In the winter months of 2017, I finally managed to access the Roland Barthes archive, a goal I had since my PhD thesis, when the estate was held in the archive of the IMEC in Normandy, but which circumstances prevented. Since 2010 the Fonds Roland Barthes is officially housed at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. As Barthes’s half-brother and right holder to the estate, it was Michel Salzedo’s wish that the archive was moved there. Shortly after this move, I requested information from the library regarding the photographs that I suspected to be part of the collection. Yet I was told that there were none – only drawings (some 385) – a practice that Barthes took up in 1970. However, based on available evidence, I wrote in my book on Benjamin, Barthes and the Singularity of Photography that the famous ‘Winter Garden’ photograph of Barthes’s mother as a child – notoriously absent from his Camera Lucida (La Chambre claire) where it is only described (prompting many to doubt its existence) – must be held in a box in this archive.
I’m happy to say that my visit last year confirmed this hypothesis. After looking at a number of draft manuscripts and note cards related to Barthes’s late books, seminar notes and unfinished projects, the rather chilly Salle de lecture of the Manuscript collection in the old building of the National Library on rue Richelieu suddenly felt much warmer when I was told that there were in fact five boxes with photographs…! The content of these five boxes (or ‘classeurs’) amount to well over five hundred individual images, although this number includes double prints or different formats of the same image, for example. I was only able to peruse four boxes, however, since one is not publicly accessible. It is, of course the one that contains the portrait of the mother in the winter-garden setting, as the librarian indicated to me. Thus, while the photograph undoubtedly exists – a fact established through its accidental appearance in the background of late portraits of Barthes in his study – it remains curiously invisible.
Be this as it may, the content of the remaining four boxes consists largely in portraits of Barthes dating from the 1970s – despite the French theorist’s well-known aversion to being photographed. He describes sitting in front of the lens as a dynamic that combines uncertain self-perceptions and social expectations and in which the sitter’s influence on the outcome is very limited, filling him with anxiety and a feeling of objectification. “For what society makes of my photograph,” Barthes acknowledges, “what it reads there, I do not know (in any case, there are so many readings of the same face); but when I discover myself in the product of this operation, what I see is that I have become Total-Image, which is to say, Death in person; others – the Other – dispossess me of myself, they turn me, ferociously, into an object, they put me at their mercy, at their disposal, classified in a file, ready for the subtlest deceptions” (Camera Lucida, p. 14, translation modified). In spite of these strong sensations of dispossession and even mortification – or perhaps precisely because of this effect – Barthes writes these lines at the very moment in his career when he was most frequently solicited to sit for photographs, and often accepted.
In fact, this passage from his most influential text on photography may well correspond to an actual session with a photographer. In the archive folder containing the manuscript of the book, there is a small sheet of paper with six lines of scribbles on top. At the bottom of the page Barthes added the following explanation: “The photographer said to me: ‘I shall take your photo at the desk. Scribble!’” It is dated May 9, 1979 and although I have been unable to identify a photograph that corresponds to this precise date, this example is likely representative of numerous similar session that took place in Barthes’s apartment (and elsewhere) throughout the 1970s. These sittings resulted in the well over five hundred author portraits, taken by photographers such as Ulf Anderson (who took the photograph above), Sophie Bassouls, Jerry Bauer, Daniel Boudinet, and Louis Monier. In addition to more thematic series showing Barthes at his desk or surrounded by his drawing (rather than writing) materials, his portraits are frequently part of a series, that is, multiple images from the same photographic session. Several contact sheets and accompanying letters to Barthes by photographers also indicate that the French writer was actively engaged in choosing images for reproduction and dissemination. For example, there is a contact sheet of thirty-four positive portraits of Barthes taken by David Graeme-Baker in February 1975, with a handwritten letter by the photographer asking Barthes to select the images he would like to have printed. Other series originated during interview sessions, as already hinted, with photojournalists either present during the interview – as was the case for André Perlstein – or taking their pictures once the conversation ended.
The majority of the author portraits held in the Barthes archive are well known images and have been reproduced in a myriad of publications, including Barthes’s own work, biographies, academic and journalistic writing, and, of course, on the internet. However, there are also a large number of photographs that have never been seen. A number show the theorist from unflattering angles or close-ups, with a double chin, protruding stomach, and so on. But, aesthetic appearance aside, they are telling with respect to Barthes’s own self-perception and the ‘image’ he wished to project (or avoid projecting) in public. As I cannot reproduce them here for copyright reasons, I can only invite readers to try to gain access to the archive and see them for themselves!