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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)

The Baudrillardian Photograph As Theory: Making The World A Little More Unintelligible and Enigmatic.1

Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Department of Sociology, Bishop’s University, Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada).

Kelly Reid
(Graduate Programme in Sociology, Queen’s University at Kingston Ontario, Canada).

I. Introduction

What I bemoan is the aestheticization of photography, its having become one of the fine arts, the photographic image, by its technical essence, came from somewhere beyond, or before, aesthetics.2


The concept is unrepresentable, but the image is inexplicable. Between them is, then, an insuperable distance. As a result, the image is always nostalgic for the text and the text nostalgic for the image.3


Here, however, lies the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic.4


Science accounts for things previously encircled and formalized so as to be sure to obey it, objectivity is the ethic which comes to sanction this objective knowledge and is nothing less than the defense of a system of imposed ignorance, whose goal is to preserve the vicious circle intact.5


            In the mutual longing of the text and the image lingers a seductive unintelligibility and enigmaticalness. It is these qualities though which texts and images share the uncertain slippery slopes of contemporary theory despite the  distance separating them. Baudrillard has maintained that his writings and photographs (while they may long for each other) share no direct connection. As he told Nicholas Zurbrugg several years ago:

I know a little about photography ... but not very much.  I came to it as a diversion or a hobby ... and yet at the same time, it was also something serious, in the sense that it offered an alternative to writing – it was a completely different activity which came from elsewhere and had no connection with writing.6


We think that an affirming challenge must be made to Baudrillard on this point in so far as his writings and photographs share the space of theory. We acknowledge that his writings and photographs originate from different desires, one to write a text the other to write with light7. There is however a point of connection between them, and perhaps it is an accidental one of which even Baudrillard remains at least somewhat unaware. This point is to be found in the above passage concerning the task of philosophical thought. It seems to us that in his “light writing” Baudrillard is also seeking to make the world more unintelligible and enigmatic – photography at least shares with writing a theoretical dimension. Rex Butler has also noted that “Baudrillard’s photographic practice and writings on photography cast a revealing light upon his work as a whole”.8 For us, this revealing light is the acceleration of what Baudrillard calls “terminal processes”. Butler is however, quite correct to point out that Baudrillard’s work does not provide an overall argument.  As Baudrillard expresses this idea:

There is throughout my work something which goes like this: there are always two forms in opposition to each other, the polar opposite of each other... but there isn’t any ‘explanation’ here. There is a type of development which is more like music or at any rate like a rhythm.  There is a polarity, opposition between production and seduction, political economy and death, the fatal and the banal.  You can’t say, though, that this implies the existence of progress.  I have never made any progress; I think everything is already there at the start but an interesting modulation takes place.9

            For us, at least some of Baudrillard’s photographs may be viewed as another way for thinking the world against Truth, Meaning, the Paradigm, or the Real in favour of the unintelligible and enigmatic. A Baudrillardian photograph, whatever else it is, rebukes aesthetics and theories of scientific objectivity for assessing the photograph. This is something a Baudrillardian image and Barthes writing in Camera Lucida share. Indeed, we argue that one of the markers of the end of aesthetics and scientific objectivity in our time is the Baudrillardian photograph.

            This article is the result of a meditation on Baudrillardian photography and text with special attention paid to theory, aesthetics, and science. In Section Two we examine how Baudrillard’s text contributes to a world that is more enigmatic and unintelligible. Section Three examines Baudrillardian images alongside fragments of his text in an effort to deepen the argument. The use of fragments of Baudrillard’s writing alongside of Baudrillardian photographs points to the way in which the text and photos may be said to cast a light on each other. While having no direct connection to each other, the text and photographs form an interesting combination of “images” pointing in similar directions. As he says of his own Cool Memories: “this journal and photography are wonderfully matched in being snapshots and combinations of images”.10 Section Four discusses the principle question to emerge from Section Three: “What is a Baudrillardian Image?” Section Five calls upon Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida for direction in finding an answer to this question and in pointing to others relevant to Baudrillardian photography. These questions emerge in due course as the fragments which constitute much of this paper are allowed to speak in their turn. Section Six returns to the photograph and fragment allowing each to participate in their own dialogue beyond the authors’ voices. Here the fragments of text and images are surrendered to the reader as they must be for the interpretive processes of reading to continue beyond narrative, aesthetics and science – none of which survive an open engagement with Baudrillard’s writings or the Baudrillardian photograph. This paper is an example of what it describes and what it desires: a world where individual thinkers theorize and challenge the world of appearances without the encumbrances of the Real, Truth, Meaning, aesthetics or scientific objectivity. At one point in this text you will be taken by surprise by the complexity of the longing of text and images for each other. This surprise is central to the purpose of writing this paper but must be allowed to emerge in due course for reasons you will then recognize.

II. Baudrillard’s Writing of the Enigmatic and Unintelligible World

…writing, the seductive power of which is far superior. But photography’s power to stupefy is greater than that of writing.11

            To accept the world as unintelligible and enigmatic and to experience the joy and poetry of writing it (and photographing it) is a defining characteristic of Baudrillard. Photographs for Baudrillard, are, like writing, a response to the world – a way of theorizing it. Baudrillard’s photographs (like his writings) are traces of his thinking – light writings left behind by the moment of an object demanding the attention of a specific subject at a particular angle. Many if not all of his photographs, the ones he allows us to see, as well as his writing, could be placed around a single question:

‘Why is there nothing rather than something?’  There is, ultimately, no answer to this, since the nothing originates in myth, in the original crime, whereas the something originates in what, by convention, we call reality. Now, the real is never sure. The question then becomes, not ‘Where does illusion come from?’, but ‘Where does the real come from?’ How is it that there is even a reality effect? That is the true enigma. If the world was real, how is it that it did not become rational long ago? If it is merely illusion, how can a discourse of reality and the rational even arise? But that is the question. Is there anything but a discourse of the real and the rational?12

Baudrillard’s photographs participate in a superior form of irony which he discussed in his writings even before he took up photography:

Everything can be summed up in this: let’s believe for a single instant the hypothesis that there is a fatal and enigmatic bias in the order of things.  In any case, there is something stupid about our current situation.  There’s something stupid in the raw event, to which destiny, if it exists, could not be insensible.  There’s something stupid in the current forms of truth and objectivity that a superior irony could spare us.13

The desire to take the photograph and the desire to write may be different, but they appeal to similar aspects of how Baudrillard’s mind works. And Baudrillard’s mind operates in a singular way as his writing on seduction illustrates:

The act of thinking is an act of seduction which aims to deflect the world from its being and its meaning – at the risk of being itself seduced and led astray. This is how theory proceeds... The object of theory is to arrive at an account of the system which follows out its internal logic to its end, without adding anything, yet which, at the same time, totally inverts that system, revealing its hidden non-meaning, the Nothing which haunts it, that absence at the heart of the system, that shadow running alongside it. ...To duplicate the world is to respond to a world which signifies nothing with a theory which, for its part, looks like nothing on earth.14

While Baudrillard’s photographs do not originate from the same source as his writing, they are a way of theorizing an unintelligible and enigmatic world as even more unintelligible and enigmatic. And when one of them does not increase the world’s unintelligibility and enigmaticalness, we think it certainly does nothing to remove these qualities from the world. A Baudrillardian photograph offers us no more ultimate truth or meaning than does his writing. If anything there is an effect of unraveling, mystifying – that special deconstructive movement that is so often at work in Baudrillard.

