I needed to re-read Roland Barthes‘ Camera Lucida from 1980. I use an English translation in a print from 2000. The numbers you find in brackets refer to pages in that version of the book.
There were certain things that I needed to check up on. What does that book actually say about studium and punctum in photography? What was Barthes’ original ideas?
In handling these issues this is the first regular post on phenomenology and photography, this blog. There will be more of such notes. I label (and tag) these posts “working notes” since that is exactly what they are. They are private notes, that I have chosen to make public so they might be of use to others as well. Very slightly adapted.
The notes will all be new, and presented here as I make them.
The specific issues I wanted to investigate were if studiums and punctums (as Barthes use these words) are general qualities that you will find in/with every photographs? Or are they, on the contrary, qualities that goes only with certain photographs.
Or maybe the terms should be understood in different ways all together?
Roland Barthes: “I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking; that are only “images,” their mode of appearance is heterogeneous.” (16)
And then Barthes continues:”Yet, among those which has seen selected, evaluated, approved, collected in albums or magazines and which had thereby passed through the filter of culture, I realized that some provoked tiny jubilations … and that others, on the contrary, were so indifferent to me that by dint of seeing them multiply, like some weed, I felt a kind of aversion towards them, even of irritation.” (16)
There is, it seems, a distinction between photographs that invoke tiny jubilations and those that are indifferent to Barthes or even invoke irritation.
Barthes says: “I decided then to take as a guide for my new analysis the attraction I felt for certain photographs.” (18)
In this task Barthes borrows “something from phenomenology’s project and something from it language.” (20). I will, however, leave that discussion to another time.
Related to the photograph above, at this level of discussion, it will be a question if it evokes a tiny jubilation, or simply is an indifferent image. That is for you, the observer, to decide.
Barthes then enters into an analysis of couple of photographs from the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing:
“What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training. I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which does not mean, at least not immediately, “study”, but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. (26)
And: “It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the setting, the actions.” (26)
Related to the photograph above studium would be issues to the where, the when and the what of the photograph. Among many other things that culturally do, and could, relate to it.
That much for studium. Now, what does Barthes has to say about punctum? Its comes here:
“The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time is it not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out f it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exist to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that is also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely these marks are so many points.” (26-27)
Further: “This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also the cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). (26-27)
And he continues: “Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze. But even among those which have some existence in my eyes, most provoke only a general and, so to speak,polite interest: they have no punctum in them: they please or displease me without pricking me: they are invested with no more than studium.The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like / I don’t like”. (27)
Related to the photograph above punctum could be almost anything. Punctum is a capacity that hits you, and not anything that could be read out of the image as part of the studium. Normally it would be a detail that speaks to you. And it would be very individual what/who is speaking and what is said.
I am not going to take this note any further.
I was interested in seeing if studium and punctum, by Barthes, were initiated as concepts of general qualities inherent in all photographs. It seems that they were not. They arespecial qualities that come with certain pictures and certain attitudes.
And what is more: Images that qualify as objects worthy of studium, will not necessarily “contain” punctums. Barthes is very clear about that.
There also seems to be images that fall completely outside the studium area: those “merely images” that the author simply is indifferent to. However, this does not mean that these images are without interest for everybody. Barthes may be indifferent to images that might have quite a different status for others. Even if Barthes would not have invested in those images, others might. This is a very important point.
We have, however, to be a bit cautious when reading Camera Lucida. Questions have to be asked. Is Barthes, for instance, talking about qualities in a) the object, in the b) subject or in c) the subjects reading of photographs? He is, in my opinion, talking about c) the reading of the photographs. This is quite consistent with phenomenology, or should I say intentionality. That discussion will, however, be left to another time.
Barthes’ stand on these issues could be phrased like this: Studiums are investments, punctums are gifts. Investments do not grant gifts. But they don’t exclude them either.
Some people don’t invest and they don’t get gifts. Others do/get both.
That’s all . Thanks.
Roland Barthes: Cameras Lucida, Vintage Books, London 2000.
Don’t forget to follow the other blogs in the barebones blog universe. Here are links to the picture blogs: Berlin Black and White, Photos of The Danes.
Please be aware that this post was originally posted to Phenomenology and Photography.
Copyright 2008. Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved.
Roland Barthes: “I might put this differently: what founds the nature of Photography is the pose. The physical duration of this pose is of little consequence; even in the interval of a millionth of a second (…) there has still been a pose, for the pose is not, here, the attitude of the target or even a technique of the Operator, but the term of an “intention” of reading: looking at a photograph, I inevitably include in my scrutiny the thought of that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye”. (Page 78).
Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida, Vintage Books, London 2000. Translated by Richard Howard. For full information on the book see Library Thing. Page references are made to this version of the book.
So we have to return to Roland Barthes then. And we will.
There has already been a section of Barthes’ connotation procedures on this blog. The number of posts in that section are some of the most sought.
What impresses me about Barthes is his ability to be very precise in some of his writings, and very obscure in others. Actually I prefer the obscure Barthes, because it gives me the change to fill in his obscurities with my own ideas (whatever they are worth). They give me a chance to close the gap of what Barthes writes, and what I think I understand of what he writes. And I like to think that I understand something.
His most impressive book is the one he wrote shortly before his untimely death in 1980. He was his by a truck on his way from a luncheon meeting with President François Mitterand. He died at a Parisian hospital a few hours later.
Barthes was a lover of photography. In his Camera Lucida, from 1980, he tried to redefine photography. Key notions in this book are studium and punctum, both notions invented for the occasion. By Barthes, and both reasonable obscure.
The aim of this blog post is roughly to “indicate” what Barthes had in mind by these two words, and try to show how they both can be useful both in analysing photography, and in general communication, as well. We might even adapt the words studium and punctum as barebones household words. Hmm .. we will see about that later. It depends on how this little investigation turns out.
Way back. One day Barthes discovered a couple of pictures in an illustrated magazine. Pictures shot by the Dutch press photographer Koen Wessing from a mission in Nicarague in 1979.They made him pause, and he went later form more pictures from the same photographer. One particular picture has been made famous by Barthes: the one with the two nuns walking alongside a demolished street where you find three soldiers present closer to the camera. (See some of Koen Wessing’s photographs here, indcuding several copies of the the one with the soldiers and the nuns, that Barthes talkes about).
He askes: “Did this photograph please me? Interest me? Intrigue me? Not even. Simply, it existed (for me) I understood at once that existence (its “adventure”) derived from the co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world (no need to proceed to the point of contrast): the soldiers and the nuns“. (page 23).
Above: Just an example of what Barthes might have in mind when speaking about studium as e.g. “the co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world”. Shot in Caen, France. Copyright 2008: Knut Skjærven.
Above: Another example of what Barthes might have in mind when speaking about studium as e.g. “the co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world”. The discontinuous elements are more subtle is this photograph. Shot in Arles, France. Copyright 2008: Knut Skjærven.
Barthes went on to investigate more photograph by the same photographer, and found that many had this same dual construction, the juxaposition of themes. And he goes on in his maybe most precise description of studium:
“What I feel about these photographs derives from from an average affect, almost from a certain training. I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but application to a thing, taste for someone, i kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions”. (page 26)
And in the very next paragraph, Barthes goes on to lay bare his next key notion: “The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive point; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me”. (pages 26 and 27).
A bit later on in the text, Barthes talks about studium as matter of grasping the photographers intention, of entering into harmony with them, of approve or disapprove of them. But also to try to understand them. Studium is a kind of education trying to bring forward the point of view, the idea and the context of the photograph(er). Basically an intellectual discipline which outcome springs from the capacity for understanding held by the spectator.
Studium operates in the arena of liking, while punctum operated in the arena of loving, as Barthes indicates.
There are, of course, much more to this than these quotations from Barthes’ Camera Lucida will reveal. For those really interested in Barthes’ thoughts, and his work on photography in particular, the hard way is to get the book and read it. Then make up your own mind about what studium and punctum really are all about. The intentions here are more down to earth: how can these to notions be used, if they can be used at all, to understand photography, visual messages and maybe even contribute to the wider understanding of communication? Even useful for analysing and understanding advertising? To accomplish this I will probably have to bend the notions a bit, but as Barthes himself was a prime bender, we should have no problem with that.
The tricky thing is not pointing to, and elaboration on photographs as examples of studium. All photographs can, in fact, be considered as studiums. Definitely the challenge is finding and explaining the arrows Barthes is talking about as punctums, those accidents that pricks and makes small holes in you. Particularly if you insist on these holes being of an objective character. Luckily Barthes does not insists on any objectively here. Punctums are private and personal, which makes our task much more easy, but on the other hand it makes punctums less operative for communication analysis. What is barebones’ stand on this, then? Do, for instance, the two pictures above contain punctums? If so, where and what are they? What and where could they be? Well, the fact that you start looking for punctums at all misses the point. Punctums hit you, so go looking for something that might hit you is moving the scene from punctum to studium. Punctums are also casts of the dice.
