In the Informing Contexts module I have done a lot of reading about various critical theories as well as reviewing and considering the work of contemporary photographers.

Now reflecting on my last week of the module I thought it would be interesting to remind myself of some of the most enjoyable and informative reads along the way. The first revelation was reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. I enjoyed his style that is both narrative and rhetorical. In the first part he discusses the nature and impact of the photograph including introducing the terms of the stadium and punctum and then in the second part takes us on his personal journey of viewing family photographs, and particularly those of his mother. Barthes motivation for Camera Lucida was borne out of an ontological desire to understand the nature of photography in itself, seeking to identify that which is specific to the photograph, as a means of representation.

I found his analysis of why he was attracted to certain photographs very informative. He spoke of his different responses to images varying from fascination, to interest, astonishment and admiration:

“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: this 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)

Barthes uses the example of Koen Wessing’s image taken in Nicaragua in 1979:

Nicaragua 1979 – Koen Wessing

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.

After the relative success of reading Barthes I decided to tackle Susan Sontag and I enjoyed it – in spite of the topic. My tutor had suggested I read Regarding the Pain of Others (2004) and so I decided to read this first rather than the more widely-known On Photography.

My interest was in the context of my Work in Progress Portfolio in which I am trying to lay some of the ghosts of my early photographic career as a police photographer to rest.

Sontag starts her essay by exposing the modern world in which we live as follows:

“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists.  Wars are now also living room sights and sounds.  Information about what is happening elsewhere, called ‘news’, features conflict and violence – ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four hour headline news shows – to which the response is compassion or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as every misery heaves into view.” (Sontag 2004:16).

She was deeply affected by the images of 1945 from Bergen – Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau and speaks of the defining moment when images took over narrative as the means by which we view and recall events and stories:

“If there was one year when the power of photographs to define, not merely record, the most abominable realities trumped all the complex narratives, surely it was 1945, with the pictures taken in April and early May at Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau in the first days after the camps were liberated, and those taken by Japanese witnesses such as Yosuke Yamahata in the days following the incineration of the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August.” (Sontag 2004:21/22).

Perhaps the other significant takeaway from this book is that Sontag refers to the photographic image as being a trace but also a selection:

“But the photographic image, even to the extent that it is a trace (not a construction made out of disparate photographic traces), cannot be simply a transparency of something that happened.  It is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.”  Sontag (2004:41)

Which leads me neatly on to The Photographer’s Eye (1966) and Mirrors and Windows (1978) by John Szarkowski who also spoke of ‘the frame’. I enjoy his straightforward and informed perspective and his attention to practical considerations such as ‘the thing itself’, ‘the frame’ and the ‘vantage point’. These resonate with me I think because of my police background and the importance of these technical considerations when making images to provide evidence for criminal cases. I wrote in my Critical Review of Practice about mirrors and windows and my view that rather than being a dichotomy as Szarkowki suggests, the photographic image is inevitably both a window and a mirror.

And finally, in many ways the book I enjoyed the most was Susie Linfield’s A Cruel Radiance (2012). In an interview in Art Forum at the time of her book’s publication Linfield said:

“I teach criticism and read a lot of it, and some years ago I realised how different photography criticism can be in tone and approach from criticism of film, or music, or other cultural forms.  Pauline Kael, Greil Marcus and others are very immersed in their subjects; they write analytically and critically but with love.  By contrast, Susan Sontag and her postmodern heirs in the realm of photography criticism were very removed from, even hostile to, the subjects they discuss.” (Linfield, Art Forum 2010).

 She suggests that these so-called critics approach photography itself:

“with suspicion, mistrust, anger, and fear.  Rather than enter into what Kazin called a “community of interest” with their chosen subject, these critics come armed to the teeth against it. . . It’s hard to resist the thought that a very large number of photography critics – including the most influential ones – don’t really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all.” (Linfield 2010:5).

The post-modernists and post-structuralists of the generation following Sontag, Berger and Barthes do not escape Linfield’s wrath either as she argues they had a similar approach and rhetoric.  For example, Allan Sekula referred to photography as “primitive, infantile and aggressive.”  Linfield explains as follows:

“The assault on photography was, in short, a servant to the larger postmodern “project of deconstruction in which art is distanced and separated from itself”.  To attack photography, especially high-modern and documentary photography, was to storm the bastions of modernism itself.” Linfield (2010:8).

The post-moderns attacked John Szarkowski, a modernist, for isolating photography from its social and political context and Allan Sekula accused Paul Strand’s belief in “human values, social ideals, decency and truth” as the enemy.  While Victor Burgin condemned the act of looking!  Linfield can hardly contain her disdain as she summarises the postmodern view:

“In short, the postmodern critics viewed photography as a generally nasty business – the photography is a prison, the act of looking, a crime – which may be why reading their work often feels like trudging through mud.”  Linfield (2010:11).

A fascinating read and Susie Linfield is a breath of fresh air in challenging not only the likes of Barthes, Berger and Sontag but those that led the way in the decades before them.  For me, their criticism and deep suspicion was driven by a fear of the pace and extent of modernity.  Photography became the focus of their concern and disdain and their words reflected the social, economic, political and cultural concerns of the time.

As I contemplate a few week’s to reflect and read I have a number of books on my list including The Pleasures of Good Photographs by Gerry Badger, Between the Eyes by David Levi Strauss and The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton.


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

LINFIELD, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance – Photography and Political Violence, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

SONTAG, Susan. 2004. Regarding the Pain of Others, Penguin Group.

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

SZARKOWSKI, John. 1978. Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

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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