One opinion on Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

by Paul Burmeister

There are two things a 21st-century reader of Camera Lucida must keep in mind right from the start. First, Roland Barthes' book on photography was written in 1979, about a decade before Photoshop and at least two decades before the proliferation and ubiquity of inexpensive digital cameras and social media sites. Second, Barthes is clear about dismissing the artistic intentions of photographers (Barthes calls them "Operators") and about systematically rejecting objective values for the art form.

With those cautions in mind, a reader can weigh the special value of Camera Lucida. Barthes provides original insights on the medium, and his insights are useful to a broader consideration of the role of subjectivity in meaning. Barthes, of course, is a very skilled writer, and while the book is dense, Barthes' prose provides much pleasure, especially in the context of a personal reflection. Geoff Dyer and Geoffrey Batchen have noted the Proustian-like refinement of Barthes' sophisticated musings.

Camera Lucida is divided into two equal parts of 24 short sections each. The first part is an often digressive meditation on the nature of photography, and the second is mostly an intense analysis of one photograph, the Winter Garden photograph of his mother. In both parts, Barthes' habit of building from an intellectual or critical framework—foregrounding his own terminology and using exhaustive elaborations—is equal to his ultimate assertion of the subjective having priority. His concepts of punctum and studium seem to have become part of the essential lexicon in criticism of the medium.

Having read Camera Lucida and On Photography (Susan Sontag) several times each, I prefer the latter, especially for teaching students to think critically about looking at photographs. Barthes' book is highly idiosyncratic, while Sontag's addresses key issues more directly. I suppose the two complement each other, but Sontag is more open and less reductive about the medium's eidos. Barthes' book is ultimately a memorable exercise of the ego: "So I decided to take myself as mediator (mathesis singularis) for all Photography," and "So I make myself the measure of all photographic 'knowledge.'"

Sometimes I find myself wondering if Camera Lucida just happened to be about photography. Barthes was prompted to write shortly after the death of his beloved mother, and he had written about photography before, but an intellectual of his stature could make similar, sentimental assertions about a variety of artistic enterprises (i.e. culinary arts, fashion, popular music.) What's problematic is that Barthes equates the photomechanical operation of photography with its eidos; this is a fundamental flaw of his proposals.

In his introduction to the English translation, Geoff Dyer makes a really important point about Barthes' rhetoric. Dyer says Camera Lucida is a beginning, a setting forth. It's true: Barthes is continually setting forth, beginning again and again, and returning to aphorisms previously stated. Despite my reservations about the book, I grudgingly respect the author's mode. After all, in his priority for the subjective—a subjective that is inseparable from his status as Roland Barthes—he has cleverly created a perspective that thwarts or deflects objections, hasn't he.

Review of Philip Guston: The Studio, Craig Burnett (2014)

by Paul Burmeister

Burnett begins and ends this slim, illustrated volume with attention to the puff of smoke between the hood and the canvas in Philip Guston’s painting, The Studio, 1969. “Draw an X from each of the four corners of The Studio and the lines intersect at the base of the densest nub of smoke at the billowing heart of the picture.” (56) Burnett is no slouch as writer or interpreter, so his attention to this detail (and others, see 30-32, 49-51 and 54-55) is significant. Burnett does not shy away from bold pronouncements; of The Studio he writes, “The work has grown in significance over the years because it might just be the best picture Guston painted in his life.” (15) Readers will be pleased the author backs up such speculations with interesting and credible arguments.

What if Philip Guston’s career had ended before the Marlborough Gallery show in 1970? Burnett poses this historically speculative question and sums up the artist’s biography before 1966. Burnett plays out the likely legacy and explains Guston’s unease with his oeuvre at the time leading up to the Marlborough show. Both Burnett and Guston guess that if not for his change, beginning in 1969, to a figurative style, Guston probably wouldn’t be included in pantheons of post-War painting.

The timing of Guston’s change was not independent of a natural, reactionary movement in 1960s American painting. The artist’s oft-quoted disdain for “Purity,” in favor of “telling stories,” was part of a larger correction to the dominant authority of Greenbergian formalism.  Burnett isolates Guston’s unique contribution to the times for his abandonment of critical self-definition and elevation of art historical continuity. Guston himself saw the era as an opportunity for rebirth—he “died” the death of historical progress and was released to the anxious present. The writings of Soren Kierkegaard were crucial to Guston at this time, especially Kierkegaard’s description of the self evolving through experiences of despair and anxiety. Guston, says Burnett, applied Kierkegaard’s system of self to being an artist, saved by his / her art in post-modern history (following the collapse of pure abstraction’s ultimate authority.)

I dare anyone to approach Guston’s work from this period without acknowledging, intellectually and viscerally,  the images’ all-consuming anxiety. “(My) whole life is based on anxiety—where else does art come from, I ask you?” he wrote to Dore Ashton. I agree with the sum of Burnett’s judgment of The Studio; it achieves a splendid balance, and anxiety is managed . . . if not for the puff of smoke, and by virtue of same.

“What are we to make of Guston’s claim that he turned to figuration because he wanted to ‘tell stories’ when he wasn’t even interested in the stories being told by his favourite painter?” (29) Burnett’s question is telling for two reasons: first, it presents a key paradox to be found in the appreciation of the artist’s work, and second, it demonstrates Burnett’s ability to use well-placed questions to move along his study.

