Working Barthes | JOSSELINE BLACK


In a concerted effort to understand and connect to the theory, thrust, and conceptual mapping of Roland Barthes, it is necessary for the purpose of this essay to use examples, objects which can reveal through analysis the spectrum and interconnectivity of his multi-pronged approach to image, text, and subjectivity. Therefore, a selection of four images has been collected and each will be dissected using the available and relevant and poignant ideas from three of his texts: Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse, Camera Lucida, and his essay “The Rhetoric of the Image”. By somehow attacking and opening each photograph with the tools given in all three of these texts, some kind of holistic reading may (or may not) appear. In addition, in “xeroxing” the structure of Camera Lucida, the essay to follow will deal directly with the content and readability of specific images which are physically embedded in the text.

In the image from Kertész, proposed below, the immediate effect created from the facial expressions and body language of the dancers is a state of “waiting”. In Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse Barthes defines “attente / waiting” as “Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns).” Ostensibly, the dancers photographed are waiting for a variety of things, something which cannot directly be decoded by simply looking at the image. Perhaps, one is waiting for a much desired role in “Swan Lake” or “Gisele”, while another is waiting for a specific lover to appear, while another is waiting for an abstraction acquisition of Fame, ad infinitum. It is important to note, that in “Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse”, Barthes organises the book into sections which, acting like a dictionary of amorous states of being, are indeed fragmented and disparate in nature. In addition, he writes, “There is a scenography of waiting: I organise it, manipulate it, cut out a portion of time in which I shall mime the loss of the loved object and provoke all the effects of minor mourning. This is then acted out as a play”. Of course, this play, this scenography is perfectly described the the fundamental performative aspect of ballet as a medium for acting and expressing, it is theatrical to its very core, and the dancers here photographed trace this theatricality in their presence. It is as if their offstage personas are equally if not more watchable than their technical finesse onstage. They are playing roles even if they don’t mean to. They are in character even when resting, and it is evident in the image that something, even ungraspable, some wish is not being met for all of the women. Perhaps it is fatigue, but there is something deeper here, some kind of preoccupation, a self-consciousness, and a loneliness. The exact kind of loneliness that in conjured by one who is waiting for the appearance, arrival, or return of a loved being.

1. ballerina_kerteszAndré Kertész, Ballet Dancers, 1940

Furthermore, in analyzing this image, we come to a kind of dead end, after ascertaining this quality of “waiting”. What next? How to extract additional meaning, we can look to Camera Lucida, in the highly delicate description the Barthes illustrates of “the air”, the expression, the look; “The air of a face is unanalyzable (once I can decompose, I prove or I reject, in short I doubt, I deviate from the Photograph, which is by nature totally evidence: evidence is what does not want to be decomposed”. The definition of decomposition is that of entropy, breaking down into constituent parts, being digested by the processes of nature. In the case of this image, and after looking at it for a long time, the faces become increasingly obscured, in the same way that when a word is spoken over and over its sound and meaning disconnect. He writes, that “evidence does not want to be decomposed”, the the air itself, when captured, even if indescribable, lasts. Therefore, “the air is that exorbitant thing which induces from body to soul- animula:” It is somehow metaphysical in nature, and this quality is visible in each of the women. They are unified of course by their dress, the obviousness of their profession as ballet dancers, and their location, all sitting. Yet each individual has her on animula, which is only this clear because of the high contrast of individuality set against a background of sameness, of connotation.

In working with the idea of connotation, Barthes in “The Rhetoric of the Image”, suggests a deductive operation necessary to get closer to the real meaning of the image itself. He writes, “ It is the first of all so to speak a message by eviction, constituted by what is left in the image when signs of connotation are mentally deleted...this evictive state naturally corresponds to the plentitude of virtualities: it is an absence of meaning full of all the meanings”. Thereby, when we look at this image and remove from it the evident messages, an “air” lingers, and a state of amorous waiting becomes apparent. It is no longer about dancers and their individual hungers but about a piece of evidence pointing toward a universal and existential void.

sidibe_Monsieur Sourmoro a bu du Dolo (Mr. Sourmoro has drunk Dolo), Malick Sidibé, gelatin silver print, 1967Malick Sidibé, Monsieur Sourmoro a bu du Dolo (Mr. Sourmoro has drunk Dolo), 1967


