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Occurrences of punctum in Camera Lucida

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Box A
Matthew ch. 3-5
img: my childhood Bible

[26Apr21] All occurrences of punctum in Barthes' Camera Lucida (and some of studium and some other sections that catch the eye).

In my early teenage, or perhaps a little before (so, more than 50 years ago), I was given an expensive Bible, printed on the thinnest paper, so I would have no reason not to carry it around with me, with everything that Jesus said printed in red. I think it is in my library still, I might post a page (now done: I was going to show the Sermon on the Mount but both pages were entirely red - this is the page before). The plan is to colour all the punctums and studiums (perhaps pale red and blue) highlight what I see as the important bits in standard yellow, and maybe colour-coding other words or phrases if the need arises.


There is a pdf online of the whole book here.

Section Page Quote

11 studium
17 The Unary Photograph
18 Co-presence of the STUDIUM and the PUNCTUM
19 PUNCTUM: Partial Feature
39 Time as PUNCTUM



1 3 Specialty of the Photograph
Barthes recalls seeing a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother and thinking "I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor". This later leads to a desire for a better understanding of Photography.
2, 3 4, 8 The Photograph Unclassifiable, Emotion as Departure

He notes the limitations of classification,
"Photography evades us. The various distributions we impose upon it are in fact either empirical ( Professionals / Amateurs), or rhetorical (Landscapes / Objects / Portraits / Nudes), or else aesthetic ( Realism / Pictorial ism) , in any case external to the object, without relation to its essence"

A photograph "reproduces to infinity [what] has occurred only once"

"A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents) … [in] short, the referent adheres."

Rejecting extant analysis of the medium, Barthes starts with a number of photographs of his choosing.


"So I make myself the measure of photographic knowledge'. What does my body know of Photography? I observed that a photograph can be the oject of three practices ( or of three emotions, or of three intentions) : to, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs - in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives … And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation co 'spectacle' and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of che dead."

B. notes that "I am not a photographer, not even an amateur photographer" and so can only write as Spectator and Spectrum.

5 10 He Who ls Photographed

When photographed, B. Is aware of “posing”, "I transform myself in advance into an image".

And "I want you to know that I am posing" … "the Photograph is the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity".

The portrait-photograph is a dosed field of forces. Four 'image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am ( or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture ( comparable to certain nightmares) . In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph ( the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter

6 16 The SPECTATOR: Chaos of Tastes

As Spectator, most photographs B. sees are chosen by the editors (etc.) of magazines, books - the filter of culture"

some "provoked tiny jubilations, as if they referred to a stilled center, an erotic or lacerating value buried in myself (however harmless the subject may have appeared); and that others, on the contrary, were so indifferent to me that by dint of seeing them multiply, like some weed, I felt a kind of aversion toward them, even of irritation: there are moments when I detest Photographs: what have I to do with Atget's old tree trunks, with Pierre Boucher's nudes, with Germaine Krull's double exposures (to cite only the old names)? Further: I realized that I have never liked all the pictures by any one photographer: the only thing by Stieglitz that delights me (but to ecstasy) is his most famous image ( "The Horse-Car Terminal," New York, 1893); a certain picture by Mapplethorpe led me to think I had found "my" photographer; but I hadn't-I don't like all of Mapplethorpe. Hence I could not accede to that notion which is so convenient when we want to talk history, culture, aesthetics - that notion known as an artist's style."


Fig. 1 Alfred Stieglitz
The Terminal, 1893


The paragraph above in Chapter 6 breaks around the first photograph in the book, labelled "A. STIEGLITZ: THE HORSE-CAR TERMINAL. NEW YORK, 1893" and with the comment, "Only Stieglitz's most famous photograph delights me ...".

7 18 Photography as Adventure

Barthes states that he will investigate why some photographs interest him. He agrees with Sartre that newspaper photographs rarely do.

"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.

8 20 A Casual Phenomenology
Barthes examines his motivation and methods. He wants to explain photography or, rather, its effect and effectiveness) and do so by means of a rational analysis but fears that photography's power to affect often relies on sentiment.
9 23 Duality




What I feel about these photographs derives 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, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without any 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.

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 1t 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 points; 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).

Having thus distinguished two themes in Photography ( for in general the photographs I liked were constructed in the manner of a classical sonata), I could occupy myself with one after the other.

11 27 Studium

Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze. But even among those which have some existence in my eyes, most provoke only a general and, so to speak, polite interest: they have no punctum in them: they please me without pricking me: they are invested with no more than studium. The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like / I don't like. The studium is of the order of liking, not of loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi-volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds "all right."

To recognize the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer's intentions, to enter into harmony with them, to approve or disapprove of them, but always to understand them, to argue them within myself, for culture ( from which the studium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers.

