Reflecting on Barthes:
Studium and Punctum
Or rather Punctum and Studium, for it is the Punctum that stops us, punctures our general gaze as our eyes wander over an image, over our personal landscape, over anything our retinas engage with. It isn’t just photographs, or paintings, or sculptures; for if we accept the notion that Barthes espouses, that of the ‘prick’ of the conscience that alerts us to consider/reconsider an image with a found/newly-refound awareness, then we accept that all vistas contain that possibility. Because Barthes writes about this in Camera Lucida, and in particular to specific photographs, the reader is impelled to consider this wisdom in respect of photographic images when of course it is perfectly reasonable to view any part of the world in this way.
Coming across the text some time ago for the first time I suppose I had expected to be ‘caught’ by a barb on every photograph – well at least every photograph that had some form of legitimate claim to be by ‘a’ photographer; and when I didn’t I suspected it was because my visual vocabulary wasn’t developed enough and when I still don’t get it I still wonder about how nascent that vocabulary is, or perhaps I will never get them all!
For the point surely about Punctum is that it has two aspects to it; nature and nurture. Nature is what comes through the life we have led and nurture through the things we have learned. And, whilst these twin contributors to the well of experience are interwoven, the one without the other will leave the one lesser by far than the two combined.
If I imagine a darkened house in the dead of night, and a noise that seems out of place, surely here is a puncture that makes me stop and concern myself with the extra ordinary. As I view the garden lawn and notice the slight mound in the turf that doesn’t appear in my memory, then again I start to consider the possibilities of underground invaders. The former as a heightened awareness through the jarring of senses, the latter through a learned experience (of the last time I viewed the same scene that ‘appeared’ without the possible presence of a mole). It is though, the learned experience that I am most interested in here.
A McCullin image of a shell shocked soldier is so extra ordinary that the whole image, at whatever size presented, is the Punctum. It would surely be an extra ordinary individual not to be instantly captivated by that image. The grim aspect of the soldier staring glassy eyed into the distance and gripping tightly to the stock of his rifle, I can see this image in my mind and need not refer to the library to remind myself of it’s countenance. But then if we view his picture of the schoolboys – written about here – outside Bedford prison on the day Hanratty was to hanged I start to consider multiple halting points. The boy’s in the centre of the image staring confrontationally at the viewer is a key, and so also is the boy on the bicycle looking almost insouciantly at the the same place. The others, the women and men all, in the first instance, seem generally normal. Of course we are directed by the caption “Outside Bedford Prison on the morning of the execution of James Hanratty, Great Britain, April 4, 1962” to ‘know’ what this image is about, and this is itself a Punctum within the framework of understanding that Barthes outlines And for most viewers these elements would surely be enough to decide to contemplate, to consider the event that took place on the cold morning in 1962. But it is the fact that I know it was cold that reminds me that I was in Bedford that day and that I recognise that schoolboys’s school blazer badge – I didn’t go to that school, but my sister went to it’s twin Girl’s school.
So McCullin’s ability to steer the viewer is quite apparent (and probably a good number of others too); but what of the ‘Art Photographer’, can they rely on the viewer to recognise the point at which to start to study an image? To a certain extent this is what this course is about, how to comprehend an image, whether by an artist’s statement or by the elements within the frame, or how to construct an image that will provide both the point that interrupts a viewer’s general gaze and also the point that is the narrative of the image. It is important to do both, it may be possible to engage a viewer without resort of a punctive operator, but if the viewer cannot consciously or sub-conciously engage with the image then the work will have no value as a visual conduit.