What does Barthes have to say about this punctum? Let see if we are able to track it down a bit. Often, he says, the punctum is a detail, a partial object. Could be a dirt road as in a old photograph by Kertesz; a belt or the strapped pumps as in a an old picture by James van der Zee; Andy Warhols nails in a shot by Duane Michaels; a group of nuns that just happened to be there as in the shot already mentioned by the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing.
And more: What also seems to be important is that the punctum has the ability to be expansive. It can take over the whole picture. Dominate it. Punctums are not intentionally put there by the photographer. Barthes talks about the photographers “second sight” by just being there, shooting, at the right moment.
So then, punctums are obscure and rather individual. Does this mean that they are non existent? Not so, but it might mean that it is useless to look for them as deliberate construct to direct the gaze, interest and meaning in a photograph, or other visual message. Punctums are random – if at all. In an operative environment like barebones communications, punctums will be of little use.
NB! Just to let you know: I don’t think that Barthes’ studium is restricted to photographs that in some way contain “the co-presence of two discontinuous elements”. I do however think, that photographs that contain such elements sometimes tells a more vivid story/adventure, than photographs that do not contain such elements. And I do believe, that is was photographs like these, that triggered Barthes into the studium/punctum reflections.
What you may also want to know, is that Barthes in Camera Lucida explicitly refers to the phenomenological method (and Edmund Husserl) as inspirational for his investigation into photography. See the book chapter 8.
Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida, Vintage Books, London 2000. Translated by Richard Howard. For full information on the book see Library Thing. Page references are made to this version of the book.
If you have read this post you should also read Studium and Punctum in Camera Lucida.
I have to admit that I had no clear idea of this from the beginning.
I have thousands of pictures and I have hundreds of books. So, my idea was initially to use both sources in combination on this blog.I started using pictures, because I thought they would brighten, and break up the blog a bit, and maybe, in some cases, make good illustrations for the verbal points made in the individual posts. Particularly in illustrating some of the gestalt factors the pictures came in handy, since some of them seemed to have been shot for the particular blog post.
Not so. The pictures you find on the blog are in some cases taken many years before a blog on barebones communication came to my mind about a year ago. My favourite post, in this respect, is the one on gestalt direction. Go look it up. The post “Wertheimer would have loved it”. This post, by the way, is one of the posts with the most hits. So, I must have done something right.
As I am the photographer of all the pictures posted, so far, I don’t have to worry about copyrights, since I hold copyrights to all the pictures. It makes life much easier that way, since I am allowed to quote from texts, but I am not allowed to quote from visual material in the same way. I can’t just post somebody else’s pictures.
However, lately, the thought grew on me that maybe my pictures had another role to play, as well. You are probably aware that, for instance, Roland Barthes have written with passion about photography. I am referring to his last book: La Chambre Claire, first published in France in 1980, the year of his untimely death.
I will return to that book in later post, since I fully agree with those stating that this book is one of the most important statements ever made on photography.
But what is more, it constitutes a cross section between semiology and phenomenology (Barthes explicitly refers to Edmund Hussels. Barthes states on page 20 in my copy of the English translation: Camera Lucida, that “In this investigation of Photography, I borrowed something from phenomenology’s project and something from its language”.
Barthes is talking about Edmund Husserl as his inpiration.
There is, however, even a much more important issue at stake here. You know that the phenomenological method includes a “freezing”, a “bracketing” of the natural attitude to be able to describe, and to study it more closely. Maybe you also are aware that one of the key methodological notions within phenomenology is the notion “perspective”.
Question: What is it I do, what is it that every photographer does, when taking or shooting pictures? Answer: Could be phrased this way: I/they/we, as photographers, freeze parts of the world from a certain perspective. That is the very nature of photography.
So, the cross over from photography to phenomenology, is rather obvious to make.
As the blog progressed, it slowly dawned on me, that here is a story that never has been told. I will try to tell it, bit by bit, as the blog unfolds. That was the general idea, anyway.
Think about this idea, and take a look at the picture submitted below: A moment, frozen in time, from a certain perspective. Phenomenological investigation illustrated. Photography on phenomenology. Feel free to re-read the posts on the phenomenological method already posted.
Gassin, France, 2002.
All the best to you as well
For more posts on Barthes on this blog, go here, or use the tag cloud for navigation.