HAVE WE EVER SPOKEN ABOUT THE PUNCTUM?

ROLAND BARTHES & CAMERA LUCIDA

I am a fan of the writings of Roland Barthes and especially a fan of the punctum. I guess anyone who has been to art college, has to either enjoy his texts or die a miserable death every time they have to write a critical theory essay.

Obviously being into Photography, it is Camera Lucida that interest me most.  I was first introduced to some of the concepts in this book during a talk by a visiting lecturer in my first year of University.  Sadly I cannot remember who the speaker was – but I remember much of their talk vividly – in particular a photographic journey he went on all based around the punctum.

THE GLORY OF THE PUNCTUM

The theory goes that the punctum is the part of a photograph that leaps out at you and envelopes you as the viewer.  As Barthes puts it ‘that accident which pricks, bruises me.’ The punctum of an image can be different from person to person, it may not exist in a photograph for one person, but be absolutely screaming out at the next.  It is the part of a photograph that arrests you and and makes you love it.

A punctum can be seen as a minor or accidental detail that attracts you into the image and changes the reading of it.  It is something that you can never miss when you look at the photograph for ever more – the eye is drawn to it.

I love this concept and especially that it can be an accidental detail that works for one person but not the next.  The lecturer I spoke of earlier cited a postcard as the best example of a punctum he had come across.  It was a fairly dull postcard of a high street in the 50’s or 60’s, with a Woolworth’s in the centre.  On the face of it – it was a very boring postcard, except he noticed one day, that there was a foot just sticking out of the door of Woolworth’s.  The shadow in that area of the image meant no part of the person could be seen – just a foot that appeared to be floating in the air.  This was his punctum and he became obsessed with it and it started a journey of exploration all based around this one image.

THE HELTA SKELTA STAIR PUNCTUM

Often I see a punctum in an image and I often think about this concept and how an accidental detail can become the sole focus of a photograph.  I was recently reminded of it again when editing some images and I noticed a detail which caught my eye.

I now find it impossible to look at the photograph without just staring at my own reflection.  It makes me laugh because it is a basic rule of image making – always watch out for your own reflection.  What tickles me more however, is how the Good Lady Hannah is staring at me in close quarters.  I wonder how much of her life is spent waiting in such a way when I stop to photograph something mid-conversation? Luckily for me she is ever patient!

This image will always have a punctum for me now. It would be easy to look at the image and not really notice the detail that lurks within it – but it drew me in and on closer inspection became the most interesting part of the photograph to me.

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