            Baudrillard’s more poetic passages probably do more to highlight the unintellibigility and enigmaticalness of the world than any of his other writings:

Everyday experience falls like snow. Immaterial, crystalline and microscopic, it enshrouds all the features of the landscape. It absorbs sounds, the resonance of thoughts and events; the wind sweeps across it sometimes with unexpected violence and it gives off an inner light, all malign florescence which bathes all forms in crepuscular indistinctness. Watching time snow down, ideas snow down, watching the silence of some aurora borealis light up, giving in to the vertigo of enshrouding and whiteness.15

The above passage and the following photograph are directly related by nothing but they do cast a particular light on one another. There is a quality of slowness in Baudrillard’s photography and a sense of light and time being observed “snowing down”.

Le Touquet, 1995

            In his writings which point to the discursive nature of reality, history, and the reversibility to which each is susceptible, we find a deep desire for the enigmatic and unintelligible against truth and meaning. This is probably nowhere more evident in his “fate-based” and “unrealist” analysis of the death of Diana:

On the one hand, if we assess all that would have had not to have happened for the event not to take place, then quite clearly it could not but occur. There would have to have been no Pont de l’Alma, and hence no Battle of the Alma. There would have had to have been no Mercedes, and hence no German car company whose founder had a daughter called Mercedes. No Dodi and no Ritz, nor all the wealth of the Arab princes and the historical rivalry with the British. The British Empire itself would have had to have been wiped from history. So everything combines, a contrario and in absentia, to demonstrate the urgent necessity of this death. The event therefore, is itself unreal, since it is made up of all that should not have taken place for it not to occur. And, as a result, thanks to all those negative probabilities, it produces an incalculable effect. Such are the lineaments of a Fate-based Analysis, an unrealist analysis of unreal events.16


For Baudrillard, the nature of modernity’s self concept is at the heart of the matter:

There is something in the fact that reversibility proceeds to a superior irony. That theme is very strong in all mythologies, in any case, and that has nothing to do with modernity. We are in systems which do not any more play on reversibility, on metamorphosis. And which have installed themselves, on the contrary, in the irreversibility of time, of production, and things like that. What interests me is indeed something like a fatal strategy behind it somewhere, which dismantles the …beautiful order of irreversibility, of the finality of things.17

A sense of irony, always pushing to the point of unintelligibility, underlies most of what would be understood as critical writings. Perhaps the most striking example of Baudrillard’s use of irony is his understanding of evil:

Evil protects us from the worst-case scenario: the automatic proliferation of happiness... We are traditionally sensitive to the threat which the ‘forces of Evil’ pose for the Good, whereas it is the threat posed by the forces of Good which is the fateful threat to the world of the future. ...We are on course for the perfect crime, perpetrated by Good and in the name of Good, for the implacable perfection of the technical, artificial universe which will see the accomplishment of all our desires, of a world unified by the elimination of all anti-bodies. This is our negentropic phantasm of total information. That all matter should become energy and all energy information. ...That all genes should be operational…18 

Perhaps without attempting to do so consciously, his photography does a similar thing in that it often presents us with a world that is only vaguely recognizable – a world that looks like nothing in this world or that of mainstream professional photography.

            Baudrillard’s writing points to the enigmatic reversibility of things, and our inability to ever control them. Indeed, the outcomes of our actions usually lead to far worse consequences than the problem we sought to solve:

The problem of security, as we know, haunts our societies and long ago replaced the problem of liberty.  … Understood: terrorism is still a lesser evil than a police state capable of ending it.  It is possible that we secretly acquiesce in this fantastic proposition.  There’s no need of “political consciousness” for this; it’s a secret balance of terror that makes us guess that a spasmodic eruption of violence is preferable to its rational exercise within the framework of the State, or to total prevention at the price of a total programmatic domination.19

For its part, against the unintelligibleness and enigmaticalness of the world, “Truth itself only complicates the working of the mind”.20 As far as his photographs are concerned, nothing could be further from the “truth” than a Baudrillardian photograph.

Amsterdam, 1989

            Among his better examples of the unintelligibility and enigmaticalness of the world is his thought on superiority. Here, as always in Baudrillardian thought, a delicious reversibility is built into things:

Whereas adults make children believe that they, the adults, are adults, children for their part let adults believe that they, the children, are children. Of these two strategies the second is the subtler, for while adults believe that they are adults, children do not believe that they are children. They are children, but they do not believe it.21

            Baudrillard resists being led astray by language and the false security much of the philosophical tradition places in it. For him, “language is not the reflection of meaning, it is there in place of meaning”.22  Similarly, in a world that is ultimately unintelligible and enigmatic, objectivity and truth cannot rescue us:

We no longer have any standards of truth or objectivity, but a scale of probability. ...The space between the true and the false is no longer a relational space, but a space of random distribution. ...The uncertainty principle does not belong to physics alone;

it is at the heart of all our actions, at the heart of “reality”.23

The world Baudrillard finds, the world that theory must precede, is a world where the real hides behind appearances leaving us with the “gossamer thin difference between illusion and the real”.24

Rio, 1998

            Some have mistaken Baudrillard’s thought for pessimism but it is a joyous philosophy of one who is content to point to the ways in which reversibility affects even concepts of optimism and pessimism:

Is not true optimism to consider the world a fundamentally negative event, with many happy exceptions? By contrast, does not true pessimism consist in viewing the world as fundamentally good, leaving the slightest accident to make us despair of that vision?25

Baudrillard’s satisfaction (if you find contentment too strong a word) rests in his understanding that it is precisely the unintelligibility of the world and its enigmaticalness that saves us from ourselves – as meaning givers:

Does the world have to have meaning, then? That is the real problem. If we could accept this meaninglessness of the world, then we could play with forms, appearances and our impulses, without worrying about their ultimate destination. If there were not this demand for the world to have meaning, there would be no reason to find a general equivalent for it in money. ...Do we absolutely have to choose between meaning and non-meaning? But the point is precisely that we do not want to. The absence of meaning is no doubt intolerable, but it would be just as intolerable to see the world assume a definitive meaning.26


Sao Paolo, 1988

Thought for Baudrillard, assumes a catastrophic role:

For me, thinking is radical in so far as it does not claim to prove itself, to verify itself in some reality or other. This does not mean that it denies the existence of that reality, that it is indifferent to its impact, but that it regards it as essential to keep itself as an element in a game whose rules it knows. The only fixed point is the undecidable and the fact that it will remain so, and the aim of the entire work of thought is to preserve that. …Thought must play a catastrophic role… concerned for the human, and, to that end, recapture the reversibility of good and evil, of the human and the inhuman.27

            Theory is, after all, “simply a challenge to the real”28 and Baudrillard’s photographs, like his theoretical writings, precede the world – accelerating terminal processes  by expressing its inherent unintelligibility and enigmaticalness. In every Baudrillardian photograph, as in his writings, a catastrophe of meaning is anticipated. The real cannot be written and it cannot be photographed. What is written and photographed are the appearances behind which the real hides (the original illusion).29 Given this, we turn now to several Baudrillardian photographs set alongside of fragments of his text as a way of both affirming the above and to raise a further problematic question concerning the Baudrillardian photograph.

