Tag Archives: Roland Barthes

Seeing Both the Car Window and the Passing Landscape

In his book Mythologies, French Philosopher Roland Barthes writes about the difficulty one has, when travelling in a car, simultaneously seeing both the countryside and the car window. Our perceptual apparatus allows us to see both, but only one at a time. To see one is not to see the other. This might explain how Barthes died in excellent health at the relatively young age of 64 – run over by a laundry truck crossing the street in front of the Sorbonne while walking to one of his classes (true). Very appropriate end for a philosopher with his head in the clouds, but not the best. Heraclitus, the guy who said it wasn’t possible to step twice into the same river, died an even more philosophic death. When his doctors couldn’t cure him of  chronic illness, Heraclitus decided to bury himself in dung, thinking this would do the trick. After covering himself in manure and sitting around for a while, he couldn’t free himself and died of starvation, trapped in a pile of shit.  My wife predicts a similar end for me.

I’ve always been fascinated by photos through windows. You may have noticed. It’s also been an interest for others more notable – Frank, Koudelka,  Kratochival, Winogrand, Friedlander, Moriyama et al. There’s something compelling about the constructed reality produced by the confluence of the reflector and the reflected. These photos help educate naive viewers that photographs don’t mirror or objectively recreate a ‘reality out there’ but rather are their own reality. And, to my mind, these photos refute Barthes’ claim that we can’t see both simultaneously – we can, via a photograph, at least as a fusion of the two that creates its own new reality.

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Roland Barthes was born in 1915 in Cherbourg, on the Atlantic coast of France, and raised by his mother in Paris after his father died in WW1. As a teen Barthes developed tuberculosus, resulting in an extended stay in a sanatorium, thanks to which he missed WW2. It also allowed him time to develop a wide range of intellectual interests. From this enforced self-education, Barthes became an early theorist of Semiology – the science of signs and meanings – whereby he attempted to explain human activity by analyzing how signs (signifiers”) construct reality.

Barthes’s first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), considered the ways in which we employ language to think, yet are constrained within the confines of language itself, language whose meanings are arbitrary, not fixed. For example, brides wear white for weddings in America, but in China, Korea, and other Asian countries white represents death, mourning, and bad luck, and is traditionally worn at funerals. Is one culture ‘wrong’ about what white means? No. The meaning of white is not set in stone but is merely an agreed convention. This is true of all meanings in all cultures. To understand a culture, we need to first understand how meanings are produced, circulated, consumed and understood by those within it. Why? Because these meanings create that culture’s experience of the world.

Barthes was appointed to the prestigious École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in 1960. His next work (Elements of Semiology, 1965) looked at the primary elements of human existence – food, clothing, shelter – and how we talk about them. Semiology – the science of signs – breaks each act of communication into a signifier and the signified. The signifier is the word, gesture or object (a photograph, for example); the signified is what that word, gesture or photo means. To take an example,  a red rose can signify different things, depending on context: If I give one to a woman on Valentine’s Day it means “I love you;” if I am confronted with an image of four of them at the liquor store it’s a reminder I’d be wise to buy a bottle of Four Roses bourbon; if I see one on a t-shirt in Lancashire UK it probably means the wearer is a fan of the Lancashire Rugby team. And then there’s what Barthes calls an something’s “degree zero” of meaning: that is, its status as just a thing – in our rose example, just a piece of flora. Practically speaking however, it’s impossible to see anything this way, because as humans we seem compelled to read meanings into objects. A rose is never just a rose.

Likewise, using the same semiotic analysis, a photograph is never merely a photograph, just an innocent copy of something out there. It’s much more loaded than that. Like every other object of perception, we attach certain meanings to it, meanings dependent on the cultural context. Semiotics rejects the naive understanding of the photo as a transparent window through which we see a slice of reality, a faithful copy of a “thing out there.” While Barthes doesn’t write of it, I’m sure he’d chuckle at the story told by Picasso, now old and venerated, who, visited in his Paris studio by a vulgar nouveau-riche, was asked why he had painted his portrait of Dora Maar  in an abstract manner that clearly “didn’t look like her?” In reply, Picasso asked the man what his own wife looked like, and the man showed him a B&W photo of her he kept in his wallet, to which Picasso replied “so, she’s flat, without color and 2 inches square?”

