Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography
The Work of Atget, Vol. 1: Old France
The Autochromes of J.H. Lartigue, 1912-1927
The Photography of Max Yavno
Cole Weston: Eighteen Photographs
American Photographers and the National Parks
New England Reflections, 1882-1907
Man as Art: New Guinea
Rajasthan: India’s Enchanted Land,
Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay
Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979
William Klein: Photographs
Don McCullin: Hearts of Darkness
Herbert List: Photographs 1930-1970
Robert Rauschenberg Photographs
Bill Brandt: Nudes 1945-1980
Hollywood Color Photographs
A Century of Japanese Photography
The flow of photographic images from the past suggests that what we are already experiencing as a deepening flood in the present will seem, in the near future, like a terminal inundation. Most of the theoretical works purporting to find some sort of pattern in the cataract of pictures only increase the likelihood that we will lose our grip. But occasionally a book makes sense of the uproar. Appearing in the author’s native language just before his death, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, now published posthumously in English, will make the reader sorrier than ever that this effervescent critic is no longer among the living. Barthes was the inspiration of many a giftless tract by his disciples but he himself was debarred by genuine critical talent from finding any lasting value in mechanized schemes. By the end of his life he seemed very keen to reestablish the personal, the playful, and even the quirky at the center of his intellectual effort, perhaps because he had seen, among some of those who took his earlier work as an example, how easily method can become madness.
Whatever the truth of that, here is a small but seductively argued book which the grateful reader can place on the short shelf of truly useful commentaries on photography, along with Walter Benjamin’s Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, John Szarkowski’s promotional essays, and the critical articles of Janet Malcolm. Also asking for a home on the same shelf is the recently published Photography in Print, edited by Vicki Goldberg and including many of the best shorter writings about photography from its first days to now. As well as the expected, essential opinions of everyone from Fox Talbot to Sontag, there are such out-of-the-way but closely relevant pieces as a reminiscence by Nadar which suggests that Balzac preempted Benjamin’s idea about photographs robbing an object of its aura; a stunningly dull critique written by one Cuthbert Bode in 1855 which shows that photography has always generated, as well as a special enthusiasm, a special intensity of patronizing scorn; and a brilliantly turned Hiawatha-meter poem by that fervent shutterbug Lewis Carroll.
From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the second book of Euclid.
There is, of course, a much longer shelf, indeed a whole wall of long shelves, packed with commentaries which are not particularly wrong-headed. But they are platitudinous, and in the very short run it is the weight of unobjectionable but unremarkable accompanying prose which threatens to make a minor art boring. The major arts can stand the pressure.
Barthes at his best had a knack for timing the soufflé. The texture of Camera Lucida is light …