III. Introducing Baudrillardian Light Writings to Baudrillard’s Text

It is because, events, photographs and texts remain entirely alien to each other that they can act as strange attractors for each other and converge in the same singular illusion.30

            Many of Baudrillard’s photographs record an absence. Most photographers aim to capture something rather than nothing. In his effort to write nothingness with light, his images like his text, ask us to look for less, less meaning and less to believe in, and to find a contentment there in a world that always seems to be asking us to find more. If it is important for us to have things in which not to believe, then Baudrillard’s photographs may be portraits of a world that defies belief. To begin to locate the point where Baudrillardian text and image come close but never fully meet in their respective efforts to theorize the world’s unintelligibility and enigmaticalness it is useful to consider several Baudrillardian images and text alongside each other. Unlike the previous section where a few Baudrillardian photographs float like fragments on the text, in this section his text floats like fragments in a sea of Baudrillardian images. We have no desire to define fully what it is that constitutes a Baudrillardian image but in the making of this article and its reading certain questions inevitably arise which allow both author and reader to gather thoughts under the term “Baudrillardian photograph”. It is doubtful that any kind of precise definition of “Baudrillardian” is achievable and if one were possible, it would only constitute a danger. We can, at best, point to some problems and difficulties while allowing similarities in Baudrillard’s writing and Baudrillardian images to speak for themselves – to cast a light on one another. It is the fact that they refuse to do more than this which serves to increase their value against truth and meaning. We find that both speak to the world’s ultimate unintelligibility and enigmaticalness, accelerate terminal processes, and as such, represent the catastrophe of meaning. As such, writing with light, like writing with a pen, constitutes a separate but related effort to speak to a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, by making it even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic. Consider the following twelve Baudrillardian photographs (some you may recognize, others you may be seeing for the first time), alongside fragments of Baudrillard’s writing. These photographs and writings are not from the same source nor are they intended to appear together by Baudrillard. When these images and text are placed in close proximity to each other the longing of the text for the image is more easily understood – a longing we may experience far more than Baudrillard does himself.

Saint Clément, 1987

Against the simulation of a linear history ‘in progress’, we have to accord a privileged status to these backfires, these malign deviations, these lightweight catastrophes which cripple an empire much more effectively than any great upheavals. We have to accord a privileged status to all that has to do with non-linearity, reversibility, all that is of the order not of an unfolding or an evolution, but of a winding back, a reversion in time, anastrophe versus catastrophe.31

Sainte Beuve, 1987

Consider the way the camera is used now. Its possibilities are no longer those of the subject who ‘reflects’ the world according to his personal vision; rather, they are the possibilities of the lens, as exploited by the object. The camera is thus a machine that vitiates all will, erases all intentionality and leaves nothing but the pure reflex needed to take pictures. Looking itself disappears without a trace, replaced by a lens now in collusion with the object – and hence with an inversion of vision.32



California, 2005

...To duplicate the world is to respond to a world which signifies nothing with a theory which, for its part, looks like nothing on earth. ...It recognizes that there is nothing to be said of the world, that there is nothing that this world can be exchanged for, while at the same time showing that this world cannot be as it is without this exchange with theory.33



Salins, 1998

The radical illusion is that of the original crime, by which the world is alter-ed from the beginning, and is never identical to itself, never real. The world exists only through this definitive illusion which is that of the play of appearances – the very site of the unceasing disappearance of all meaning and all finality. And this is not merely metaphysical: in the physical order, too, from its origin – whatever that may be – the world has been forever appearing and disappearing.34

Bastille, 1998

Perhaps the desire to take photographs arises from the observation that on the broadest view, from the standpoint of reason, the world is a great disappointment. In its details, however, and caught by surprise, the world always has a stunning clarity35


Montreal, 2005

…at the heart of the photographic image there’s a figure of nothingness, of absence, of unreality. Its this nothingness at the heart of the image that gives it its pure magic…36


Ormond Beach, 2006

…night does not fall, objects secrete it at the end of day when, in their tiredness, they exile themselves into their silence.37


Toronto, 1994

The silence of photography. ...Whatever the violence, speed or noise which surrounds it, it gives the object back its immobility and its silence. ...Where does the magic of photography come from? The answer is that it is the object which does all the work.38


Constance Bay, 2003

…the intense life of clouds is one of the natural treasures of the earth.39


Bergerie, 1998

...no matter which photographic technique is used, there is always one thing, and one thing only, that remains: the light. 

Photo-graphy: The writing of light... this light is the very imagination of the image.40


Punto Final (1997)


Unlike the discourse of the real which gambles on the fact of there being something rather than nothing, and aspires to be founded on the guarantee of an objective and decipherable world, radical thought, for its part, wagers on the illusion of the world. It aspires to the status of illusion, restoring the non-veracity of facts, the non-signification of the world, proposing the opposite hypothesis that there is nothing rather than something, and going in pursuit of that nothing which runs beneath the apparent continuity of meaning.41


Montreal, 2004

...all the promises of modernity are of the same order: they have been accomplished technically, and, like ghosts or extras, we haunt a world which can do barely anything else now but keep its technical machinery churning.42


That the photograph is ‘modern’, mingled with our noisiest everyday life, does not keep it from an enigmatic point of inactuality, a strange stasis, the stasis of an arrest.43

            Placing Baudrillard’s writings beside Baudrillardian images highlights the way in which both can be read as efforts to make an unintelligible and enigmatic world more even unintelligible and enigmatic. As such, Baudrillard’s texts and Baudrillardian photographs participate in this central task of theory. Attentive readers will note that one of the passages cited, the last, is not from Baudrillard but from Barthes. This passage signals a transition point in this article away from the writing of Baudrillard and towards that of Barthes – which in turn brings subjectivity to the fore. Placing the above texts and images in close proximity also helps us to appreciate Baudrillard’s comment concerning how the image and text are always nostalgic for one another (the passage from Baudrillard with which this article begins). This longing may traverse decades.

            However, not all of the Baudrillardian images appearing in this section are photographs by Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s photographs are the first two (Saint Clément, 1987 and Saint Beuve, 1987), the fourth and fifth (Salins, 1998 and Bastille, 1998), the eighth (Toronto, 1994), the tenth and eleventh (Bergerie, 1998 and Punto Final, 1997). The other “Baudrillardian” images appearing in this section have been taken by one of the co-authors, Kelly Reid: the third (California, 2005),  the sixth and seventh (Montreal, 2005 and Ormond Beach, 2006), the ninth and twelfth (Constance Bay, 2003 and Montreal, 2004).

            The yearning of text and image then is a very complex business as it is fragmented and may even leap from one photographer to another who may also be a writer. The presentation of two photographers, one of whom also wrote the texts cited, serves to deepen the unintelligibility and enigmaticalness of the world we attempt to describe as “Baudrillardian”. This creates a fragmentary and tentative similarity among photographic singularities that is itself a Baudrillardian effect and one that calls upon Barthes understanding of punctum as we see below. Barthes helps us in our effort to explain the presence of photographs that “look” like Baudrillard’s, but are not taken by him, as we attempt to understand some of the dimensions of the question: “What is a Baudrillardian image?” Baudrillardian images form the bulk of the next section while the ghost of Barthes haunts the one following it.

