Tag Archives: Roland Barthes

On not showing the photograph

[Barthes is looking at a photo of his mother after her death. It’s a photo of his mother as a child and he refers to it as The Winter Garden Photograph]

Something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture. I therefore decided to “derive” all Photography (its “nature” ) from the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation. All the world’s photographs formed a Labyrinth. I knew that at the center of this Labyrinth I would find nothing but this sole picture, fulfilling Nietzsche’s prophecy: “ A labyrinthine man never seeks the truth, but only his Ariadne.” The Winter Garden Photograph was my Ariadne, not because it would help me discover a secret thing (monster or treasure), but because it would tell me what constituted that thread which drew me toward Photography. I had understood that henceforth I must interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call love and death.

(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term)

Roland Barthes Camera Lucida


The picture Barthes finds and cherishes is the only photograph he discusses in detail that is not reproduced in his book. Barthes cannot show us the photograph because we stand outside the familial network of looks and thus cannot see the picture in the way that Barthes must. To us it would be just another generic family photograph from a long time ago. He cannot show it because, although it is a picture of his mother and uncle, he claims it as a very private kind of self-portrait, revealing, unexpectedly, the most intimate and unexposed aspects of himself. The picture of his mother provokes a moment of self -recognition which, in the reading process, becomes a process of self-discovery, a discovery of a self-in-relation.

If Barthes can recognize his mother’s essential being in the winter-garden picture of her, it is only possible through the description and narrative in which he articulates his response to her image. In his book, his mother’s picture exists only in the words he uses to describe it and his reaction to it: the image has been transformed and translated into a “prose-picture.”

As photography immobilizes the flow of family life into a series of snapshots, it perpetuates familial myths while seeming merely to record actual moments in family history. At the end of the twentieth century, the family photograph, widely available as a medium of familial self-presentation in many cultures and subcultures, can reduce the strains of family life by sustaining an imaginary cohesion, even as it exacerbates them by creating images that real families cannot uphold.

I would like to suggest that photographs locate themselves precisely in the space of contradiction between the myth of the ideal family and the lived reality of family life.

Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory.

Comments Off on On not showing the photograph

Filed under memories, the unknown