Book Review: Keeper of the Hearth

Keeper of the Hearth, cover of book

Keeper of the Hearth: Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph
Edited by Odette England

There are at least two things that everyone knows about Camera Lucida, the last book by the brilliant French philosopher Roland Barthes. The book has two sections; each offers a dense nugget of enduring value to the image intelligentsia. Part One is a close, theoretical reading of the intellectual phenomenon of photography; the major take-away from it lies in the concept of studium and punctum. Part Two examines the author’s relationship to one image. Our understanding of that photograph lies entirely in Barthes’ words; it is not reproduced.

Here’s how he introduces this icon in 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.”

Roland Barthes

The photograph, made in 1898, shows his mother, aged five, standing with her slightly older brother in the greenhouse on the property where she had been born, in a village a dozen or so kilometers southeast of Paris. Barthes encountered the worn object as he sorted through her belongings, shortly after her death in 1977. He had lived most of his life with her. In the “Winter Garden” photograph Barthes found “the truth of the face I had loved.”

With this image, Barthes posits a deeper dive into studium and punctum. The former is the knowledge one can gain about photography as a system; the latter is the unpredictable surprise that comes to the viewer apart from the photographer’s intentions. Studium is horizontal, punctum—a piercing, a prick—functions vertically.

We may understand the descriptive terms of the Winter Garden picture, but it would not mean to us what it meant to Barthes. “I cannot,” he writes, “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’… At most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.”

In Keeper of the Hearth, the eloquent and engaging compilation by Odette England, some 200 photographers offer their own approximations of the Winter Garden Photograph. The photographs hover between expression and perception, intuition and intention, illustration and evocation. Three essayists—Douglas Nickel, Lucy Gallun, and Phillip Prodger—plus England and Charlotte Cotton contribute verbal exegeses.

Barthes was not a photographer. His examination of the Winter Garden Photograph relies equally on his singular relationship with the person photographed and the philosophical structure he detailed in Part One of Camera Lucida.

England’s project enlists photographers in an effort to project themselves into an approximation of the WGP. The result runs a gamut along the Barthes-ian continuum. Sometimes the photographer’s position favors content, other times form. Sometimes form as content.

Photographers were not required to provide explication for their choices. Not surprisingly, many of the images feature faces, blurred by distance, artifice, or erasure, winter scenes (although the eponymic garden was wintry by name only; Barthes does not specify the date or mention snow as a feature of the photograph), and other dimly totemic symbols of loss and mortality.

Personally, I like this book very much. It feels serious and dreamlike at the same time; it is a fine object in itself. There are so many ways to depict absence, and the mission seems central to England’s project. I particularly like the contributions that explore more circuitous tributes to the elusive Winter Garden Photograph. Nicholas Muellner sent England an apology for not finding a suitable photograph; his words activate and testify to the challenge of an “intransmissable” image. Lyle Rexer provides a prosaic image of backyards (his own photograph) which he then treats to a Barthes-ian reading. Some of the more oblique images prick me most effectively because I lack the contextual tools to understand what they’re getting at, which is Barthes’ point.

I have one major cavil with the book. As a reader/viewer, I was frustrated by an indexing system that works alphabetically but not numerically. That is, you can go to the back of the book, scan the list of names—there are many outstanding ones—and identify the page on which you will find said artist’s submission. By contrast, starting in the pictures and identifying artists is arduous; there’s no numeric list, and the fact that there are two hundred contributors makes the process overly cumbersome. If someone else wants to scan the index for these numbers, please let me know who I’ve singled out: tips of the punctum to 23, 31, 40, 54, 69, 80, 86, 99, 109, 115, 118, 124, 135, 146, 162, 182/3, 186, 188, 195, 197, 282, and 319. And to those whose pictures I recognized outright.

I’m picturing something Barthes-ian in this stymying but I’m not enough of a literary theorist to suss it out.

Originally published on photo-eye’s blog, August 3, 2020:

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