IV. What Constitutes A “Baudrillardian Image”?

            The Baudrillardian image is one, that shares with Baudrillard’s text, the effect of taking a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic and making it, if possible, even more unintelligible and enigmatic. The Baudrillardian photograph, like much of his text, works against theory as explanation or simplification, in favour of theory against truth – theory as challenge. Here we concentrate on one photographer, Kelly Reid, but undoubtedly many other photographers record “Baudrillardian images”.

            All of the photographs in Section III (above) are, in our understanding, Baudrillardian photographs. All were taken separately, by two different photographers (Baudrillard and Reid), each, working at the time of the taking, without knowledge of the other. In our view a photograph may be “Baudrillardian” (it may share in some of the characteristics of his photographs) even if taken by someone else. One of the things we must unearth in this exploration is what is it that makes a photograph, whomever took it, what we are here calling a “Baudrillardian photograph”. In describing at least some of the qualities of a Baudrillardian photograph, we may then be better placed to speak to the relationship of his photographs to both his own words, and to images by other photographers. Ultimately this exercise may take us much closer to nothing than to something – far away from the worlds of science and aesthetics that have long attempted to exert control over photography. It leads us to conclude that the central characteristic of a Baudrillardian photograph is not that it clarifies the world, but that it makes the world a little more enigmatic and unintelligible. If this is the case, it is precisely at this point that his theory and images meet, and his images and those of Reid and other photographers cast a revealing light on each other and our times. Ultimately, beyond this paper, the term “Baudrillardian photograph” should be abandoned in favour of a broader term.

            Baudrillard’s enigmatic car in the water (Sainte Clément, 1987) can make us think about the catastrophe not of the car but of all of technological civilization. The drowned car is in ecstasy, its entire presence denoting an absence, a catastrophe in slow motion as it dissolves into the water. This photograph of a car evokes slowness, inertia, the absurdity and ultimate unintelligibility of progress, and of the nothing which underlies everything – the nothing which haunts modernity represented here by one of its greatest objects of fascination and desire, the motorcar. Like the world, this car in water will never be understood, it is an image that raises doubt, at most a fragment which stands in for an ambiguous reality. Similarly, Baudrillard’s enigmatic photograph of an empty red chair – a portrait of absence, of the impression left by a warm body on a cold blanket pressed into the chair by the weight of the body over time. Absence in ecstasy – a compelling emptiness, a fragment of the nothingness each of our lives traverse.

            Reid’s photograph of the quiescent California, 2005 (landscape) with only a trace of green near the lone tree highlights the dormant grass, tells us that it is winter, and invites us to peer through the veil of mist to the hills beyond. It is taken not far from Porterville where Baudrillard wrote of the “wild hillsides that are carpeted with undulating grass like animal fur”...44 This photograph and the next, Baudrillard’s Salins (1998), are like photographs from another planet – one where the colour of everything is not what we expect. The traditional directness and sentimentality of the landscape photograph is traded for a glimpse of the appearance of a world strange to formal landscape photography. Reid’s California landscape and Baudrillard’s Salins share the unintelligible quality of looking like nothing on earth, but they are precisely that, fragments of the earth – but not the earth that landscape photography has taught us to look for.

            Perhaps it is both Baudrillard and Reid’s lack of formal photographic training that makes this view possible. Both photographs are records of moments of recognition that the real was near but the real never passes through the appearances behind which it hides. Still, a “Baudrillardian“ photograph like Reid’s California landscape records appearances at a time when the real is very close to the surface, just out of sight. Perhaps it is this which gives the Baudrillardian photograph its ultimate enigmaticalness – the gossamer thin layer of appearance under which the real remains veiled. Neither photographer “knows” in a formal educated sense, what a landscape photograph looks like. And what they do know of formal landscape photography (its aesthetic) does not interest either Reid or Baudrillard. Both photographers work with the premise that “the real has never interested anyone”.45 Both of these photographs also partake of an indispensable quality of the enigmatic, its worrying and gloomy aspect – the dismal part of the enigma, the part that makes us feel as though something is very wrong. Yet, upon closer inspection, all is right in the world photographed by each photographer, what is wrong, what has been violated, is our expectation that the landscape image be comforting and agreeable. It is precisely this disagreeable quality that tweaks the unintelligibility factor in each photograph, forcing us to look beyond traditional photographic explanations of landscape. To know Kelly Reid and Jean Baudrillard is to know people who, while content if not always buoyant, share a slight sadness – an agreeable suggestion of melancholy. It is this ability to be ultimately optimistic while surrounded by a melancholy world that informs something of a shared vision, at least in the photographs we are showing you here. Writing, like photography, is a source of pleasure for both Reid and Baudrillard.46

            The unreality of the world of appearances is also present in the next two photographs in the previous section: Baudrillard’s Bastille (1998) and Reid’s Montreal, 2005. Both photographs remind us that photography subjects the world to an anamorphosis, the gaze of a particular subject’s position from a particular angle. Reid and Baudrillard are mannerists. Any conception of truth, meaning or the real are stretched and elongated while interpretation is denied in favour of brief illuminations and fragments of a world we thought we knew. For Reid, like Baudrillard, the object “takes” you, and one moves away quickly as from a scene where one has been apprehended for a moment by a question. Both Bastille and Montreal are enigmatic in that they are baffling. They remind us that everything we see is preceded by our training to understand it – that theory precedes the world. A quality that the images shown here share is perhaps a desire on the part of the photographers to escape from meaning, to appreciate the fragments of the world, those perfect little singularities of light and colour at the moment just before meaning is given, the moment of the closing of the shutter. In doing so, both Reid and Baudrillard make us aware of our role as givers of meaning and the fact that it is the horizon of the object which we inhabit. The object gives no meaning of its own, as such, it can fascinate and seduce the subject: “The object is what has disappeared on the horizon of the subject, and it is from the depths of this disappearance that it envelops the subject in its fatal strategy.  It is the subject that then disappears from the horizon of the object.47  We often like to think that objects only exist for us, but one thing we are constantly reminded of by Baudrillard is that neither subject nor object are possible without the other. It is the object which thinks us – it is the lens which focuses on us.48 It is precisely the enigmatic quality of both photographers work as shown here that drives this awareness of seeing ourselves through the object and it is this quality which perhaps best describes the yearning of Baudrillard’s text and Reid’s images for each other. Rather than the traditional photographic posture of supplying us with an image that fits into predefined categories, the work of Reid and Baudrillard shown here baffles categorization and in so doing highlight the interpretive act of looking at a photograph. By forcing us to ask: “is this what I think it is” is the moment of our awareness of the unintelligibility of the image, and of the world. It is this moment which frustrates notions of scientific objectivity and aesthetic theory – highlighting the personal nature of photography and its consumption that is at the core of Barthes concept of punctum as we will see in the next section.