In the first, Guston, who was a very intelligent man and seemed to possess the rare gift of original genius, was probably being clever when he talked about the iconographic or symbolic content of his work, preferring diversion and obfuscation to explanation and clarity. I am not accusing him of intentional, programmatic or manipulative rhetoric; instead, my opinion is that many artists caught in the grip of a duende, or mystery, have no genuine recourse except to divert and obfuscate. Also, we are wise to take his statements about great art at face value, such as (my emphases added): “The other thing that keeps me under the spell, so that I can look at these things forever, is the sense of ease of the forms,” and “Its formality is the thing that makes the strangeness. . . . It’s the form that not only brings the meaning into existence; it’s the form which keeps it perpetually renewing itself.” This was Philip Guston’s concept of great art—it has inner coherence and is perpetually renewing itself, no matter the subject matter. Although he was not speaking directly about his own work in these statements, no stretch is required to apply them to his narrative imagery.

Burnett’s debate with judgments made by Robert Pincus-Witten, regarding “baseness” and organic meaning,” are among the volume’s most difficult reading and critically advanced sections. (52-53) Readers will also benefit from a casual knowledge of artistic movements such as Abstract Expressionism and of historical artists and poets, such as Piero della Francesco and Gerard Manley Hopkins. But the writer never leaves the interested reader behind and always brings the reader along by returning to what can be seen by all in the image itself. The only disadvantage for the reader not overcome by Burnett's analysis is description of its physical dimensions—scale, texture and paint quality.

As Burnett builds to his conclusion, philosophical ideas about laughter and humor are woven into creative interpretations about the central role of the smoke plume. Finally, writes Burnett, the smoke in The Studio is evidence of the image's uplift, ebullience, grace and even resurrection.

Overall, this volume works very well as a self-contained concept: manageable and convenient size, accessible content organized around the interpretation of a single image, good supplementary material (well-chosen reproductions and helpful endnotes) and above all good writing.

Golden ratio tolerances

by Paul Burmeister

Markowsky proposes that ±2% is acceptable tolerance for the ratio. I have no quarrel with his tolerance. What I quarrel with is his projection that if a designer or artist makes a selection outside of this tolerance, then the designer or artist is no longer working with a golden ratio concept. My graphic shows the ratio, 2% and 4% tolerances. An artist or designer works more intuitively with visual measurements and ratios than a mathematician or engineer does.

-4%, -2%, 0, +2%, +4%

Simply Red playlist

by Paul Burmeister

Look at You Now
Jericho
Holding Back the Years
Love Fire
The Right Thing
Let Me Have It All
Enough
More
A New Flame
Something Got Me Started
Freedom
She's Got It Bad
The Sky Is a Gypsy
The Spirit of Life
Man Made the Gun
Come Get Me Angel
Night Nurse
Mellow My Mind

Some stuff sticks

by Paul Burmeister

About the time I was a sophomore in high school (living in a small town in Minnesota), my appreciation for popular music was expanded by a subscription to Stereo Review, by the recommendations of a friend who worked at Wings of Music (the local record store), and by listening to the Winona State College FM radio station (KQAL.) Up until that time, I was hooked on what I thought was the best music from top-40 radio.

I had a love-hate relationship with the recommendations of SR critic Steve Simels, but it was he, if I remember correctly, who pointed me in the direction of Tonio K, Tom Verlaine, and NRBQ. (Why is there almost nothing by Tonio K from the 70s available on iTunes, huh?) My friend at the record store recommended that I purchase Terje Rypdal's Waves, Mahavishnu Orchestra's Between Nothingness and Eternity, and Return to Forever's Romantic Warrior.

Elvin Jones

by Paul Burmeister

Elvin Jones, 1927-2004, was a jazz drummer most commonly associated with John Coltrane's "classic quartet" and with the development of polyrhythm in jazz drumming. Here's a list of my favorite Elvin Jones recordings, from among a very large discography. Of special note to the curious listener: Jones' recurring interest in saxophone-bass-drums trios, his affinity for guitar players, and his sustained body of work as leader.

Reflections, Steve Lacy, 1959 (OJC)
All the Gin Is Gone or Black Forrest, Jimmy Forrest, 1959 (Delmark)
The Best of John Coltrane, John Coltrane, 1963 (Pablo)
Speak No Evil, Wayne Shorter, 1964 (Blue Note)
A Love Supreme, John Coltrane, 1965 (Impulse)
Outback, Joe Farrell, 1970 (CTI)
Genesis, Elvin Jones, 1971 (Blue Note)
Big Jim's Tango, Bennie Wallace, 1982 (enja)
Ask the Ages, Sonny Sharrock, 1991 (Axiom)
In Europe, Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, 1992 (enja)

For interested listeners, here's an incomplete list of players with whom Jones recorded as a sideman:
Pepper Adams, Tony Bennett, Michael Brecker, Ray Brown, Kenny Burrell, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Larry Coryell, Miles Davis, Stefano Di Battista, Gil Evans, Art Farmer, Joe Farrell, Jimmy Forrest, Frank Foster, Chico Freeman, Bill Frisell, Stan Getz, Grant Green, Barry Harris, Johnny Hartman, Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill, Freddie Hubbard, J. J. Johnson, Thad Jones, Barney Kessel, Roland Kirk, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Albert Mangelsdorff, Delfeayo Marsalis, John McLaughlin, David Murray, Oregon, Art Pepper, Marcus Roberts, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Sharrock, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Bennie Wallace, James Williams, Larry Young