As a triptych, three men, perhaps brothers, perhaps friends, create a display of “masculinity”, the bridling of a potent male force, in the image from Sidibé. There is clearly a central protagonist who is proclaiming himself righteous, with fist raised towards the viewer, and being restrained by two men at his side. The position of the men is forced, awkward, and full of embodied tension. Simultaneously, behind the tension some kind of showmanship can be detected. From a certain view, this image speaks to aftermath and premonition of jealousy, maybe even rage. Barthes in Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse writes “as a jealous man, I suffer four times over: because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be subject to a banality: I suffer from being excluded, from being aggressive, from being crazy, from being common.” In the image, the thrust of the immense power of jealousy, the latent aggression, the madness, the predictability is present. The photograph is shot in a studio, which could double as a home, and the moment captured is both posed and alive with feeling. The man being pulled back in the center, has something unresolved. This image could easily have been shot in a different context in the moment before a fight breaks out over a woman. However, this is not a moving image and therefore, according to Barthes the noeme of the photograph does not break down as a consequence. In addition, this quality of jealousy, that banality, can be found in cases other than relationships where the subject is simply maddened by a need to possess something he/she doesn't have and cannot function in accordance with the moment of social conformity and politeness that is required of him or her.

Another clear aspect of this image, is the dramatic posing. The three men have clearly positioned themselves in this arrangement for a reason, to deliver some kind of message, to display something, to capture a feeling. Barthes argues in Camera Lucida that “...what founds the nature of Photography is the pose. The physical duration of the pose is of little consequence; even in the interval of a millionth of a second (Edgerton’s drop of milk) there still has been a pose, for the pose is not, here, the attitude of the target or even a technique of the Operator, but the term of an “intention” of reading: looking at a photograph I inevitably include in my scrutiny the thought of that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye”. The majority of Sidibé’s images are studio portraits and therefore rely heavily on “posing”, which creates the conditions for an image to be staged and remain motionless for a longer duration of time than if it were captured on a roll of film amidst a bustling and active exterior atmosphere. For Barthes, it is the very fact of the absence of motion that defines the photograph, that makes it valid in a sense.

One might argue that the studio is a context without a context. It is a kind of non-place, and at a logical end a white cube, holding only that which is intended for endurance through time. What is interesting about the studio of Sidibé is the existence of objects which do not entirely make sense in relationship to the central action being captured in the photograph. His studio is not a non-place but somehow a kind of opened and readable environment. For example, in the lower left hand corner of the room there sits a kind of child’s bed, but it is not entirely clear what it is intended for. Also, there are some cables hanging from the ceiling in the background. These elements live in the photograph alongside the make-shift white backdrop. There are innumerable interpretations of the space and relationships within it possible. In “The Rhetoric of the Image”, Barthes writes to this point, “Thus we are dealing with a normal system whose signs are drawn from a cultural code (even if the linking together of the elements of the sign appears more or less analogical). What gives this system its originality is that the number of readings of the same lexical unit or lexia (of the same image) varies according to individuals.”

cunningham_eikos'hands1971Imogen Cunningham, Eikos'hands, 1971

The image of hands created by Imogen Cunningham is erotic and noble. The hands are placed close to one another, like two flower petals facing downward, and there is something sensual in their touching. A ring rests on the smallest finger of the right hand. A reflection of the hands falls in the water below. Thus, there are four hands, the two real and those two virtual or projected. As the face and rest of the body of the subject is not visible, the hands become the face. We search the image...In Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse Barthes writes, “to scrutinise means to search, as if I wanted to see what was inside inside it, as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the adverse body (I am like those children who take a clock apart in order to find out what time it is). This operation is conducted in a cold and astonished fashion; I am calm, attended as if I were confronted by a strange insect of which I am suddenly no longer afraid. Certain parts of the body are particularly appropriate to this observation: eyelashes, nails, roots of the hair, the incomplete objects. It is obvious that I am then in the process of fetishizing a corpse.”  Barthes continues to describe the loved body as something to be read, and through this process love itself is reborn. What may be additionally interesting in this image, is that Eiko the subject is quite hard to research, her identity is unknown. Furthermore, as the body of the loved one becomes compartmentalised and momentarily not a living being but a corpse before returning to it totality warmly, Eiko herself is unknown to us.

This absence of lineage, of not knowing the identity of the subject, is in high contrast to what Barthes proposes as the opportunity to discover hidden genetic features in a photograph, for example of a family. In this case, only the hands are available for observation. He writes about the face in Camera Lucida, but the same could be applied to the hands in this photograph, that “the photograph is like old age: even in its splendor, it disincarnates the face, manifests its genetic essence.” What can be ascertained from looking at the these hands, without any other information available? Is this a young woman? What is her heritage? In this case, as we lack any additional bodies to compare to, we can only assume that some “genetic essence” is visible here. Perhaps the hands can speak for themselves as subtle lines in the hands are intrinsically a map of age, if not “the age”.

