Hidden in the shadows of posh antique stores lurk secondhand shops. These overlooked treasures are bursting with both history and small remnants of human life–reminders of those that have flitted in and out of this world leaving behind nothing but a stack of photos or a selective record collection. You walk through the doors, your fingerprints joining the other smudges on the doors glass window. Dank and musty smelling, walking room is limited to a six inch space between the chipped china and the basket of ripped stuffed animals. Stuck in the back, there is inevitably two or three large bins filled with photographs. Subjects range from traditional family portraits to spontaneous snapshots on the family hike. A certain sadness encompasses this area of the store. The bins hold the lives and memorials of more people than a small cemetery. As you idly flip through the photos, nothing arrests you. You toss aside the remnants of hundreds of people’s lives with barely a second thought. And then, one grabs you.
Your eyes attach themselves to the surface of the photo, examining every film grain and rouge hair. Despite your efforts to pay attention to the entire photo, your mind returns again and again to the women’s ring. Something indescribable… maybe it’s the light playing off of it’s edge…or maybe it reminds you of your grandmother’s…whatever it is, something has happened. The people begin to feel alive, you become interested in their lives and their fate. This is the punctum.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes discusses the difference between punctum and studium. The dictionary defines punctum as:
Punctum, noun (‘p&[ng](k)-t&m)
1. A small area marked off from a surrounding surface.
Barthes views these small areas as the places where emotional resonance lie. For reasons completely unknown and unintended by the photographer (according to Barthes) these small areas strike a cord in the viewer and these unintentional hooks make the difference between a good photograph and a well-crafted image.
In contrast, studium references both the photographer’s skill and the viewer’s interest to the image in relation to their upbringing, pastimes, or general interest in a subject. Studium is not an word that translates well into English, the most similar word is study. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/studium)
Barthes argues that technical skill is entirely irrelevant to the photographic process. He even goes as far as to say that it is the amateur, not the professional, who is closer to the spirit of photography. Jeff Wall, a talented (and professional) photographer who controls every aspect of his photos, has the following quote; “The spontaneous is the most beautiful thing that can appear in a picture, but nothing in art appears less spontaneously than that.”
Barthes is not a photographer. Camera Lucida is more or less a memorial to his mother. While the first half of the book is spent musing over the significance and appeal of photography, the second half is spent reminiscing over photos of his mother. Punctum and studium are coined in order to explain how he felt going through his mother’s old photographs after she died. He laments over the fact that she was simply unrecognizable to him, how the photographs didn’t represent her personality, only her physical features. Eventually he comes upon a photo taken of her when she was a girl. While he doesn’t recognize her physically, he immediate recognizes her presence–her aura. This photo becomes the crux of his argument. Since it was taken by an amateur he makes the leap to assuming that all amateur photographs are closer to the ‘truth’ because the photographer can’t control the subtleties that encroach into the image, therefore allowing the subjects to breathe and reveal their true natures.
Barthes makes a compelling argument for incompetence and spits in proficiencies’ face, but he is viewing the subject through a narrow lens. His argument leans upon his experience of looking through his mother’s old photographs. While he sees nothing but ‘death’ in the professional photographs taken of his mother, he also only finds one photograph, professional or amateur, that embodies his mother’s personality. In addition, with his argument against professionals, he disavows many talented and insightful photographers both before and during his time. Would he have dared argue that Richard Avedon was not able to capture the true spirit of a subject because he was too competent? The mark of a good photographer is not just competence. It’s competence combined with a sense of when to let the ‘spontaneous’ happen. I will not argue that proficiency is all that is needed to make a good photo, but it’s a stepping stone. A necessary stepping stone.
Through Barthes exploration of the photograph and what makes it compelling as an image, he references the following story:
“…the editors of life rejected Kertesz’s photographs when he arrived in the United States in 1937 because, they said, his images “spoke too much”; they made us reflect, suggested a meaning–a different meaning from the literal one. Ultimately, photography is subversive when it frightens, repels,or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.” (38, Barthes)
Barthes is making the suggestion that when a photograph tries too hard to be political, it fails. It’s when it is subtle it has a tendency to haunt, therefore permeating the subconscious and achieving its goal in a much less radical but much more lasting manner. “Hence the photograph whose meaning (I am not saying its effect, but its meaning) is too impressive is quickly deflated; we consume it aesthetically, not politically.”(36, Barthes)
The argument for subtlety is one that has grown in relevance in relation to contemporary photography. With the onslaught of the digital age, there has been a torrent of exploration into the wild, the uncanny. Use of the new tools in the hands of amateurs has made the art market boom with unsatisfactory work, where artists are oftentimes choosing to go digital not for its appearance but for its ease. Presumably, this will taper off slightly as the tools are recognized for what they are–means to an end, but not to all ends. But in the meantime, the pieces that say something in a understated manner are the pieces that stand out. They have permanence and lasting power that the screams and shock in the louder pieces can’t compete with, given a longer timeframe.
Camera Lucida explores photographs through the eyes of the observer. Barthes proclaims that he is not a photographer and that the technical aspects of the medium allude him. As the audience and not the photographer, Barthes views photography not as art, but as its own entity. The book is attempting to uncover the appeal of photographs in their own right, without relying on conventional artistic ideals. This has a certain amount of merit within the realm of contemporary photography. However, as digital becomes more and more common, photography is changing. Photographers have more control over their images; the lighting and composition need not be perfect on the negative, because it can be fictionalized later on the computer. This effects, to a large degree, how photographs are looked at and thought about. I would make the argument that photographers are now more likely to be considered artists (by the layman) because of the manipulation that is currently intertwined with the medium. I bring this up only because it effects parts of Barthes argument. His assumption, and what the book relies on, is that photography is not art. Therefore, if if is proved to be art, many of his arguments sound hollow. This is not because they are, but because photography has changed so quickly and dramatically that any older text discussing it becomes almost obsolete. Barthes book is entertaining, and thought provoking, but needs to be dissected to find the issues relevant to contemporary photography.