The word “photography” derives from two Greek words: Phos (meaning “light”) and
Graphe (meaning “writing” or “drawing”). Thus, photography implies, literally, “writing
or drawing with light”, in turn implying combination of something that occurs naturally
(light) with practices created by human culture (writing and drawing).
Generally, photographs are understood to have a direct connection to what they depict-
providing the impression that they show “reality”. They are often also seen as being able
to preserve a moment in time. In the course of my paper, I will be exploring such issues
through an analysis of the terms Studium and Punctum that Roland Barthes uses in his
book Camera Lucida (or La Chambre Claire) : Reflections On Photography (1980,
London: Vintage). Barthes’ book, is simultaneously an enquiry into the nature and
essence of photography and a eulogy to his (then) recently deceased mother. Published
two months prior to his own death in 1980, it is one of the most important early academic
books of criticism and theorization on photography, alongwith Susan Sontag’s On
Photography (1979, London: Penguin) (infact, Barthes mentions Sontag’s book in the
original bibliography to Camera Lucida, henceforth referred to as CL). Critics and
commentators, ever since the publication of CL, have felt a morbid sense throughout the
book – it seems as if, for Barthes, photographs and photography have only to do with
death and the past. It is said that he tends to focus on photographs only as memento mori.
Sontag in her book says : “All photographs are memento mori” and that “to take a
photograph is to participate in the person or thing’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability”.
(For quotes from Sontag’s book throughout my paper, I would not be able to produce
page numbers because the copy of her book that I could procure was an HTML document
without any page numbers, the content of her book flowed as an uninterrupted whole
without any page breaks.)
In his essay, “The Ontology Of The Photographic Image”, Andre Bazin (1980, “The
Ontology Of The Photographic Image” in Alan Trachtenberg (ed.) Classic Essays on
Photography New Haven, CT : Leete’s Island Books. Again an HTML document without
page numbers) practice of mummification in Egypt. I will now briefly mention Bazin’s
description of this practice in order to present another point of view, differing from
Sontag’s (and apparently, Barthes’ too) memento mori view (though Bazin doesn’t
directly mention photography here due to the obvious historical context as will be clear
when I explain his proposition, but the analogy he draws is quite interesting). He begins
by discussing that this artificial preservation (the practice of embalming the dead
corporeal body) provided the Egyptians with “a defense against the passage of time”.
Terra cotta statuettes were placed next to mummified bodies as “substitute mummies” to
act as “guarantors”...