Reading / Research : Barthes , Camera Lucida & The missing photograph

Despite having read Camera Lucida a couple of times it was only whilst reading an article by Geoffrey Batchen in Photoworks that I began to think more about the significance of the missing ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ : an image described so eloquently by Barthes but not printed in the book. Reading Camera Lucida moved me to tears and as Batchen points out ’emphasising with the grief stricken author , we find ourselves crying over a photograph that isn’t even there’ ( Batchen , 2013, p.g 43) .

Interestingly Margaret Olin conjectures ‘ the famous Winter Garden Photograph of Barthes’s mother never even existed ‘ (Batchen , 2013 p.g 43) In his book A Short History of Photography Walter Benjamin describes a photograph of Frank Kafka also standing in a winter garden , a book ‘which Barthes would have read’ (Batchen, 2013 p.g 43) . Olin proposes Barthes’s ‘Winter Garden’ image of his mother is derived from Benjamin’s description of Kafka ‘ a writers creative invention’ and ‘is ,by means of mental slippage , a stand-in’ (Batchen, 2013 p.g 43) . In Bate’s essay The Memory of Photography he considers the function of a photograph as an “empty shell” and how ‘the image is used as a space , a location for memory-traces’ (Bate , p.g 254) . Did Barthes replace the image of Kafka with a (? non-existent) photograph of his mother?

Indexicality is especially important in photography because a photograph is believed to contain ‘notions of truth and reality that arise simply because of the chosen medium itself , regardless of its function and intention’ (Short, 2011, pg. 124). Olin comments ‘to the reader of Camera Lucida it should matter little whether it existed or not. The fictional truth of the unseen Winter Garden Photograph is powerful enough to survive its possible non-existence’. However she continues ‘ but the fact that it does matter has consequences for any theory of photographic indexicality. To raise the possibility that these images do not exist and to realise how little their existence matters is to cast this concept into question. The fact that something is in front of the camera matters; what that something was does not . What matters is displaced’ (Olin , 2002 ,p.g 112)

Bate’s essay rather than speculating “what is missing or what cannot be seen in a photograph” considers the nature of photography as a mnemonic referring to Camera Lucida and the contrast between voluntary and what Proust described as “involuntary memory”. As the grieving Barthes’s searched through pictures of his mother ‘looking for the truth of the face I had loved’ (Barthes , 2000 ,p.g 67 ) he describes how a single image evoked an unconscious and private response. The ‘Winter Garden Photograph‘ Barthes comments ‘for once gave me a sentiment as certain as remembrance , just as Proust experienced it one day when , leaning to take his boots off , there suddenly came to him his grandmother’s true face , “whose living reality I was experiencing for the first time , in an involuntary and complete memory” ‘ (Bathes , 2000 , p.g 7 ) .

Bate discusses the function of a photograph as a screen memory but what can an unseen image reveal to the reader of Camera Lucida ? Barthes acknowledges his reaction to the photograph is unique ‘ it exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture …….at most it would interest your studium ; period, clothes , photogeny ; but in it, for you no , wound’ ( Barthes , 2000,p.g 73).
Batchen believes ‘ it’s a brilliant rhetorical manoeuvre , inviting every reader to project their own image of a lost loved one into the void at the heart of his text’ (Batchen , 2013 ,p.g 43) .

Whether the ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ existed or not is irrelevant to me. Camera Lucida was a huge influence when I was working towards my 2nd assignment ( see here ) and reading Batchen’s hypothesis agree with his theory. I was able to ‘read’ an unseen image’, use it as an aide-mémoire , empathised with Barthes’s pain , and used this as a platform from which to continue my own exploration of loss , time and memory.

References / Bibliography
Barthes , R (2000) Camera Lucida . London: Vintage

Batchen , G. (2013) “The Great Unknown” . In Burbridge , B & Davies , C (eds.) Issue 20 Family Politics , Photoworks Annual . Brighton England , pp. 42-47.

David Bate (2010) The Memory of Photography, Photographies, 3:2, 243-257, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2010.499609

Margaret Olin (2002) Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification : Representations, No. 80 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 99-118 Published by: University of California Press

Short , M. (2011) Creative Photography:Context and Narrative. Lausanne : Ava Publishing.
Accessed 9/7/15 & 26/11/15
Accessed 26/11/15


One thought on “Reading / Research : Barthes , Camera Lucida & The missing photograph

  1. Catherine

    I find it hard to believe there wasn’t a photograph of Barthes mother but, then, other people’s photographs do have the power to evoke emotions in us so perhaps there wasn’t. It just shows the power of imagination.



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