Memory, Narration and Curation in Photography

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Reading Roland BarthesCamera Lucida reminded me of a  post I wrote in 2014. Here it is, in full.

In recent meetings and photo shoots with friends, I have been attempting to self-appraise my photography – when do I shoot my best work, when do I not? Perhaps a little presumptuously, what is my signature style, when am I doing a good job? And therefore what should I focus on in 2015?

Having been a “serious” photographer my entire post-teenage life, it has probably been too easy to slip into travel snaps, family record keeping and simple reportage. In the past eighteen months, I have been getting into “street” photography quite seriously (and even published on the subject). Yet, it does seem that a little more thought is required, before pressing that shutter release.

So, how should we think of our “photographic voice’?

A perfect place to start is “The Decisive Moment” (1952) by Henri Cartier-Bresson, just re-published in a superb edition. I was lucky enough to receive this as a Christmas present.

My favourite paragraph?

“Memory is very important, particularly in respect to the recollection of every picture you’ve taken while you’ve been galloping at the speed of the scene itself. The photographer must make sure, while he is still in the presence of the unfolding scene, that he hasn’t left any gaps, that he has really given expression to the meaning of the scene in its entirety, for afterward it is too late. He is never able to wind the scene backward in order to photograph it all over again.” (Introduction: 4)

Whilst Cartier-Bresson is adamantly against the “shoot everything as fast as you can” approach that is used by so many with high-speed DSLRs (myself included), he absolutely advocates extracting the maximum possible meaning from the scene presented to the photographer.

He goes on to say:

“There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as well as in our personal universe. We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.

Subject does not consist of a collection of facts, for facts in themselves offer little interest. Through facts, however, we can reach an understanding of the laws that govern them, and be better able to select the essential ones which communicate reality.” (Introduction: 6)

So the subject is all important, but the reality of the subject isn’t a simple depiction.

I have also been reading John Berger‘s “Understanding a Photograph (1967), where he addresses “memory” in photography.

“I am not saying that memory is a kind of film. That is a banal simile. … Unlike memory, photographs do not in themselves preserve meaning. They offer appearances – with all the credibility and gravity we normally lend to appearances – prised away from meaning. Meaning is the result of understanding functions.”

“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances. Habit now protects us against the shock involved in such preservation.”

Simply capturing an image, however technically skilled, without giving it a meaning is not enough. Narration is needed.

Berger also notes:

“Memory is not unlinear at all. Memory works radially, that is too say with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.”


“When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future. … Yet unlike the storyteller or painter or actor, the photographer only really makes, in any one photograph, a single constitutive choice: the choice of the instant to be photographed. The photograph, compared with other means of communication, is therefore weak in intentionality.” (pg 65)

Looking at an image as a mere “instance” isn’t enough to provide any real meaning.

In reviewing my own work, I “feel” most comfortable when telling a story. Une histoire. In recent times, two of my images seem the most satisfactory in this regard, both offering a pictorial examination of an “event”.

The first I have referenced before, showing a short-lived interplay between worlds at a pedestrian crossing, in Dublin. There’s lots of context and content in this shot – layered memories perhaps. I just love the expression on the girl’s faces, and the almost “defiant” attitude of the ‘lady”.

The second, in Glasgow, was taken late at night in the rain, with two young women, obviously seeking a party, sheltering together almost against the odds.

There is context and layered content, and a capture that tried to sum things up at that exact time for the two women.

Glasgow -36 660

Both are telling a story. And, interestingly, both are amongst my most liked recent pictures on social media. Of course, one should never be swayed by false praise (how do we value “likes”?), but it does seem to me that art is so often “in the eye of the beholder”, whatever the artist’s intent, so it is a useful view about how others see images.

Berger led me to read more, including Susan Sontag, in On Photography (1977)

“ … such [photographic] images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real.”

This seems to underpin the idea that the photographer is interpreting the real, as a photograph combines both gritty reality at that moment, and the artist’s interpretation or composition built around it – the “memory” he or she is attempting to create.

That said, Sontag also noted:

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

If people are never “seen as themselves”, in a sense their very existence is being curated, moment by moment, by the photographer.

The photographer should thus, at least in a  “street” sense, be about both narration (the story) and curation (the moment of memory that is chosen). And the subjects are captured almost like Schrödinger’s Cat – you only see their true reality in that exact moment of capture, however much you might like to ponder the before and the after.

Berger’s references to other forms of communication led to Berthold Brecht, where I found this passage appropriate.

“Portrayal of Past and Present in One”

Stand out, without in the process hiding
What you are making it stand out from. Give your acting
That progression of one-thing-after-another, that attitude of
Working up what you have taken on. In this way
You will show the flow of events and also the course
Of your work, permitting the spectator
To experience this Now on many levels, coming from
Previously and
Merging into Afterwards, also having much else now
Alongside it. He is sitting not only
In your theatre but also
In the world.

