hartz, 1977, p.9).

At the end of the 20th Century, in 1996, the contemporary photographer Richard Billingham published a collection of photographs of his family entitled ‘Ray’s a Laugh’. The book is not a simple family album, as he presents his alcoholic father, Ray, his chain smoking and tattooed mother, Liz, and his drug addict brother, Jason, like in a reality show series, in their own flat. According to Outi Remes (2007, p.17), Billingham ‘breaks the taboo of home as a safe, private, and protected haven’. Even though the pictures are disturbing, Billingham said that he was trying just to make order out of chaos when explaining the reason for photographing his dysfunctional family (Caplan, 2010), relating his work to the themes of boredom and addiction.

‘In the 90s, on the back of a recession, many dealers and critics were urgently trying to encourage wider audiences for contemporary art, aiming to dislodge the popular belief that art was a highbrow or obscurest pastime for a small wealthy elite’ (Safe, 2001). Considering this, Billingham fitted perfectly to this strategy, as the audience could easily read the message from the shocking pictures. Moreover, keeping in mind that Billingham’s pictures can be considered family photographs, the viewer is moved even more. Gil Pasternak (2009, p.97) considers that ‘Family photographs also facilitate the reader’s ability to imagine a community which they supposedly belong’.

In the beginning of ‘Camera Lucida’, Barthes (2000, p.4) does not agree with the classification of photography because the distributions we consider upon it are ‘external to the object, without relation to its essence’, an essence that can be learnt to always be linked to death. Moreover, when writing about the picture of his mother, the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’, he suggests that family photographs are the very pure fragment of photography. They cannot be political, because they can have only a private meaning; in a public environment, they cannot concern in the same way as they do when it comes to a directly involved person. Considering Barthes’ conception, family photographs are neutral, they arouse the interest only of an individual or of a small group of persons and, in this way, they cannot be involved in the taming of photography.

But in 1996 the pure family photography became Art. Richard Billingham was the perfect person at the perfect time at the end of the 20th Century when he came in the spotlight with ‘Ray’s a Laugh’. Billingham (2000) said that he did not intend to shock, to offend, to sensationalize or to be political in his work. He added that he only wants to make work that is as spiritually meaningful as he can make it. Still, he fulfilled the wishes of the dealers and the critics of the time, as I specified above. For exemplifying, I have chosen two pictures from ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ that are illustrative for building this argument. In a picture taken in their living room (Fig.3), Billingham’s mother and father are probably recovering from a fight, as they have blood spots on their faces and hands. Here one can also notice the tautological Ray’s beer (in the background, on the shelf) and Liz’ tattoo, fragments that repeatedly appear in the collection. In the second picture (Fig.4), Billingham presents his father resting on the toilet, certainly a shocking aspect of family life. Billingham keeps the same style throughout the book, presenting his daily struggle in this family album, an unconventional collection of family photographs with a complete lack of happy events captured: no weddings, no birthdays, no graduations.

Apparently, Billingham’s photographs are fully expressing the madness that photography is capable of. But they were not seen by the public as a correspondent of photography’s ‘noeme’. ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ was understood how the dealers and the critics wanted to be understood, as Art and as an example of the fact that an artist can come from any social environment. In this way, according to Barthes’ ideology, Billingham’s work was a way that society went on in order to domesticate photography but, this time, family photographs were used for this purpose and, in this way, by becoming Art, they lost the purity that Barthes related to them.

Nowadays Barthes ideology is still veracious and in some societies is strongly applicable. One perfect example is the status of photography in China: ‘In China, what makes an image true is that it is good for people to see it’ (Sontag, 2008, p.175). There, the society is imposing proper ways of photographing that should refer to positivism, optimism and morality. In this way, photography is generalized, becoming a way of expressing the bright side of the society only, and, by doing so, it is imprisoning reality.

Therefore, considering Barthes’ assertion about the taming of photography and its transposition in certain situations, as I have pointed out in the cases of Sander and Billingham, the madness of photography is one masked aspect of reality and, while this medium is dissimulated, it can properly serve as a mean of preserving the society focused on a relative reality, an illusive one.


Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.

Billingham, R. (2000) Richard Billingham. In: The Saatchi gift to the Arts Council Collection. London: Hayward Gallery Pub.

Caplan, N. (2010) Richard Billingham [online] Available at: <http://www.timeout.com/london/art/event/182337/richard-billingham/> [Accessed 7 February 2012].

Gallop, J. (2009) ‘The pleasure of the phototext’, In: Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. London: MIT Press, pp. 48.

Misslebeck, R. (2009) August Sander [online] Available at: <http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=5145/> [Accessed 12 February 2012].

Pasternak, G. (2009) ‘Covering Horror: Family Photographs in Israeli Reportage on Terrorism’, Object, 11, pp. 87-104

Remes, O. (2007) ‘Reinterpreting Unconventional Family Photographs: Returning to Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh” Series’, Afterimage, 34, pp. 16-19.

Safe, E. (2001) Richard Billingham [online] Available at: < http://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/artists_stories/single/63664/> [Accessed 7 February 2012].

Sontag, S. (2008) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Von Hartz, J. (1977) ‘Preface’, In: August Sander. London: Gordon Fraser, pp. 5-9.

Wallace, M.J. (2009) ‘August Sander’s Photographic Archive: Fables of the Reconstruction’, Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 18, pp. 153-166.

Wullschlager, J. (2011) August Sander: Visual arts, The Financial Times Limited, February [online] Available at <http://search.proquest.com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/docview/852807416?accountid=11526/> [Accessed 12 February 2012].

~ by alexbeldea on May 29, 2012.

One Response to “Taming of Photography in Barthes’ Vision”

  1. Reblogged this on WordPress Report.

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