            Ormond Beach (2006) and Toronto (1994), two perfect singularities,  appear at first glance to be very different photographs but both, upon closer inspection, speak to the presence and necessity of darkness to the writing of light. Each photograph also has two points that focus our attention. In Baudrillard’s photograph it is the shadow of the man against the wall, following him as he quietly retreats to the doorway. At the same time our attention is pulled to the left of the photograph where a red truck races into the picture only a few feet from where the photographer is closing his lens. Reid’s Ormond Beach pulls our attention to the crossing plumes of expended jet fuel which form a large “x” canceling out the day while at the same time our attention is drawn to the crepuscular scene below – the tiny points of light in the foreground. Both photographs depend on darkness for their particular writing of light. The darkness of the sky over the gas station and the darkness of the shadows on the wall give Baudrillard’s photograph a striking contrast with the harsh bright light of the sun which writes the shadows on the wall.  As is often the case in her photographs (unlike Baudrillard who typically works with the light behind him or to the side) Reid often works facing the light, writing its source, and often its point of disappearance, as it writes itself onto her image, is precisely there in her lens. In these two photographs an impressive duality is created between points of light and points of darkness. In the case of both Reid’s and Baudrillard’s photograph this duality of light makes possible the double focal point. The trace of the jets, and the trace of the man in his shadow are written by the light in a cinematic manner – from two different directions. The speeding truck in Baudrillard’s photograph and the lights in the foreground of Reid’s photograph, send the light back in the opposite direction – into the lens. The duality of these images, which is an accidental quality of both that neither photographer probably intended, echoes in the multi-directionality of light.  In both photographs the light that writes the world is not merely the light writing of the photograph but also its object. This is a quality that many of the photographs of Reid and Baudrillard in this article share – a sense that photography is not merely the writing of light, but a meditation on this light writing however brief and unsustainable during the moment just before the shutter closes. Other effects in their photographs are no doubt also the unintended and accidental outcomes of this meditation.

            Both of these photographs capture an essential irony of light writing, that darkness and gloom (the lack of light) are what highlights its presence. So too in (written) theory where a passage through darkness, melancholy, and gloom bordering on nihilism is what often leads us to our own accord with the world and a kind of contentment with its indifference toward us. Imperfect light, often believed to be fatal to good photography, here make it possible. The scarcity of light, or obscurity, then becomes essential to the enigmatic quality of the light writing. Light writing depends on the writing of darkness, of gloom, of the dismal and the obscure which rests at the heart of the enigma that is any photographic fragment of the world. Reid’s Constance Bay (2003), and Baudrillard’s Bergerie (1998) also draw on these qualities. These are also photographs of the world’s indifference to us. It is this indifference, this sense that the world operates completely independent of us that is beautiful, not the images themselves. Aesthetics is replaced by the question of interest, the ironic interest in that which is not interested in us.

            Reid’s photograph Montreal (2004) and Baudrillard’s Punto Final (1997) highlight the deeper nature of photography – that any photograph is never of any “real” world, but rather, is a record of the momentary appearances behind which the real hides. This is the enigmatic and unintelligible quality of the world and it is the product of every effort by every photographer to photograph the world. The difference with these two photographs from most other photographs of the world is that appearances are the intended target of the photographic lens. In Reid’s photograph, ghost like images appear as from outside as the light writes their images on the glass which is itself covered in condensation. Only one of the three figures is discernable as a person. In Punto Final Baudrillard photographs his own shadow written on a stucco wall by the bright sun setting (or rising) behind him. As in Reid’s photograph the subject is the gossamer thin difference between the world of shadows and the real. Again Baudrillard works “with” the source of light, Reid against it, but with a similar purpose. Our physical universe is thus photographed as light written on surfaces without which we would be without appearances and our visual conception of the real.49 The story of visual existence and its concept of the real is the story of the writing of light. Shadows and ghost like images represent the Real, Truth, and Meaning in these photographs. As in Bergerie (1998) or the clouds over Constance Bay (2003), light is the principle subject of the photograph as it is a central constituent of our ability to know, and be fooled by, the universe. Montreal (2004) and Punto Final (1997) are about the act of seeing which rests at the core of photography. All of the photos of Reid and Baudrillard shown here have as their subject, photography.

            Photography, whatever else it may be for Reid and Baudrillard, is a way of highlighting the unintelligible and enigmatic qualities of the world. Where light is deficient we are reminded of the importance of both its presence and its partial absence to the existence of the photograph and of our concept of the Real. An understanding of the importance of light highlights the apparent and enigmatic qualities of our world, its ambiguous and perplexing qualities, and ultimately, how it is incapable of ever being fully understood. These photographs serve to remind us that the “real is merely a simulation, a model for regulating and ordering the radical becoming, the radical illusion, of the world and its appearances; for reducing any internal singularity – of events, beings or things – to the common denominator of reality”.50 This is as  good a reason for taking photographs as any other – maybe the best one we have.

            So what then is this “Baudrillardian image” we seek? A “Baudrillardian” photograph may be taken by someone who is not Baudrillard. This is not to say that all photographs taken by a particular photographer (such as Reid) will be Baudrillardian. Only a small number of Reid’s photographs fit into the “Baudrillardian” category. 51  Yet, as we see above, there is a remarkable quality in some of her photographic work that allows her images to sit beside his as though taken by the same person. This is especially the case when we highlight the way that both Baudrillard’s text and photographs participate in an effort to make an unintelligible and enigmatic world even more so. Not all of Reid’s photographs do this and not even all of Baudrillard’s do. We must keep in mind that like all photographers, Baudrillard protects us from the majority of the pictures he takes and we are doing the same here by showing you a small selection of Reid’s work. These pictures are “edited out” of what gets on display and what appears in books and journals by their taker. In the same way one coauthor of this article (Coulter) was first “thunderstruck” by seeing images taken by Reid which were, in his assessment, photographs by Baudrillard.52 We did of course select only a few images of Reid’s from among hundreds in the making of this article. It was precisely their “Baudrillardian quality” that interested Coulter at first, and in turn both coauthors in making this paper. This “Baudrillardian quality” is something quite personal to the coauthors and, as we shall see, for Barthes it is precisely the inescapable personal dimension that inhabits the punctum of certain images for specific individuals. What we see in these images you are free not to see and we cannot rely on aesthetic theory or notions of scientific objectivity to convince you. A full definition of a Baudrillardian photograph is not possible nor is it even desirable. Such a definition must remain open and in process and something to which you as the reader contribute in your own way as this article reads you.

            That Baudrillard is not the only one taking “Baudrillardian photographs” is a notion that publishers, especially Verso, have played with for some time. The cover photograph of the freeway trestles disappearing into the mist of Verso’s Passwords; and the sunken field of trucks, cars and house trailers frozen into a lake on the cover of Verso’s Cool Memories IV:1995-2000; sit well along side Baudrillard’s photograph of Saint Clément which adorns the cover of Verso’s Paroxysm. Similarly the photographs which Verso placed inside the English translation of America appear to us as photographs Baudrillard could well have taken.53 If one thing may be said to link the photographs on these covers with those of Reid and Baudrillard, and Baudrillard’s writing, it is the secret longing of his text and these images. Reid’s photographs and Baudrillard’s texts and even his photographs act as “strange attractors for each other and converge in the same singular illusion”. But some reader, some one, has to recognize this strange attraction and to understand this we need Roland Barthes to which we turn now. It is the purpose of the next section of this paper to determine how we may continue what is an ongoing process of defining the “Baudrillardian” photograph. For this we turn to Roland Barthes and his Camera Lucida.

