Idris Khan + Photography's Conceit (Roland Barthes)

“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realised then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor. (Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida)

The eyes of the emperor’s brother once looked straight into a camera, in this case ‘manned’ by a photographer whose duty it was to take pictures of the rich and powerful. Jerome’s eyes had been privileged enough to look into Napoleon’s eyes and as a consequence the photograph established a relay between the brothers, Roland Barthes and the readers of Camera Lucida. This juxtaposition of time and space is at the root of a radically different kind of history as autobiography created by Barthes in Camera Lucida through an openly self-reflexive act of imaginary reconstruction. In a sense Barthes tries to provide us with the social and cultural matrix at the heart of his activities as a viewer. Camera Lucida is part analysis, part theory, a personal examination of the role of the photograph in Barthes’s life and an hommage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, The Psychological Imagination . Of course the title of the book is also a play on Camera Obscura and as such refers to the history of the medium, to its origins as a device which transformed the three-dimensional characteristics of objects and subjects into a flat surface. The deliberate ambiguity of the term Lucida allows Barthes to ‘look’ at photographs both for what they are, and as triggers for bringing out the ‘inner’ light of thinking and interpretation.

For Barthes the eye is only capable of seeing if the subject who is looking has mastered an inner vision as well. The eyes, as much as photographs, reflect the tensions of a relationship which cannot be defined through images.


The Guardian of September 2, 2006
has a wonderful piece by Geoff Dyer onthe photographer Idris Khan. Khan photographed every page of Camera Lucida and then digitally combined them into a composite image. It is an intriguing idea and one that Barthes would have loved. The book becomes a photograph with all of its words synthesized into one image. You can see images from the show at Victoria-Miro Gallery in London.