From John Willett, Brecht’s translator, attributed to poems Brecht wrote between 1947-1953.

The photographer’s job is thus very much like the actor’s. Both want to involve their audience, even though they use different means.

The photographer, though, unlike the actor, can only involve the viewer by curating the most appropriate moment. A fragment of time (or perhaps a series of fragments), rather than an extended performance.

Yet in that fragment of time, there must be both depiction of the reality of the moment, with enough narration (content, context) in the composition to suggest to the viewer that they can see beyond that very same moment, both past and future.

That will truly engage the viewer.

A sound challenge!


BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

BERGER, John. 1967. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

CARTIER-BRESSON, Henri. 1952. The Decisive Moment. 2014 Edition. Göttingen: Steidl.

SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books.

WILLET, John. 2007. Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956. London: Routledge.

Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida – An ultimately depressing book

mickyates Books, ContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Ideas, Philosophy, Photography, PositionsPractice, PPWeek2 Leave a Comment

Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes, is an odd book. It has become a classic text on the subject – yet Barthes was not a photographer, and had little time for colour images or ‘clever theories’ from the photographer’s perspective (such as Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Decisive Moment’). In fact his work contains a surprising paucity of reference to other research.

Barthes notes that an image could be considered from three angles – the subject of the photograph, the viewer of the photograph, and the photographer him or her self. But he only views it from the perspective of the first two of these three.

A clue to his approach is on the first page – In Homage to L’Imaginaire by Jean-Paul Sartre (1940).

Sartre makes clear the distinction between perception and imagination. When we are conscious, we are conscious of something, and our consciousness can distinguish between what is imagined and what is perceived. Perception is about what is in front of us, reflecting a particular subject (and thus its ‘existential’ truths). Imagination can be anything – a synthesis of past experience, past perceptions, our disciplines and so forth. Imagination is essential to our humanity, and it breaks us free of our past, allowing us to do new things.

Sartre also notes that imagination is a fundamental human freedom. It needs some kind of analogon – an equivalent of perception – to work. This could be a painting, or a photograph, or a mental image that we create within ourselves. Then, for example, when we look at an image of our children, our thoughts and feelings about them influence the way we consider the picture.

In Sartre’s view, an image thus takes on new dimensions, beyond its actual physical properties, because of  our own intentions towards it. Our intentional gaze. The photograph is a trigger to meaning, perhaps a self-reflection, which makes it much more than a ‘simple’ surface to be viewed. We know that the analogon (the photograph) is not real in the sense that it is a representation, but we ascribe emotions and beliefs to it as if it was.

Put another way, the world is constituted not of ‘outside objects’, but in our own consciousness based on our intentions.

Barthes sees some of these intentional dimensions in the book’s opening.

‘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’. (pg 13)

But it is frankly rather disappointing that Barthes eventually decides:

‘… to derive all photography (its nature) from the only photograph which assuredly existed for me’. (pg 73)

He does this based on the ‘Winter Garden‘ photo of his mother. Any philosopher moving from the specific to the general is going to be in a really hard place – and Barthes is no exception.

Barthes distinguishes between the reality that a camera captures, and the reality of the resultant photograph.

‘I call photographic referent not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing that has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph’. (pg 76)

He goes on to note that

‘The realists, of whom I am one … do not take the photograph for a ‘copy’ of reality, but for an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art’. (pg 88)

Yet he never really describes what he means by magic. Instead, and again by considering the Winter Garden photograph, he writes:

‘The circle is closed, there is no escape … I cannot transform my grief, I cannot let my gaze drift; no culture will help me utter this suffering which I experience entirely on the level of the image’s finitude.

This is why, despite its codes, I cannot read a photograph [my emphasis]‘. (Camera Lucida: pg 90)

So a photograph depicts a past reality, but beyond that Barthes cannot read it, even though he himself has suggested ways to do this.

In Image Music Text, based on Barthes’ semiotic perspective, a photograph carries two codes. First, a denoted code, the subject of the photograph, which is really a message without meaning. This underlines Barthes’ view that all photographs have a root in some kind of reality. Secondly, he  posited a connoted code, a rhetorical meaning within the image. Both of those codes exist in all photographs.

Back to Camera Lucida. Barthes’ adds to the misery by noting that:

‘ Not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory … but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory’. (pg 91)


‘All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know they are agents of Death’. (pg 92)

These ideas of a photograph being past, of being impossible to read (despite his work to the contrary), and its blocking of memory are all are counter to Sartre’s point – that a photograph can be a possible trigger of the imagination, in which case it also has a future.