V. Barthes concept of “Punctum” and the Baudrillardian Photograph.

            The singular illusion in which the photographs of Baudrillard and Reid shown here (and a good deal of Baudrillard’s text) participate, is an effort to live in a world that is indifferent to us. Here the role of theory is neither to explain nor clarify, but to highlight, and if possible deepen, an unintelligibility and enigmaticalness already present in a world which hides behind appearances. The task of this photography, like writing, is to function as theory. At their respective best, both theory and photography lose their meaning at their limits – and this does not happen often enough – when it does, the photograph and the theoretical text do not participate in some truth building exercise.54 A provocative logic comes into play, one that recognizes that we can no longer occupy the space of truth.55 Here, photography, like theory can serve as a challenge to the real – a challenge to the real to expose itself as illusion. As such, if the photographs of Reid and Baudrillard share something, it is that they highlight uncertainty – the only certainty we know. Photography then, the “Baudrillardian variety” is, like theory, a kind of simulation – both simulation and challenge.56 The one striking thing that the photographs of Reid and Baudrillard share is that the “punctum” of each of the photographs selected here can participate in a kind of simulation akin to Baudrillard’s theory where the unintelligibility and enigmaticalness of the world is the subject.   

            The photographs of Reid and Baudrillard shown here do not attempt to make the world real or to impose a narrative upon it, merely to capture the world where it is, never seeable, always hiding behind appearances. It is these appearances which Reid and Baudrillard are so good at photographing. It is the appearance of the world that we know ever so briefly before its passing. The images of Reid and Baudrillard shown here work against a narrative understanding of the world, against linearity, truth and the real. Here meaning, truth and the real appear locally, “along restricted horizons as partial objects”.57

Reid and Baudrillard’s images serve a visual theorizations of these appearances  which are all we ever know, as are Baudrillard’s writings.

            Roland Barthes, like Reid and Baudrillard, understood photography to be an uncertain art.58 In Camera Lucida Barthes gives us the concepts of punctum and studium. The studium, or “the average effect” is a general enthusiasm that one has about photographs and photography – the studium is what allows us to share an interest in many different photographs and photographers although it is highly unlikely that we will like all of the work of any one photographer.59 Punctum is an accident in any particular photo, it is the point where it interests me more than any of the others. Barthes describes it as “a cut, a little hole, the accident which pricks me, but also bruises me, is poignant to me, a wound”.60 For Barthes the photograph is pure contingency, existing outside of meaning.

Pointe-Claire, 2003

            The above photograph by Reid (Pointe-Claire, 2003) is taken of her twin at a time the later did not know she was being photographed. It is a photograph in which the punctum is the whiteness of the light falling across the face and clothing of a young woman – especially the point of light on her forehead and under her left eye. Barthes says: “I imagine that the essential gesture of the operator is to surprise something or someone and that this gesture is therefore perfect when performed unbeknownst to the subject being photographed”.61 Later Barthes writes that he is “too much of a phenomenologist to like anything but appearances” and this is a liking he shares with Baudrillard and Reid. Reid’s surprise photograph may be of a person, a person closer to her than anyone else, but it is essentially a photograph of the physical process of light writing. It is a very thoughtful photograph about how each of us is written into existence by light which also happens to capture a brief moment in the history of an individual lost in her thoughts. In Barthes words: “…the object speaks, it induces us, vaguely, to think. …photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks”.62 The above photograph is not only the record of the capturing of light, but at the same time having been seized by that light.63 This photograph, like much of Reid’s work, and that of Baudrillard, thinks.

            On “punctum” Barthes also says that:

…occasionally a detail attracts me, this detail is the punctum. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value… very often the punctum is a detail, a partial object…the punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste, the punctum can be ill-bred …paradoxically, the punctum, while remaining a detail, fills the whole picture …the detail which interests me is not intentional and probably cannot be so.64

How might we apply Barthes concept of punctum to the photographs which appear in Section III (above)? First we should look for the unintentional details of these photographs – the details which fill the whole picture. This is, a Barthes stresses, a deeply personal undertaking.

Saint Clèment (drowned car): The bubbles emerging from under hood at lower right as representing some kind of last gasp of the car, or perhaps even the civilization that brought such a beautiful catastrophe into existence.
Saint Beuve (red chair): The long serpentine crease pressed into the blanket on the chair which denotes absence. That point where the person no longer present, remains present to us.
California 2005: The little strip of green under the tree in which life is asserted among the dead of winter.
Bastille 1998 The moment when you realize that you know the location appearing upside down in the glass.
Montreal 2005 (swimming pool) The soft ripples on the water and the way the light draws the colour of the pool to them and present it with false contours make this an exemplary photograph of the real hiding just behind appearances.
Ormond Beach 2006 (sunset) The “x” formed by the plumes of expended jet fuel over the crepuscular landscape. This is supplanted by a more powerful punctum, the two lights together like the eyes of some mysterious night creature at lower left.

Toronto 1998


The shadow of the man following him faithfully along the wall. This is also supplanted very quickly by the second punctum, the truck roaring silently into the frame.
Constance Bay 2003 (clouds) The thin veil of rain blocking out the mountains forming the invisible horizon line.
Bergerie The meeting of night and day forming the horizon line.
Punto Final The texture of the shadow
Montreal 2004 (windows) The ghost like figure at the right.

            Both Baudrillard and Reid have refused formal photographic training preferring to operate as primitives within their own culture. This is a characteristic Barthes recognizes in himself as he analyzes photographs: “I am a primitive… I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything form another eye than my own”.65 For Bathes the punctum “can be revealed after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me… the punctum is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there… the punctum then, is a kind of subtle beyond – as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see”.66

            There is a deeply personal aspect to recognizing the punctum of a photograph. This personal aspect has set this article in motion. Co-author Coulter recognizes in a few of Reid’s photographs a “Baudrillardian” quality and together we set out to understand this quality. This is a process which constantly makes photographer and co-author Reid uneasy. Still, we look for ways in which the text and photographs of Baudrillard long for each other, and ways in which the text and photos of Baudrillard long for the photos of Reid. A love-hate relationship with Baudrillard’s writing underlies some of Reid’s discomfort. Baudrillard’s photographs consent to being placed beside those of another photographer here very well and this is rarely the case with his images. Following Barthes lead, we have allowed ourselves to regard the punctum as a deeply personal, non scientific, matter. Neither co-author of this paper allows themselves, in Barthes words, to be reduced as a subject to the disaffected socius science is concerned with.67 We operate as readers of Baudrillard’s texts and photographs as you operate as a reader of this article, without the artifical support of aesthetics or scientific objectivity.

            Photography suffers when reduced to aesthetics and dies when reduced to science. It is precisely the lack of an interest in formal training, aesthetics or science in Reid and Baudrillard’s photographs that appeals to us in the dialogue leading to the ideas in this paper. This is why only part of its argument will find appeal with some readers, many of whom will find no punctum in any of the photographs shown in this article. Punctum is personal. It is quite possible that Coulter and Reid are the only people who will find the punctum we do in these photographs and even here we disagree somewhat as we must given the personal nature of punctum. If you do not find a punctum in these photographs they will remain at the level of studium, at the level of cultural interest at best. This article then, like Barthes Camera Lucida, is simply the record of our experience of “…that unexpected flash which sometimes crosses this field of the studium” and it continues on to press due to the patient tolerance of Reid and Baudrillard’s images which consent, only somewhat reluctantly, to this treatment.