If this image were to be accompanied by text, description of say Eiko, even here last name, more would be revealed. The location of the image would also give additional support to discovering the relevance of the 4 image. Barthes addresses this usefulness of text in “The Rhetoric of the Image”, Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs; the linguistic message is one of these techniques. At the level of the literal message, the text replies- in a more or less direct, more or less partial manner- to the question: what is it? The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself...” If an abstract image alone is transformed into a captioned image, it evolves from something highly debatable to something fixed, grab-able, and even documentary in nature. Text makes that possible, and in the case of this image, which is picturesque, it would serve to close the logical gaps, even between the Victorian dress and the year the image was taken.

Graciela-Iturbide-Juchitan-1-620x409Graciela Iturbide, Juchitan series, 1979-1988

In an image from the Juchitan series (1979-1988) from Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, there is figured a large snake which aims its head at the face of a young boy in the foreground. Behind the man- reptile duo, a translucent fabric hangs, which obscured slightly amorphous forms. According to the “Book of Symbols” from the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, the snake “has thus always conveyed power over life and death, making it, everywhere, a form of the ancestral spirit, guide to the Land of the Dead and mediator of hidden processes of transformation and return”. The snake has a strong cultural and symbolic association. In biblical terms, it is the snake which represents that devil provoking Eve to eat the apple in the garden of Eden. In addition, the snake has phallic implications. For our purposes, this creature “whispering” into the ear of the boy be likened to something demonic, and related to Barthes’ Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse as a kind of language: “How to repulse a demon (an old problem)? The demons, especially if they are demons of language are fought by language. hence I can hope to exorcise the demonic word which is breathed into my ears (by myself) if I substitute for it (if I have the gifts of language for doing so) another, calmer word (I tied to euphemism).”  Furthermore, in terms of amorous dynamics Barthes proposes that “it occasionally seems to the amorous subject that he is possessed by a demon of language which impels him to insure himself and to expel himself”. The intensity of this image lies in the blurring and almost union of the animal and human world, and it incredible fear it conjures in a viewer who expect the imminent death of the young boy.

The foreground is rife with potential and emotion, yet the photograph holds particular strangeness in the background. Simultanesouly we ( I) see a Barthesian punctum in the shadowy almost forms hiding behind the transparent fabric. Something in this area of the photograph feels like a witness to the drama in the foreground. We are not sure if there are people or just a pile of materials...but we (I) are nevertheless drawn to this aspect of the image: “...the second element which will disturb the studium I will therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hold- and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” The phenomenon of the punctum is something, as described in Camera Lucida, which emerges as a visual feature of a photograph, it is distinct from the studium, as it is both highly personal and not a part of the generated academic or cultural frame of

reference which contains the image. (I) am stung not by one small part of this photograph from Iturbide, but by the energy of a region. Nowhere in the text of Camera Lucida does Barthes define the size and shape of the punctum, which is an important note to make as it leaves any photograph available for a kind of identification and personalisation.

Of any of the photograph chosen for this essay, this image begs most to be extended cinematically and even to become filmic in nature. The snake is so close to attack and the boy, we cannot yet see running or freezing. What then? What of film in relationship to still photography? According to Barthes in “The Rhetoric of the Image”: “This would lend authority to the view that the distinction between film and photograph is not a simple difference of degree but a radical opposition. Film can no longer be seen as animated photographs: the having-been-there gives way before a being-thee of the thing; which omission would explain how there can be a history of cinema, without any real break with the previous arts of fiction, whereas the photograph can in some sense elude history).” This perspective, the idea that a photograph is eluding a historical continuum raises to inquiry first the spectrum of history which arguably can cover academic histories, felt histories, and of course the very nature of memory itself. Which history is Barthes addressing here? In an interview with Iturbide conducted by Munem Wasif from November of 2014, she describes her practice of using photography as “a sort of travel diary”. Is a diary an archive of a personal history? Traces of oneself documented? Perhaps Barthes is proposing that photography, in abundance and widespread and even undiscovered, cannot fit simply into one linear history.


© Josseline Black, Linz, Austria, 2016


Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Print.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections On Photography. 1st American ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Print.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. Print.