Nothing is more present or more mysterious, still, than the Photograph--so one blinks only at Barthes' assumption, at the start of these meditations on its nature, that he is doing something exceptional. More unusual, for such endeavors and for Barthes, is his directness (rendered in limpid prose by Richard Howard). What is there in certain photographs, he asks, that attracts me? The investigation, then, is subjective--no visual-arts touchstones, no socioeconomic ballast. Barthes distinguishes between a general interest in a scene, which he calls (with his penchant for coining terms) the stadium, and something "which arises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me": the puncture. Though he errs in supposing that the punctum, in the photographs he cites, is necessarily accidental (surely the Nicaraguan nuns were as important to photographer Koen Wessing as the Nicaraguan soldiers), he exactly names the sort of detail which, from photographer to photographer, surprises: "one boy's bad teeth" in a William Klein scene of Little Italy, the dirt road in a Kertesz picture of a blind gypsy violinist ("I recognize, with my whole body, the straggling villages I passed through on my long-ago travels in Hungary and Rumania"). Other recognitions, other distinctions emerge--between "landscapes of predilection" (where one feels one has been, or is going) and tourist photographs; between erotica ("disturbed, fissured") and pornography. But it is in searching back through photographs of his mother, after her death, that Barthes arrives at the essence, for him, of photography: one childhood picture, not reproducible ("It exists only for me"), but a "just image." Grander statements appear--to the effect, for one, that photography alone authenticates existence and foretells death--but it is the emotional experience of photographs, ordinarily the preserve of fiction, that resonates here. Readers of Susan Sontag's On Photography will find Barthes a gentler, more private, also insinuating voice on the subject.