Picasso’s point being that the “degree zero” of the painting or photo – its reality as a thing – is just a piece of canvas or paper with some markings on it, while what we read into it is what it represents, it’s “meaning.” Picasso was directing the man’s eyes from the signified to the sign itself,  in so doing demonstrating that pictures don’t inherently “represent reality” or anything else but rather that we read the reality into them.

Anyway, back to Barthes.

Starting in the early 70’s, Barthes applied his semiotics eye to mass culture – clothing, fashion, painting, iconography, typography…and photography. What he was doing now was, like Picasso in the instance above, examining the signifier itself, the painting, clothing, typography or photograph – the communicating object –  its feel and sensuality.  His interest was how signs create meanings, but it was also his attempt to alert us to more nefarious implications; as citizens of modern, capitalist culture, the self-interested workings of that culture via its scripted words and images can’t but influence what we understand as real.  In our hyper-capitalist culture, meanings constantly bombard us – via text but more and more via photographs that pretend to be neutral – with subtle but definable connotations; for Barthes, to get ourselves oriented in such a morass of meanings we must first consider the signifier itself as a filter (a “car-window”) that influences the way we see the “real” countryside beyond.

Of course, the implications of Barthes’ insights for us as photographers are fairly obvious. First, it opens up to us the fact that photographs aren’t just objective copies of something real ‘out there’ but are themselves constructed by the eye of the photographer, who is the curator of what gets seen by the viewer and the manner in which it gets seen, which then opens up the reality of photography as a creative medium – as Art – that so many would deny it. Second, it opens up the activity of the viewer as necessary to the photo’s meaning. Meaning, necessary in any coherent photograph, can be given both by the photographer but also by the viewer, and the two may not necessarily be the same.  Third, it should alert us to the power of images and their role in forming – and distorting – what we perceive. The dark side of such a remarkable technology is that it can,  in a capitalist consumer society (or in more malevolent social or political societies), be put to uses that might not serve our best interests, unless, of course, we can see through its seductive manipulations.

It’s this third implication that is the focus of Barthes’ analysis and what he’s warning us against. In doing so he’s reminding us that we, as recipients, can impose our own meanings on the texts and images we’re bombarded with. We have that power. Be critical of that photograph, Barthes is saying: It isn’t just a photo but rather an often devious means of making you see the world in a way that serve’s other’s purposes, a way that might not be your free choice and might distort your understanding. Only when you understand this will you be the master of your life’s meanings and not be mastered by a world of symbols deviously crafted to master you.

What Reality is Leica Constructing For Me With This Photo?

Parerga and Paralipomena – Chapter 2

“View From the Window at Le Gras”, History’s First Photograph (J. Nicephore Niepce 1826)

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophical stuff lately, broad subjects that I’m finding myself coming back to as a mature adult. I’ve always been intrigued by the ‘big questions,’ things we often take for granted – beliefs and ideas that form the bedrock of who we are, what matters to us and how we perceive the life we’re living. The beauty of philosophical inquiry is that it can shine a critical light on settled beliefs you’ve never really thought to question, things that you’ve been taught to believe, things that might appear to you as “common sense,” beliefs you take on faith or as a member of a religious orientation or a specific national culture. In my opinion, that’s a good thing, whether we’re discussing really important things like what the good life is or more everyday things like photography – what it is, why we do it, what it means – and how it might fit into a good life.

Photography is the product of the rational secular culture originating in the West but now basically the world’s default culture, a culture whose roots lie in classical Greek thought as it’s been transmitted via the Roman conquest of Europe and Asia with an overlay of Christianity that’s driven it through the Reformation and Renaissance and into the Scientific Revolution. From all of that, everyone who has electricity and an internet connection and is able to read this, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim or secular humanist, and whether you live in the States or China or Portugal or Argentina or Norway or Iran or Nigeria, share, to a great extent, a common heritage, intellectual in nature, that allows us to understand and empathize with each other, whatever the differing idiosyncratic permutations of our local cultures. And it’s that culture that’s brought us the amazing technological advances of the last two centuries, including photography.

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If you think about it, photography is pretty amazing. It would have seemed utterly miraculous to even the profound,sophisticated classical Greek, Roman and Medieval thinkers whose brilliance has formed the foundations of our shared culture. And yet, we accept it without a second thought, as if it’s a normal and natural part of life to be able to record and make permanent accurate visual transcriptions of what we perceive, with a phone we carry about in our pocket no less. Roland Barthes touched just a bit on this in Camera Lucida, the remarkable fact that a part of his mother, dead for years, remained behind as a physical trace on a photographic emulsion, an emulsion that not only allowed him to recreate her features two-dimensionally, but that had been touched by light that had touched her body and impregnated her very form upon it. Wow! Barthes was saying, think about that, my mother dead all these years, her body, her combination of matter and form, moldering in the earth, and yet I have what’s really real about her preserved right here, eternal, something more than just a painted imitation, but a transcription of the real thing itself, stenciled off of nature. Tell me that’s not miraculous.

