Photography & Barthes

Contemporary criticism of photography challenges the accepted ideas of what photography is and how photography is viewed in the postmodern art sphere. Photography does this through the ways that it represents reality and how a viewer looks at a photograph. The photograph in postmodern is able to challenge both of these, the act of looking and reality in that it can represent things that are not actual. There is no original work in photography anymore. The images are appropriated or questioned for their authenticity, or value of authenticity due to the photograph’s ability to reproduce.

Roland Barthes (1974)

In Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida, Barthes observes the way in which originality is futile in photography. Written in 1981 (when photography was beginning to be heavily used in the media), Barthes argued that new images are not needed. Photography was abundantly supplied through popular culture, in subways, on television, in every magazine. This was a new development for the medium in that images inundated everyday life much more than they have before. These images were pictures of things that were frequently marketed to arouse consumer desire. Critics argue that this is where photography’s originality dies, that because of the availability and frequency of images in everyday life, there is no longer a need for new photographs.

Contemporaries thought that original photography was no longer required because photos are already attached to existing emotions and thoughts. Barthes breaks this idea down to two ideas, the studium and the punctum. The studium “designated photographic content that interests the intellect” while the punctum, taken from the Latin word “to puncture”, “referred to the sudden arresting effect that a photographic image can have on the viewer”. Barthes claims that because these are the effects on a viewer when looking at a photograph, the need of new images is no longer. This is due to the fact that people already have these same associations when looking at images and therefore images can be appropriated under any different context successfully because we know how these images affect us. Barthes thought that for a “visual or verbal text to be understood its meaning must already exist in the social world.” That being said, new photography would be looked at as indifference, ordinary.  Because the perception of the world cannot be new, the result of combining new images and text becomes the most complex form of photography even without originality.

The photograph is already socially constructed and therefore the authorship is of non-importance. Artists begin to appropriate images in new ways, often to denounce the meaning of authorship. Photographer Sherie Levine challenged these ideas by photographing already existing photographs by already famous photographers such as Edward Weston. By appropriating these images Levine comments simultaneously on the omnipresence of images as well as the ability for photography to be reproduced.

The reproduced image is significant in that it has the opposite effect on people than expected. Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” where he discusses the impact of being able to reproduce an image. His idea is that by having an image, reproduced in a way that any person can obtain the image to admire, the desire to see the original would go away. Benjamin’s reasoning, well before mass media and even television was that because “when multiple low-cost reproductions of a work of art such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa were readily available, many people could own it, and, therefore, would not feel a need to visit the original”. The effects however are that of the opposite. The ability to see reproductions of an original masterpiece only increased people’s desire to see the original work of art.

With the social and cultural responses to photography already in place, the need for photography is less important than the ability to use photography in new ways that evoke new ideas feelings from work. Artist Richard Prince uses magazine sources and rearranges and cuts pictures to conjure up desire and new feeling from photography. Photographer Cindy Sherman uses new images in old way; she reuses old image ideas in new photographs. In the photographs of herself in wigs, shot in a fashion of a 1950s B-movie, her images smartly challenge the idea of what it means to make a new image. Although she is the object being photographed, she is not in the image itself. These images already have a place in society so when they are looked at, people do not look at images of Cindy Sherman, they are looking at images that may as well be hanging on walls of a movie theater.

The irony in this is that all new images made are to conjure feelings that are already culturally and socially set, is that the images are new. The hand of the artist is in every one of the photographic images even if the point is to dispute the importance of authorship. For each of these images that are appropriated, the energy spent and the people behind the images is directly in opposition of these ideas that the need for new images isn’t important. The ability to create new images lies in the hands of the genius that is the new maker of the image. These images, even when appropriated are given new meaning only through the act of making art. The criticism of contemporary photography are incongruous with the new ideas behind picture making yet successful in that photographers are now considered to be artists rather than photographers. This is successful because the personal expression, and conceptual ideas and philosophy behind the art is considered without a photograph compromising its aura.

Photography’s role in postmodern art is ironic and challenges ideas of photography in itself. There is still a hand in photography, therefore there will always be an author, yet the importance of the author is eliminated. The viewer becomes the author and the importance lies within their scope of viewing, based on society and culture, and then the personal aspect of viewing a photograph. Photography has become a constructed reality. Photography can now be constructed and manipulated but the impact, and the photograph as an object, has not changed. Photographers are able to challenge ideas of representation and challenge ideas of how photography is looked at.



About Brittany O'Mearica

Brittany drinks a lot of coffee and talks about her dog too much. She lives in Boise Idaho and studies printmaking and English literature at Boise State University. When she isn’t talking about her pets she is writing or making art. Other times she is volunteering in her community or running community based projects. Brittany is currently working on a book about what people eat when they are intoxicated and she is also working on creating a community art space because that is her dream.

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