man, Roland Barthes, black and white, pictures, desk

The Great Unknown

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One of the most famous photographs in the history of photography has never been seen by its many interlocutors.

Roland Barthes describes this photograph, the so-called Winter Garden Photograph of his recently-deceased mother, in considerable detail in his book Camera Lucida: “The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called a Winter Garden in those days” But then, despite proposing that “something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture,” he refuses to reproduce it, claiming that, for us, “it would be nothing but an indifferent picture.”

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. Empathizing with the grief-stricken author, we find ourselves crying over a photograph that isn’t even there. Given the care with which the whole book has been composed, this effect is surely no accident. Indeed, a number of commentators have suggested that, just as Barthes decided to “’derive’ all Photography (its ‘nature’)” from this one absent photograph, there too, in that photograph’s retraction, should inquiring readers seek the essence of Barthes’s book. With Camera Lucida structured in every aspect in binary terms (as in the impossible opposition of studium and punctum), the missing Winter Garden Photograph has its doppelgänger in the Polaroid photograph by Daniel Boudinet that Barthes takes the trouble to reproduce in colour but never discusses. In that sense, the photograph of Barthes’s mother must be made an absent presence in order to maintain the deconstructive dynamic that animates the whole book.

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Published in Photoworks Annual Issue 20, 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks

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