A close reading of two texts.

This piece was written for university. The assingment was to chose two texts for a close reading, then compare and contrast their respective approaches to photography. It is fa from my best piece of writing and with hindsight I would not have chosen two texts that were so different in approach and context, but it was an interesting exercise to look for the common threads within two very different pieces. As always, in the interests of publishing these as a way of showing others what mistakes can be made, I have presented here the exact copy I submitted, Keep an eye out for the major mistake. Final grade was 66.

Essay 1: Photography & Visual Culture Module

Reading Wells and Barthes.

‘It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world’ (Berger 1972; in Wells, 2009, Pg30.)

This statement could in itself sum up many academics’ approach to the position of photography and image creators within the wider scope of the popular culture and its visual elements. In this essay we shall be looking at and discussing two texts, Roland Barthes’ 1980 seminal text Camera Lucida (2009 edition) and Liz Wells’ Photography a Critical Introduction (fourth edition, 2009). Both texts follow a very different style of writing, yet have large sections covering the same subjects, with Wells discussing Barthes and his approaches in Camera Lucida. For the purposes of brevity we shall not look at the entire texts but rather part one of Camera Lucida (chapters 1-24) and pages 30-49 of ‘Critical introduction’, those concerned with ways of reading of a given image.

Starting with Camera Lucida we have many works and discussions to fall back on to show us possible ways of reading the text. At fear of going over ground familiar to the reader of this essay,  I shall not delve too far into the fine detail of the book, assuming a knowledge of the synopsis of Camera Lucida and venture to give a brief overview of some of the concepts contained and offer some of my own.

One of the most talked about subjects regarding Barthes is that of death. I feel that this concept can overshadow the work itself. Though it is certainly not possible for one to ignore the linguistics elements and references that litter the work, it can however be easy to forget, when writing from a standing influenced by English culture, that death may not always be seen as a final tragic mortality, to be grieved over. It can also be seen as a romantic notion or even in the case of French language, a euphemism for orgasm. I offer the opinion that while Camera Lucida certainly holds the element of catharsis for Barthes, it is possible that he was aware of his work being translated and used it as a narrative tool, a universally translatable constant, not as often alluded to, a symptom of his state of mind. Liz wells may be seen to agree, stating: ‘Barthes’ precise use of words (which, in the French, offers careful nuancing but, in translation, may seem over-precious)’ (2009, Pg34). Had we access to the original text and remove the spectres of its context, it may be that we are presented with a romanticised text more than the morbid.

I initially read the first half of Camera Lucida before I was aware of the circumstances that surrounded it and when you are stripped of knowledge of the deaths of Barthes and his mother, the narrative tone appears much more quizzical and whimsical, rather than foreshadowed and tragic. When Barthes writes “I am looking at the eyes that have looked at the emperor.” (2009, Pg 3) he does not lament the passing but rather he marvels at the ability of photography to resurrect in a reality not present in painting. For the first half of the book, Barthes is a man attempting to explain his reaction to the phenomenon of photography, not ruminating upon mortality. He may be painted by Titian, but he is struck by the reality of the nature of his past self in a candid image, despite having no memory of the occasion, he does not deny it having happened. It is this curiosity, not loss, that drives the text and his hunt for classification.

Camera Lucida was not Barthes’ first work on the medium, though it is certainly his most comprehensive, covering every aspect he could classify of his personal reaction to presented images. The literary style of Camera Lucida is very fluid by the usual standard of academic works, structured more as a collection of thoughts and responses. Chapters are not of set lengths, preferring to deal with subject matters one at a time, enabling Barthes to classify each element and reaction to an image presented as far as he sees fit to expand. Barthes would often use this technique in order to read into the minute detail of a subject and expand his perception of it and offer his take on a possible meaning. Mythologies being a case in point, a series of essays on single subjects, explored in detail looking at the reasons behind their existence and the meanings experienced by those who would partake of them. Barthes has always had a very fluid personable style when writing, but Camera Lucida is a text that could almost have been written as a private diary more so than the omnipresent piece it has become in the world of the cultural readers and students alike.

In Photography A Critical Introduction we are presented with a much more structured approach to the world of the image. Liz Wells does not attempt to rationalise or romanticise the content of photographs, but rather classify and explain the elements that may go into the experience of reading images. It is, simply, as the title suggests a critical introduction to the world of photography. As such it may initially be hard to place Wells’ opinions on where culture may place photographers and their art. Written and published in a format that attempts to give brief overviews of the main elements that encompass the image making world A Critical Introduction superficially seems as straight as the title may suggest. The passage we will be looking at offers a brief overview on reading the image, reconsidering photography using several ideologies, theory, criticism and practice, finishing the section with a detailed reading of Doretha Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’.