How depressing.

In a New York Times review just after the publication of Camera Lucida:

‘Camera Lucida is not, however, the definitive reappraisal of photography that was anticipated. It does not reveal the long-sought ‘grammar’ of photographs, nor does it provide much in the way of clues to their ”reading.” It is more intimate than theoretical. Barthes bites into photography like Proust into a madeleine and what results is an intricate, quirky and ultimately frustrating meditation linking photography to death’. (Andy Grundberg, 1981)

More positively, Barthes does make a useful distinction between the Studium and the Punctum of a photograph.

Studium is about the elements of the image for which a viewer shows enthusiastic commitment, within a field of cultural interest to them.

‘I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, without special acuity’ (pg 26)

It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes; for it is culturally .. that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions’. (pg 26)

As an interpretive act, when we view the image’s studium, we are looking for past context.  Studium is not just only about the objective details (or ‘facts’) of a photograph. It also carries all kinds of subjective connotations. This would work with Sartre, as those deliberations and experiences can encourage new research, new thought, new ideas. in fact, it augurs a positive future for the photograph.

In order to explain the meaning of studium and punctum, Barthes goes on to say the the studium is:

‘… of the order of liking, not loving‘, and

To recognise the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions‘. (pg 27)

Punctum is then literally ‘that which pricks’ the viewer, to really get their attention.

‘The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest in the field of studium with my sovereign consciousness, it is the element which rises from the scene, shoots out like an arrow, and pierces me’. (pg 26)

‘A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick; this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points’. (pg 27)

Barthes comments that it is;

not possible to posit a rule of connection between the studium and punctum‘, and

In order to perceive the punctum, no analysis would be of any use to me‘. (pg 42)

The punctum might reside in a detail of the image, such as the photographs of Lewis Hine’s retarded children, with the collar and the bandage which have a fascination for Barthes.

But punctum could also be in the expansion of the image, where the detail encompasses the whole photograph [my emphasis]. Barthes used the portrait of Andy Warhol by Duane Michals, which he considered provocative, by reason of overall pose, Warhol hiding his face, and detail, nails which are both soft and hard edged. (pg 45)

Duane Michals. 1958. Andy Warhol.

Perhaps Barthes’ most profound comment on punctum is that:

.. it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I [as viewer] add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there‘. (pg 55)

It seems that both studium and punctum include objective and subjective elements, although Barthes suggests that punctum does not of necessity arise from a viewer’s interest in the subject matter of the photograph, in the way that studium usually does.

Barthes’ distinction between the two is thus thought-provoking yet confounding at the same time. It is left in so many ways to be a matter of personal taste and opinion, and has almost no rigorous, logical analysis. We are all left to our own definition of punctum. And to share punctum that we ‘see’ in any particular photograph, we inevitable uses elements of studium in our communication with others.

This is not the stuff of semiotic logic, but of subjective prose.

James Elkins suggests that Barthes’ writing style (as an end in itself, almost independent of subject matter) and his lack of scholarly references gets in the way of a profound academic review. In fact, Elkins goes so far as to say:

‘It is as if that book, one of the least scholarly of the central texts of twentieth-century art, has protected itself by shrinking away from the glare of scholarly criticism, shrivelling to a point-like punctum of its own’. ( What Photography Is, pg 13).

Whilst Camera Lucida provides some useful language to analyse images, and also clues on how to construct them, I find Camera Lucida strangely lacking.

Firstly, the book does not do enough to create a more precise (semiotic?) language with which to consider photographs.

And secondly, Barthes’ pessimistic sense of the medium, in its failings in spurring creativity, and its focus on death, leaves an empty feeling.

‘The noeme of photography is simple, banal; no depth; that has been’. (pg 115)

Ultimately, therefore, Camera Lucida gives a rather depressing (and subjective) account of photography.


Header: Ulf Anderson. 1979. Roland Barthes. Paris.


BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

CLAYTON, Cam. 2011. The Psychical Analogon in Sartre’s Theory of the Imagination. Sartre Studies International Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 16-27.

COURTNEY, Richard. 1971. Imagination and the Dramatic Act: Comments on Sartre, Ryle, and Furlong. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 30, No. 2.

ELKINS, James. 2011. What Photography Is. New York: Routledge.

SARTRE, Jean-Paul. 1940. L’Imaginaire: Psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination. English Ed. London: Routledge.


DILLON, Brian. 2011. Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed 26/3/2018).

GRUNDBERG, Andy. 1981. Death in the Photograph. New York Times. Available at: (Accessed 26/3/2018)

WAMPOLE, Christy. 2015. What would Barthes think of his Hermès scarf? New Yorker Magazine. Available at: 26/3/2018).