I knew I had to do it and I also knew I had put it off long enough – reading Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida that is.  And this week, as part of my contextual research for Informing Contexts I read it from cover to cover and actually enjoyed it.  That is not to say I understood all of it nor necessarily agreed with his musings but nonetheless I found it less impenetrable than I had expected.

Barthes style is both narrative and rhetorical in nature.  In Part 1 he discusses the nature and impact of the photograph introducing his terms of the studium and punction and in Part 2 he takes us on a personal journey through of viewing family photographs and particularly those of his mother.

Camera Lucida was motivated by Barthes ontological desire to understand the nature of photography “in itself”.  His purpose was to identify that which is specific to the photograph as a means of representation.  He is more concerned with the act of seeing and the spectator rather than the operator (his term for the photographer).  Liz Wells explains:

“Barthes concludes that is it ‘reference’ rather than art, or communication, which is fundamental to photography.  Central to his exploration is the contention that, unlike in any other medium, in photograph the referent uniquely sticks to the image.”  (Wells 1996:37).

Whereas in painting the referent need not be present but can be achieved through memory.  So, photography has a time-specific characteristic and captures what was.  And here is the crucial point, Barthes considered that photography was never about the present, only in the sense of the act of looking is.  The photograph itself is invisible in Barthes view and the viewer looks through the image to see that which is represented.

I found his analysis of why he was attracted to certain photographs very interesting.  He spoke of his different responses to images, they varied from fascination, to interest, astonishment and admiration.  He termed this response as adventure and animation:

 “In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it.  So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation.  The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in “lifelike” photographs), but it animates me: the is what creates every adventure.” (Barthes 1980:20).

This sense of engagement with some images leads into his exploration of what he terms the studium and the punctum.  The general effect of studium (an average effect) is embedded in cultural and social reference points that allow him to engage with the image.  The punctum punctuates the studium:

“it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.” (Barthes 1980:26).

“A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me.” (Barthes 1989:27).

In identifying these terms Barthes uses images by Koen Wessing of the rebellion in Nicaragua in 1979.  He noted a duality in Wessing’s images which exemplified his terms.  In the image below the punctum being the existence of the nuns in what might otherwise have been a banal scene showing two helmeted soldiers on patrol.

Nicaragua 1979 – Koen Wessing

The studium then is that spark of interest sufficient for Barthes to look further into the image – “an order of liking.”

 “The studium is a kind of education (knowledge and civility, “politeness”) which allows me to discover the Operator, to experience the intentions which establish and animate his practices, but to experience them “in reverse” according to my will as a Spectator . . .  These functions are: to inform, to represent, to surprise, to cause, to signify, to provoke desire.  And I, the Spectator, I recognise them with more or less pleasure:  I invest them with my studium (which is never my delight or my pain). (Barthes 1980:28).

Whereas the punctum is something different altogether:

“ . . . a detail attracts me.  I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value.  This “detail” is the punctum.” (Barthes 1980:42).

 The punctum in Wessing’s image above – the nuns that happened to be passing – puts me in mind of Henri Cartier Bresson’s “the decisive moment” although Barthes is keen to point out that these details of the punctum can often be unseen by the photographer.

Family Portrait, 1926 – James Van Der Zee

For example, in the Family Portrait by James Van der Zee above the belt worn low and the strapped pumps of the standing lady serve as Barthes punctum.  Although, later on, after his initial viewing of the image he realised that the real puntum was the lady’s gold necklace – thus giving the punctum a latent quality.

So, the punctum and its impact are purely in the eye of the beholder and may not have necessarily been something the photographer had been aware of in making the image.  Indeed, Barthes goes on that if details do not prick him then it is probably because the photographer had included them deliberately.  The punctum may not even be clear to Barthes himself, as is the case in the Mapplethorpe portrait of Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass, only that it is there.

Phil Glass and Bob Wilson – R Mapplethorpe

So, do you always need a punctum in an image?  For me, it seems that the punctum is one method of attracting an emotional response and giving a different or additional meaning to the image.  It is not necessarily the only way to do this.  An image might have no punctum but still have high aesthetic impact and quality.

I cannot hope to cover everything in Camera Lucida and will return to Part 2 of Barthes’ work later in the module, however I did want to jump to the revelation at the end of the book as Barthes describes how a trip to see a film, Fellini’s Casanova as follows:

“ . . . each detail, which I was seeing so exactly, savouring it, so to speak, down to its last evidence, overwhelmed me: the figure’s slenderness, its tenuity – as if there were only a trifling body under the flattened gown; the frayed gloves of white floss silk; the faint (though touching) absurdity of ostrich feathers in the hair, that painted yet individual, innocent face: something desperately inert and yet available, offered, affectionate, according to an angelic impulse of “good will” . . . At which moment I could not help thinking about Photography: for I could say all this about the photographs which touched me (out of which I had methodically constituted Photography itself).” (Barthes 1980:116).

So, how has this informed my photographic practice.  It has made me super-sensitive not only to the overall image I might produce but also to those tiny details that make all the difference to inform and add to the narrative, feelings and emotions I am trying to convey.  Whilst I recognise that Barthes suggested that this might not constitute the punctum in his eyes, (because I would be aware of these details as the operator) nonetheless it does raise the importance of details.

While reflecting on this point and thinking about my own images I picked one that I believe has punctum.  The image of Niagara Falls below is about the power and menace of the water and the vulnerability of everything in its path.  The birds flying around towards the bottom of the image provide the punctum.

Niagara Falls, Canada – Alison Price

I feel I have to finish this post by mentioning John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye again and his emphasis on detail albeit concentrating on a different aspect.  He said:

“Intuitively, he sought and found the significant detail.  His work, incapable of narrative, turned toward symbol.” (Szarkowski 1966:42).


 BARTHES, Roland.  1980. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

LA GRANGE, Ashley.  2005. Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Abingdon: Focal Press.

SZARKOWSKI, John.  1966. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

WELLS, Liz.  1996. Photography A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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