Barthes on Studium and Punctum in Photography.

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).

Caen, France 2005.

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.

Arles, France.

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.


3 thoughts on “Barthes on Studium and Punctum in Photography.

  1. Pingback: Hmm… Anyway, where are they now? – lessons in communication

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s