Barthes doesn’t move his discussion in this direction, but this is all very ‘Aristotelian’ (after the Greek philosopher Aristotle), notions of form and matter and what’s ultimately real. Aristotle broke down everything into two things – form and matter – and taught that only form itself is coherent and real and valuable, matter having no real value except as just the stuff we’re all made of, the clay as it were, something common to everything, while our form is what defines us as beings (i.e. your form is what makes you a human, as opposed to an elephant, while it’s the elephant’s form that makes him an elephant and not a human, even though we’re both made out of the same stuff or matter). So, in thinking of what photography does, Aristotle would say that it transcribes what is ultimately valuable about the subject you’re photographing, whether it be your house or your dog or your lover, the form of the thing. He would say that Barthes, in the act of capturing his mother in a photo, has given what is defining about her at that one instant – her form – a permanence transcending the flow and flux of matter. I’m pretty sure Aristotle would find that absolutely mind-blowing.

We meanwhile, immersed in post-modern reality, don’t think twice about it. We’re blind to photography’s miraculousness in a way Aristotle could never be, just as we’re blind to many other things that should fill us with wonder. We’re blind to it because it’s just one item that constitutes the banal background of our technological reality, one more thing that just seems self-evident and obvious to us, like the fact that we use a certain language, have certain parents, are born at a certain time and place. It just is. Nothing to see here, let’s move along to think of the things that really matter – are my photos good enough to show at the corner coffee-house, does my 4th generation Summicron have good bokeh, should I spend $6000 on a Leica M10 or will fellow photographers think I’m a lightweight because my cat pictures were taken with a D200? Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who many consider the greatest philosophical mind of the 20th century, would shake his head and say that when we do this we are blind to “being.”

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Heidegger remains a pretty controversial guy in philosophical circles, mainly because he was a Nazi, which is not something that tends to endear you to other people. His ties with the Nazis are disputed – some say, as the Rector of the University of Freiburg in the 1930’s and a recognized intellectual, he had no choice but to passively align himself in the manner he did; others point to writings and statements that seem to indicate certain affinities with Nazi theories – but they remain a hurdle you must get past if you are to engage with his incredibly rich Philosophy of Being. So, let’s put that aside for a second if that’s possible and discuss his ideas.

Heidegger’s entire philosophy is predicated on that sense of wonder I’m certain Aristotle and pre-modern thinkers would have if they’d been confronted with something like photography, but in a larger sense, wonder at the very fact that we are – what philosophers refer to as ‘being’ – which is itself something miraculous and weird and in need of contemplation and explanation. He argues that we’ve forgotten, or better yet, have never really even seen, how weird and miraculous it is that we even are, that anything is. How is it that you are you and I am me and the world is what it is? What’s that all about? He suggests that the real nature of philosophical inquiry is to explore this phenomenon, and criticizes Western philosophy since Socrates as being blind to this miraculousness, having instead pursued practical issues such as how to live and the correct way to think without taking into account the fact that we’re here and capable of doing or thinking or creating anything in the first place.

Gianni Gardin- a Sublime Photograph. My Reality is Better Because it Exists

Unfortunately, I’m not going to recommend you read Heidegger, as his writings are mostly incomprehensible except to those who’ve spent a lifetime studying him. But I think you can take something away from Heidegger and use it when thinking about photography. What I am advocating for is that, as photographers – and I think Heidegger would agree – before we divide ourselves up over trivial issues of practice and/or aesthetic theory, we should step back and think of the remarkable thing that photography is and understand that its miraculousness is the real hook that should keep us engaged and driven forward photographically. We as dedicated practitioners too often take for granted what we do and get caught up in its practical aspects to the exclusion of recognizing the gift it is, a gift we need to honor with our full attention as the doing of it is, in its own way, a spiritual practice. Whether you know it or not, it’s that that keeps you coming back to it and gives it meaning for you, something we all share.


This is the second in an ongoing series about philosophical issues and what they might have to say about photography. Part One can be found here.