Studium and Punctum

Part of my feedback on assignment 4 from my tutor regarded my lack of recorded research on photographers and the thought process of photography in general. He suggested that I,  “Have a look at Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, thinking about his two key terms “Studium” and “Punctum”. Write about these when you think you’ve understood them and apply the learning to the way you write about your own photographs.

I remember approaching this book a number of years ago and being completely at odds with the way it was written. The language did not resonate with me at all (I was in my twenties at this point) and subsequently I found it very difficult to understand (which led immediately to boredom, especially with the insistence that I did actually need to read it). Much less was I able/willing to disseminate it as my tutor wanted me to. I suspect I did not appreciate at that age the fact that it was translated from French to English. No matter how faithfully it was reproduced, the language subtleties, turn of phrase and inflection were never something that could be entirely subjugated to the Queen’s English, much less understood by yours truly.

So, it was with some trepidation that I approached it again twenty years later. The crux of me reading, disseminating and understanding the text centred on how I write (and therefore think) about my own photographs. In opening the book and reading the first few pages, the memories came flooding back. Indeed, the flowery, Gaelic flavour of the text makes for a big struggle in reading. I am not adverse to philosophical readings but his seems more of an artistic ramble than constructed and constructive philosophy. In the same period (late 1970s) there were other publications on offer regarding the philosophy of photography, chief among them On Photography by Susan Sontag (1977). Sontag’s take, though, is eminently readable and enjoyable albeit entirely different.

In situations where I struggle with the language of a book, I do try to persist at least for a few chapters. In this case, although it never made for pleasant reading I did at least, by the time I arrived at the area of my immediate interest (studium and punctum), start to glean a modicum of what the author was trying to impart to the reader.

I shall try and break it down the way I understood it. Then I will attempt to relate that to how I would and maybe should read my own photography.

Studium – That which by cultural learning, a generality, draws the viewer (spectator) to the photograph in the first place. The scene (photograph) in front of us is the base intention of the photographer. What they want us, the viewer to see. We are the vessel of the photographer, becoming complicit with their thinking and aesthetic views of what they present before us. Ultimately, Barthes say, we may ‘like’ this image, but the studium, the base intention, is only enough to bring us to initially view the photograph. To ‘love’ this image, there has to be a further ingredient.

Punctum – This is where, quite literally, the ‘pointed’ interest gives us the ability to ‘love’ the image before us. Barthes uses words such as ‘prick’, ‘bruise’ and ‘pain’ to describe his emotion towards what makes him linger longer over the photograph and moreover to become emotionally attached to it. I like these emotive, evocative words which in themselves make me want to read further and understand more about what is being said on the subject. Further more, the punctum is an accidental bruise; something the photographer did not intend to be in the scene (either physically or metaphysically) in the first place or may be did, but not for it to be read in the way that this particular viewer read it. It is, argues Barthes, a deep seated personal relationship to the punctum that gives it its strength. This expands to the point where any image or photograph can have punctum as each photograph is unique. What may only be studium (the average, the mudane) to one spectator may to the next, be a revelation of punctum or even puncta. So, punctum is unique to the individual viewer. It can be the smallest physical or metaphysical unintended facet of an image and yet it becomes larger than the studium to fill the spectator’s gaze and wonder. The lack of explanation for the appearance of punctum makes it all the more ‘bruising’ and surprising.

To extrapolate from this, some photographs will contain punctum that spike more than one viewer’s imagination, therefore becoming more popular. With that, the images are reproduced on a wider scale (via social media etc) with even more viewers seeing what is now a celebrated punctum and it has a (forced) resonation or emotion pull with a vastly wider audience than Barthes may have thought. Does this turn the now somewhat manufactured punctum to studium?

Such words as ‘prick, ‘bruise’, ‘shock’, ‘wound’ used to describe punctum by Barthes, excite certain emotions. All are somewhat violent and some are almost sensual in their definition. Taken to it’s natural conclusion, pain leads ultimately to death. Barthes’ obsession with the subject becomes more and more pronounced as the book unfolds, as though it has been written linearly, the author discovering more about himself and the issue of mortality as he journeys further in to his attempt to understand his own mother’s death. I feel he is almost chastising himself in someway using these emotive descriptions of what he is trying to put across to the reader. On page 51 of Camera Lucida (2010, published by Hill & Wang), Barthes states, ‘What I cannot name, cannot prick me‘. Clearly another way of saying what I cannot see cannot hurt me. Can we assume then, that each time he finds a photograph with punctum (such as the boy’s bad teeth in William Klein’s ‘Little Italy, New York, 1954’), it is as though another piece of him dies? A dramatic assumption to make about the photograph and the man maybe, but this is not a man drawn to understatement in his language.

Sontag says in On Photography (p.70, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008), “Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.” Indeed a recent exhibition (“A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005“) that I went to see by Annie Leibovitz in Singapore showed this prophecy finally came to overwhelming fruition for Sontag as Leibovitz photographed and documented her partner’s distressing demise and finally death from cancer in 2004.

So then, this need for a punctum in a sea of studium is what Barthes craved, demanded to notice a photograph beyond the surface value.

How apply this to the way I write about and read my own photographs?

  • Clearly not to take everything on face value.
  • Intrinsically there may be more value in the less obvious image.
  • Each image is unique and as such the viewer will see different aspects in each which are pleasing or displeasing.
  • It is not simply a case of reading an image that I suppose will ‘fit the remit’, but looking deeper and seeing other areas that I did not see when in the act of making it.
  • The critique returned from a third party will undoubtedly be right…. when made by that individual, but will be wrong in the eyes of another party (whether photographer or viewer).
  • To be more emotional about my reading of the image and subject. Much more subjectivity than just observance.
  • Just because I see the punctum doesn’t mean others will. My process of selection has to meet a higher criteria.

One thought on “Studium and Punctum

  1. Pingback: Assignment 5 – TAoP – Reflection on assignment | BA Blog

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