If a picture paints a thousand words, it’s equally a moment caught in time. But how do we understand and interpret this and other photographic images? Along with film, photography has straddled the personal and the historical. Many theories – some philosophical, others not – have sprung up to explain the power and resonance of the photograph as a medium and as an experience.
Arguably the two seminal figures of the eclectic universe that is discourse on photography, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, occupy centre frame in Kathrin Yacavone’s new book Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography.
Benjamin and Barthes entered the historical and critical debate on photography at pivotal moments: Benjamin’s burgeoning interest in the medium coincided with the artistic pinnacle of the European avant-garde movements of the 1920s and the ensuing stimulus to photographic practice and theory they provided, whereas Barthes’s first engagement with photography overlapped with the rise of Marxist-ideological critique and semiotic analysis as a critical response to mass-media culture during the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when photographic images were already an ubiquitous part of the visual and mental landscape of the twentieth century. Even after the first emergence of digital image technologies in the late 1980s and their rapid expansion throughout the next two decades until the present, which represented a departure from optical-chemical picture production on which Benjamin’s and Barthes’s writings are based, their reflections on the photographic medium and on individual photographs continue to be major points of scholarly and critical reference.
Famous for their wide ranging analysis of photography, Benjamin and Barthes both root their attempts to understand photography in personal, highly poignant experiences of particular photographs. For Walter Benjamin it's a studio portrait of Franz Kafka aged five or six that fascinates:
While for Roland Barthes it's a portrait photograph of his mother as a five year (with her grandfather) sat alongside her brother:
What could be more personal and yet, contained within the same photograph, so historical? We don't need expert help to tell us that this two-dimensional form simultaneously includes and addresses concepts of perspective, mortality, subjectivity, memory and reference. This leads me onto another photograph featured in the book, one that fascinated Barthes on many levels. In La Chambre claire, the poignant link between the portrait photograph and death is first established in relation to an image of Lewis Payne, one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Payne was photographed by Alexander Gardner in what looks like his prison cell in 1865, just days before his execution:
This portrait, which is part of a larger series of photographs of Payne and other conspirators, fascinated commentators on photography before Barthes but Barthes’s fascination with the portrait is, by contrast, more personal. What he perceives to be both the photograph’s and the sitter’s physical beauty is characterized as a studium (see La Chambre claire, 148-50), one quickly eclipsed by the felt intensity of the portrait’s paradoxical temporality. This is related to Payne’s impending death, which the photograph represents as simultaneously already past (from the point of view of the beholder) and in the future (from the point of view of the subject and photographer), hence Barthes’s caption: ‘Il est mort et il va mourir' (La Chambre claire, 149) [‘He is dead and he is going to die’ (Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, 95)].
All of these themes (and the photographs above) are featured in Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography – now available to buy. Although their insights and approaches have been compared and contrasted, to date there exists no published book entirely devoted to Benjamin’s and Barthes’s theories of photography. This book fills this gap, offering new perspectives on their writings, both in relation to each other and against the backdrop of photographic history as well as twentieth-century intellectual, philosophical and critical discourses more generally.
You can exclusively read the whole Introduction to the book by clicking on the preview button above.