            An appropriate way to move toward the end of this article on Baudrillardian photographs and the longing of images for texts is allow these images and text to speak for themselves as Barthes would wish for them. Is there a punctum point in these images for you as reader? Only you can answer that question and on these rocky shoals aesthetics and any notion of a “science of photography” are reduced to nothing. This is the lesson of this article and it is one that Roland Barthes knew well long before it was written. Sadly, in writing on photography, aesthetics and science have come to dominate the field of vision reducing the individual viewer to what Barthes termed “a disaffected socius”. Reid and Baudrillard’s photography, coming as it does from the margins of photography, far from mainstream training and the worlds of aesthetics or science, invites a Barthesian reading. This reading demands of the reader a return to the position of a subject, but one who now appears in the horizon of the object – an active individual who refuses to be reduced to categories of discourse and the terrorism of disciplines.  Having reached such a point of departure, we as authors depart, leaving you the following section to consider in light of the issues and questions we have raised. We return the world as we found it, images and fragments of texts floating on appearances behind which an unintelligible and enigmatic world hides.

VI. The Mysterious Familiar: Baudrillard and Reid’s Images

I am opposed to aestheticization because it inevitably involves a loss, the loss of the object, of this secret that works of art and creative effort might reveal and which is something more than aesthetics.68


If science is what it is, and truth is what it claims to be, they are worthy of a radical passion, we only feel a relative passion, even scientists acknowledge there are no final answers in science.69


Hollywood, 2005

Our anti-destiny is the media universe.70

Pointe-Claire, 2004

The force of the silence of the image.71


Constance Bay, 2003

I like photography as something completely empty, “irreal”, as something that preserves the idea of a silent apparition.72


Niagara, 1994

Photography is not a representation, it is a fiction.73


Constance Bay, 2005

We no longer believe the truth is true when all its veils have been removed.74


Rio, 1997

The gossamer thin difference between illusion and the real”.75

Self Portrait, 2003

…the absence of the subject is reinforced by every feature of a face.76


...every face is an acting out, you push your life out into the features of your face, or your body, or your writing, some never manage to and that is their misfortune, to find the photographic act which is the equivalent of that acting out ...is the most delicate of operations…77


Baudrillard, 200678

…humans: what is needed is to make him a little more enigmatic to himself and to make human beings in general a little stranger to each other, it is a question not of treating them as subjects, but of turning them into objects, that is to say, treating them as they are.79


Virginia, 2006

…it is the scene that demands to be photographed, and you are merely part of the décor in the pictorial order it dictates, the subject is no more than the funnel through which things in their irony make their appearance.80

Ontario, 1995

…in spite of the rational evidence, we continue to adore the world in the unintelligible quintessence of a single one of its details.81


Lennoxville, 200582

...no matter which photographic technique is used, there is always one thing, and one thing only, that remains: the light. Photo-graphy: The writing of light... this light is the very imagination of the image.83

VII. Conclusion

            Barthes reminds us, against aesthetics and science, that we know only deep within ourselves the reasons why we like one photograph more than others (even of the same photographer). Writing of a photograph of his mother as a child in a winter garden, Barthes tells us that “it would tell me what constituted that thread which drew me toward photography”.84 This solitary photograph is for Barthes deeply personal. He tells us he cannot reproduce it in his book because:

It exists only for me. For you it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of thousands of 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; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.85

            Like all writings on photography this article has been a deeply personal exploration of our own thoughts emerging from an ongoing dialogue of a year’s duration. We cannot tell you what is good, or what is beautiful, but we can point to some interesting ways (for us, and perhaps even for you) in which Baudrillard’s writings and photographs, and his photos and those of Kelly Reid, cast a revealing light on one another. Ultimately we ask you to consider that you have no one other than yourself to rely on as a photographer and reader of photographs. To appreciate a photograph as Barthes does is to stand in a world where aesthetics and science no longer exist. We are truly on our own but is this not the case with any text? Perhaps this is the most important message we can take from Baudrillard and Reid’s images, that in photographs, as in writing, there is always a secret to be preserved86 – an unintelligibility and enigmaticalness that makes both worth while.

            We do not want to have to choose between meaning and non-meaning. The photographs of Reid and Baudrillard and the writings of Baudrillard and Barthes (on punctum) remind us that “the absence of meaning is no doubt intolerable, but it would be just as intolerable to see the world assume a definitive meaning”.87 When the Baudrillardian photograph (whomever takes it) and Barthes’ notion of punctum as personal occupy privileged places in theory, the terrorism of the disciplines and their efforts to centralize and codify meaning, begins to evaporate. Aesthetics and science cannot survive a Barthesian reading and it is ultimately this reading which we must rely upon as individuals passing though images.

            Photographs are like this in themselves, vestiges of what remains after everything else is taken away.88 Photographs float upon the nothing, after everything but our ability to read is taken away. Photographs are stronger than the will of aesthetics to control them or science to dissect them and it is our interpretive abilities, always working against aesthetics and science, that give them a certain power. Objects, colours, light, and substance do not have a sentimental aura and it is through photography  that we can “add to the magical fact of their indifference, to the innocence of their staging, and thus bring out what is embodied in them: the objective illusion and subjective disillusion of the world”.89 Through images such as those shown here, the world “asserts its discontinuity, its fragmentation, its artifical instantaneousness” …photographs are a continuity of fragments … merely the refraction of the world”.90 Before photography understood by Barthes and his concept of punctum, a concept which sits easily with the images of Reid and Baudrillard, science and aesthetics dissolve into the enigma and the void.

            Each photograph of Reid and Baudrillard that we have selected for this article is intended to raise a feeling of a kind of ecstasy – the ecstasy of the world of appearances disappearing into the lens of the camera. Ecstasy has long been associated with the world of illusions. In the case of this article it is up to you to do as you wish with the biting irony that these photographs also make appear: You may continue on in the world of perfect illusion – that is, in the world of aesthetics and science, or, you may confront the “intractable reality” Barthes presents us with – the very personal experience of the photograph as ecstasy which is their punctum. We think it is better to be thrown into ecstasy than into aesthetics. Aesthetic and scientific efforts to tame the photograph, to subject it to the perfect illusion, result only in the taming of the human mind. Neither Reid, Baudrillard, nor Barthes have any interest in this taming. The photography of Reid and Baudrillard like each of us as readers, like Barthes with his punctum,  stand alone and unarmed.91 This is not a position occupied without moments of fear and frenzy, but it is ultimately, as close to a feeling of freedom we are allowed to feel existing as we do along the horizon of the object. Photography, or the writing of light, is thus simultaneously both a humbling and liberatory act. It becomes even more so when we acknowledge that in photography, as both Reid and Baudrillard do, it is the object which does all the work. Everything else depends on our subjective vision – somewhere beyond, or before aesthetics and science.