Opening with the chapter ‘Reading The Image’ Wells talks of semiotics and psychoanalysis being two of the more important contributions to the field of debate around photographic meaning. This is the first hint of where Wells stakes her opinion on the way we can approach reading, stating that early usage of semiotics is a limited avenue, “that it failed to address how particular readers of signs interpreted communications”. Wells then follows with reference to Umberto Eco’s ‘Critique of the image’ essay (in Burgin, 1982) and presents his argument of a ten-point range of codes to be used as a starting point for semiotics and a rudimentary analytical tool. More space is then given over to Barthes, using a large amount of this chapter to introduce his history, ideologies and previous work leading towards Camera Lucida, Barthes’ ‘ontological desire to understand the nature of the photograph’ (Wells, 2009, Pg 32). The chapters concludes with an explanation of the punctum and the studium. The next section gives us psychoanalysis as a major tool for deconstructing the images we experience introducing Victor Burgin’s book Thinking photography (1982) as one of the major works to challenge notions within the language of photography and its existence as art, we are also given concepts from Freud, constructivism, and re-visit Umberto Eco’s essays.

Wells’ questions Barthes approach in one passage regarding the punctum ‘He sees this as essentially a product of the photograph itself, this we would suggest limits his discussion’ Wells then argues that the history of the observer contributes to their reaction, they may fixate on a small detail that is insignificant to others. It may be argued that Wells has missed this from Barthes work, while I feel that he does not explicitly proclaim that the punctum may change with each person, it is implied. In chapter sixteen he talks of wanting to live in a location presented to him, yet admits he knows nothing of the realities of such a scenario. At the beginning of chapter 19 Barthes tells us “to give examples of punctum is, in a certain fashion, to give myself up”, he is aware that the punctum is a personal reaction and thus it may follow that he is aware of its fluid nature, shifting in himself as much as it would in others.

Till this point, we are offered a straight look at the main arguments that encompass critical thinking on the subject of photography but in the final two chapters of this chosen section we are able to finally unpick Wells’ stance on the place of modern image makers. Encouraging us to call upon “theoretical assumptions founded in varying academic fields…….. to inform both the making and the interpretation of visual imagery” (Wells, 2009, Pg 36) and detailing how much more there is to photography than just a set agenda of one ideology, we should follow different paths when searching for the best means to decode the world we see around us. She then proceeds to deconstruct an image in the case study of ‘Migrant Mother’ with details regarding the history of the image, the subject matter, the choice of one image through an editing process, its connotations and placing in a wider scope going so far as to call on examples where it has been used as a starting point for two magazine cover illustrations. the last section is an exceptionally detailed look into one image and offers a way to reinforce her statement from earlier ‘Photography theory cannot simply rely on optics and chemistry’ (Wells, 2009, Pg 37).

So we have here to exceptionally different texts. It would be possible to dismiss them as coming from polar opposites, but yet there are similarities in the overall context of the texts, so would it be possible to find the common ground within them? Barthes has given us a work that is highly narrative in style, attempting to create an authoritative voice on why there is an emotive response to photography, focusing on one direction, attempting to explain what it means to him, it could well be an internal monologue. Wells on the other hand has aimed for a target audience that is looking for an overview of the potential minefield of becoming an ‘aware’ critical thinker, seeking to create a source and unifying starting point for all aspects of photography’s place in the wider spectrum. Barthes talks with an authoritative voice on the subject, little relying on direct quotes, though occasionally bringing in concepts such as Plato’s cave to reinforce a point; Wells again goes a different path, her voice is often absent from large swathes of the text, preferring to create her arguments using broader scopes and the words of others. So far, so different, yet as is often the case, context is key.

Both texts are meant as introductions to the subject, they are not created to be the final word, yet rather to encourage further discussion on the way in which we interact with imagery, they inform of possible ways of thinking rather than attempting to enforce a one way mentality and it is in these areas we find the similarities. Both authors understand that there is much more to understanding than the superficial. Wells describes Barthes’ text as  “narrative and rhetorical, the tone is personal” (Wells, 2009, Pg 32) at odds with the style of her text yet she could well be the person that Barthes seeks when he asks “Who could help me?” (Barthes, 2009, Pg 4). The ground they inhabit in ideology is much closer in ideology, than in literature and through study of both texts, we are given an exceptionally well rounded and well written look at the culture and critical issues around the edios of photography.


Wells, L. (2009) Photography A Critical Introduction, 4th ed. Abingdon: Routlegde, p30-49.

Barthes, R. (2009) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage, p3-60.

Burgin, V. (1982) Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan.