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Informing Contexts – Barthes

In Camera Lucida (2006: 89) Roland Barthes states that ‘In the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation’.

Roland Barthes was a realist. He believed that the camera was an instrument of evidence – If something appears in a photograph then it existed at the time the image was taken, even if in reality it didn’t. He proposed that the image in front of him was proof that the scene had actually existed as seen in a prior reality or point in history.  Barthes believes that even though a photograph transforms a 3-dimensional moving object into an immobile 2-dimensional image that offers a representation or perspective of the reality, this doesn’t change the reality that is captured.

In Camera Lucida (2006: 87) Barthes argues that ‘Photography never lies: or rather, it can lie as to the meaning of the thing, being by nature tendentious, never as to its existence.’ He goes on to state that ‘Every photograph is a certificate of presence.’ What Barthes fails to acknowledge here is that we can and do manipulate photographic images, whether through staging the initial scene or through post-production manipulation and intervention.

John Tagg suggests in Burden Of Representation (1983: 4) that ‘the trauma of Barthes’s mother’s death throws Barthes back on a sense of loss which produces in him a longing for a pre-linguistic certainty and unity – a nostalgic and regressive phantasy, transcending loss, on which he founds his idea of photographic realism: to make present what is absent or, more exactly, to make it retrospectively real – a poignant ‘reality one can no longer touch’.’  Barthes’ writings show that he becomes very attached to what he perceives as the certainty of the photographic image.

Tagg expands on this in his article on http://www.photopedagogy.com/. Tagg discusses that after his mother’s death, Barthes became obsessed with finding photographs of his mother.  He appears to be searching for a photograph to hold onto whilst grieving for his mother.  This obsession caused him to embark on a ‘search for ‘a just image’ and not ‘just an image’ of her’ and that ‘his demand for realism is a demand, if not to have her back, then to know she was here: the consolation of a truth in the past which cannot be questioned.’. I think this skewed and altered the view Barthes had of the photographic image and closed his mind to the that they could be purely fictional not factual views of the subject.

“Photography knows how to authenticate its misrepresentations.”

– Mason Cooley

I do not totally agree with his viewpoint. As a photographer, I see my work as producing a new and specific reality to create a constructed narrative. What you see in my images is not a reflection of reality but rather a reflection of my imagination. My images offer a perception of a reality, not reality itself.  I can, however, sympathise with Barthes’ view. We all have an inherent desire or need to be nostalgic and hang on to memories of those who have left us. Those who have died are resurrected by appearing in a photograph. In the words of Paul Simon (1968) ‘I have a photograph. Preserve your memories. They’re all that’s left you.’


Barthes, R., 2006. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New Ed Edition. Vintage Books

Cooley, M. From Photography Quotes. 2017. Photography Quotes. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.notable-quotes.com/p/photography_quotes.html. [Accessed 09 February 2017].

Tagg, J., 1993. Burden Of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. 1st Edition. Univ Of Minnesota Press

PhotoPedagogy. 2017. John Tagg – PhotoPedagogy. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.photopedagogy.com/john-tagg.html. [Accessed 29 January 2017].

Simon, P., (1968) Bookends Theme. New York: Columbia


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