J-119, 200692

There is perhaps but one fatal strategy and only one: theory.  And doubtless the only difference between a banal theory and a fatal theory is that in one strategy the subject still believes himself to be more cunning than the object, whereas in the other the object is considered more cunning, cynical, talented than the subject, for which it lies in wait.  The metamorphoses, the ruses, the strategies of the object surpass the subject’s understanding.93




Gerry Coulter is founder and editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. His ongoing interest in fragments against a totalizing view of the world has taken him into photography which he understands as, at best, a refraction of the world.

Kelly Reid is a photographer and graduate student in Sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario with a keen interest in visual sociology. She has recently joined IJBS as Photographic Editor.


1 The authors express their sincere gratitude to Nicolas Ruiz III and Scott Lukas for their insightful commentary and suggested revisions to this article. We also thank Mary Ellen Donnan for patient proofreading.

2 See Jean Baudrillard. “For Illusion Isn’t the Opposite of Reality” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:139-140.

3 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV. New York: Verso, 2002:2

4 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:83. Elsewhere Baudrillard writes: “The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us – unintelligible. And if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible” (The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:105); and “The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought is to make it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible”. (Impossible Exchange. London: SAGE, 2001:151).

5 Jean Baudrillard. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:115.

6 Jean Baudrillard. “The Ecstasy of Photography: Interview with Jean Baudrillard” in Art and Artefact. (Edited by Nicholas Zurbrugg), London: Sage, 1997.

7 See Rex Butler. “Baudrillard’s Light Writing or Photographic Thought” in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 1, January 2005: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_1/butler.htm

8 Ibid.

9 Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Gane and Arnaud in Mike Gane (Editor), Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:201-202.

10 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories: 1980-1985. New York: Verso, 1990:144.

11 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:87.

12 Ibid.:13.

13 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e)/Pluto Press, 1990:191.

14 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:150.

15 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories: 1980-1985. New York: Verso, 1990:59.

16 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:136-137.

17 Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Guy Bellavance (c 1983), In Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:57.

18 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:92, 99.

19 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e)/Pluto Press, 1990:37,47.

20 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories: 1980-1985. New York: Verso, 1990:27.

21 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c1990). New York: Verso, 1993:169-170.

22 Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (c1992). Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 1994:92.

23 Jean Baudrillard Liberation, September 18, 1995 in Screened Out, 2002:85-86.

24 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories III: Fragments. New York: Verso, 1997:63.

25 Ibid.:137-138.

26 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:128.

27 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords (c2000), New York: Verso, 2003:91-92.

28 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard (c1987). New York: Semiotexte,  1987:124.

29 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:59 ff.

30 Jean Baudrillard. “It Is The Object Which Thinks Us” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:148.

31 Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (c1992). Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 1994:121.

32 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c1990). New York: Verso, 1993:56.

33 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:150.

34 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:8.

35 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c1990). New York: Verso, 1993:155.

36 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:93.

37 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories: 1980-1985. New York: Verso, 1990:149.

38 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:86-87.

39 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories: 1980-1985. New York: Verso, 1990:141.

40 Jean Baudrillard. “Photography, Or The Writing of Light” in Ctheory.net, 2001:http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=126

41 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:97-98.

42 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:110.

43 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980) New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:91.

44 Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988:64.

45 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard (c1987). New York: Semiotexte,  1987:46.

46 For Baudrillard on how writing is a source of pleasure see “Interview with Le Journal des Psychologues (1991)” in Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:179.

47 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e)/Pluto Press, 1990:113-114.

48 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:89. For a further exploration of this see: Rex Butler: “Baudrillard’s Light Writing or Photographic Thought.” In International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 1, Number 2: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_1/butler.htm

49 The authors acknowledge that light is not the sole principle constituent of the human ability to know – for example, blind people know the world differently than do the sighted.

50 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:69.

51 One wonders what idea of his own work Baudrillard operates with in deciding which of his photographs we see in exhibitions or in print. Has this process of protecting us from the majority of his images – something every photographer does – given us a similar kind of image, despite the diversity of objects recorded, which make possible our notion of a “Baudrillardian” photograph? It is also quite possible that these processes, if they work at all, do so unknown to the photographer.

52 Baudrillard says photographs produce a thunderstruck effect – a from of suspense – but this suspense “is never definitive, since photographs refer to one and other”. See Jean Baudrillard. “For Illusion Isn’t the Opposite of Reality” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:134.

53 The cover photograph of America is by Chris Richardson. The cover of Cool Memories IV  is by Richard Misrach, and the cover photo of Passwords is by Matthias Clamer. See Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988; Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm, New York: Verso, 1998; Jean Baudrillard. Passwords, New York: Verso, 2003; and Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV:1995-2000, New York: Verso, 2003. Richard Misrach is also the photographer of the cover of Cool Memories III: Fragments. This “Baudrillardian photograph” is a kind of anamorphic image in which a single engine aeroplane is made to appear to be approximately the same size as a group of croquet balls in the foreground.

54 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard (c1987). New York: Semiotexte,  1987:38.

55 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard (c1987). New York: Semiotexte,  1987:129-130.

56 Ibid.:133.

57 See Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:108.

58 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980) New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:18.

59 Ibid.:26.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid.:32.

62 Ibid.:38.

63 Jean Baudrillard. “It Is The Object Which Thinks Us” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:146.

64 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980) New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:42-47.

65 Ibid.:51.

66 Ibid.:52-59.

67 Ibid.:74.

68 Jean Baudrillard. The Singular Objects of Architecture (c 2000) (With Jean Nouvel). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002:19.

69 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories: 1980-1985. New York: Verso, 1990:85-86.

70 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault (c 1977), Forget Baudrillard (c1987). New York: Semiotexte,  1987:134.

71 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories: 1980-1985. New York: Verso, 1990:200.

72 Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Gane and Arnaud in Mike Gane (Editor), Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:23.

73 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:142.

74 Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1995:77, 81-82.

75 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories III: Fragments. New York: Verso, 1997:63.

76 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:86.

77 Jean Baudrillard. “It Is The Object Which Thinks Us” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:146-147.

78 Photograph: Gerry Coulter, June 2006.

79 Jean Baudrillard. “For Illusion Isn’t the Opposite of Reality” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:137.

80 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c1990). New York: Verso, 1993:153.

81 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e)/Pluto Press, 1990:115.

82 Note: In Section Six, all photographs are by Kelly Reid except three images taken by Baudrillard: Niagara, 1994; Rio, 1997, and Ontario, 1995. One image is by another photographer (see endnote 78).

83 Jean Baudrillard. “Photography, Or The Writing of Light” in Ctheory.net, 2001:http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=126

84 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980) New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:73.

85 Ibid.

86 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:89.

87 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:128.

88 Baudrillard writes in The Perfect Crime (New York, Verso, 1996:85): “Every photographed object is merely the trace left by the disappearance of everything else. From the summit of this objective exceptionality absent from the rest of the world, you have an unbeatable view of the world”.

89 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories III: Fragments. New York: Verso, 1997:96.

90 Jean Baudrillard. “For Illusion Isn’t the Opposite of Reality” in Photographies: 1985-1998. Ostfildren-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:130-131.

91 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (c 1980) New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:7.

92 Photograph by Kelly Reid, digitally altered by Gerry Coulter using Microsoft Photo Editor to appear in “transparent colour”.

93 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e)/Pluto Press, 1990:181.


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