Attempting to establish – while acknowledging the paradox of – an eidetic science of (P)hotography, Barthes recounts an “ontological desire” that informs his critical framework (3, my emphasis). That is to say, Barthes introduces affect into structural modes of analysis. Camera Lucida reconciles historical, philosophical criticism with a subjective, experiential phenomenology. Barthes details the difficulty of formulating “the fundamental feature, with universal without which there would be no Photography” (8).
The essence of Photography evades classification, and rests outside ideal or symbolic meaning. While we impose rhetorical meaning in the broad viewership of images, the very this-ness of each Photograph traps us in a dietic language; one can speak of a photograph, but not of Photography (5). Trapped in an “eternal coitus” (6), the Photograph and its particular referent cannot be separated, and Photography seemingly remains trapped between sign and image, contingent on the singularity of each photograph.
With this in mind, Barthes opts to “make [himself] the measure of photographic ‘knowledge’” (9). Recounting experiences of being photographed, he notes feelings of inauthenticity in the posturing for the camera, and disinternalization upon viewing his visage reproduced on a pamphlet: “I am neither subject nor object, but a subject who feels he is becoming an object” (14). This is otherwise framed as a micro-experience of death, a transition from spectator to spectre: “the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice” (11). It is thus in death, Barthes realizes, that we can trace the eidos of Photography. In this sense, Photography, while “haunted by the ghost of painting,” has a closer relationship with theatre by way of death: “actors are both living (the human body) and dead (the character which the body assumes) bodies” (31). Images thus assume a “mask” of meaning to act/signify.
To answer why ‘this‘ photo moves him and ‘that‘ photo does not, Barthes provides a partially semiological, partially sentimental analysis of a select few photos and identifies the copresence of two discontinuous elements in the Photograph: the studium, a field of interpretations that come from training as a cultural subject, and the punctum, an emotional and nonlinguistic effect that subtly interrupts the ‘average’ studium reading of a photographer’s intentionality (26-7). The punctum is an excess interrupting the “natural” scene.
Unfortunately, society, guided by media outlets, typically rejects photos that interrupt the studium, being mistrustful of images that invite reflection (34). It is “safer” for media to disseminate images with little-to-no meaning at all (38).