12 28 To Inform
13 30 To Paint
14 32 To Surprise
15 34 To Signify
16 38 To Waken Desire
17 40 The Unary Photograph

Having thus reviewed the docile interests which certain photographs awaken in me, I deduced that the studium, insofar as it is not traversed, lashed, striped by a detail (punctum) which attracts or distresses me, engenders a very widespread type of photograph (the most widespread in the world), which we might call the unary photograph. In generative grammar, a transformation is unary if, through it, a single series is generated by the base: such are the passive, negative, interrogative, and emphatic transformations. The Photograph is unary when it emphatically transforms "reality" without doubling it, without making it vacillate (emphasis is a power of cohesion): no duality, no indirection, no disturbance. The unary Photograph has every reason to be banal, "unity" of composition being the first rule of vulgar (and notably, of academic) rhetoric: "The subject," says one handbook for amateur photographers, "must be simple, free of useless accessories; this is called the Search for Unity."

News photographs are very often unary ( the unary photograph is not necessarily tranquil). In these images, no punctum: a certain shock - the literal can traumatize - but no disturbance; the photograph can "shout," not wound. These journalistic photographs are received ( all at once), perceived. I glance through them, I don't recall them; no detail (in some corner) ever interrupts my reading: I am interested in them (as I am interested in the world) , I do not love them.

Another unary photograph is the pornographic photograph (I am not saying the erotic photograph: the erotic is a pornographic that has been disturbed, fissured). Nothing more homogeneous than a pornographic photograph. It is always a naïve photograph, without intention and without calculation. Like a shop window which shows only one illuminated piece of jewelry, it is completely constituted by the presentation of only one thing: sex: no secondary, untimely object ever manages to half conceal, delay, or distract ... A proof a contrario: Mapplethorpe shifts his dose-ups of genitalia from the pornographic to the erotic by photographing the fabric of underwear at very close range: the photograph is no longer unary, since I am interested in the texture of the material.

18 42 Co-presence of the STUDIUM and the PUNCTUM

In this habitually unary space, occasionally ( but alas all too rarely) 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. It is not possible to posit a rule of connection between the studium and the punctum ( when it happens to be there). It is a matter of a co-presence, that is all one can say: the nuns "happened to be there," passing in the background, when Wessing photographed the Nicaraguan soldiers; from the viewpoint of reality ( which is perhaps that of the Operator), a whole causality explains the presence of the "detail": the Church implanted in these Latin American countries, the nuns allowed to circulate as nurses, etc.; but from my Spectator's viewpoint, the detail is offered by chance and for nothing; the scene is in no way "composed" according to a creative logic; the photograph is doubtless dual, but this duality is the motor of no "development," as happens in classical discourse. In order to perceive the punctum, no analysis would be of any use to me (but perhaps memory would sometimes, as we shall see): it suffices that the image be large enough, that I do not have to study it ( this would be of no help at all), that, given right there on the page, I should receive it right here in my eyes.

19 43 PUNCTUM: Partial Feature

Very often the punctum is a "detail," i.e., a partial object. Hence, to give examples of punctum is, in a certain fashion, to give myself up.

Here is a family of American blacks, photographed in 1926 by James Van der Zee. The studium is clear: I am sympathetically interested, as a docile cultural subject, in what the photograph has to say, for it speaks (it is a "good" photograph): it utters respectability, family life, conformism, Sunday best, an effort of social advancement in order to assume the White Man's attributes (an effort touching by reason of its naïvete) . The spectacle interests me but does not prick me. What does, strange to say, is the belt worn low by the sister ( or daughter )-the "solacing Mammy"-whose arms are crossed behind her back like a schoolgirl, and above all her strapped pumps ( Mary Janes - why does this dated fashion touch me? I mean: to what date does it refer me?). This particular punctum arouses great sympathy in me, almost a kind of tenderness. Yet the punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste: the punctum can be ill-bred.

Kertesz, in 1926, took young Tzara's portrait (with a monocle); but what I notice, by that additional vision which is in a sense the gift, the grace of the punctum, is Tzara's hand resting on the door frame: a large hand whose nails are anything but clean.

However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion. This power is often metonymic. There is a photograph by Kertesz (1921) which shows a blind gypsy violinist being led by a boy; now what I see, by means of this "thinking eye" which makes me add something to the photograph, is the dirt road; its texture gives me the certainty of being in Central Europe; I perceive the referent (here, the photograph really transcends itself: is this not the sole proof of its art? To annihilate itself as medium, to be no longer a sign but the thing itself? I recognise, with my whole body, the straggling villages I passed through on my long-ago travels in Hungary and Rumania.

There is another (less Proustian) expansion of the punctum: when, paradoxically, while remaining a "detail," it fills the whole picture. Duane Michals has photographed Andy Warhol: a provocative portrait, since Warhol hides his face behind both hands. I have no desire to comment intellectually on this game of hide-and-seek ( which belongs to the studium); since for me, Warhol hides nothing; he offers his hands to read, quite openly; and the punctum is not the gesture but the slightly repellent substance of those spatulate nails, at once soft and hard-edged.

20 47 Involuntary Feature

Certain details may "prick" me. If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally. In William Klein's "Shmohiera, Fighter Painter" ( 1961), the character's monstrous head has nothing to say to me because I can see so clearly that it is an artifice of the camera angle. Some soldiers with nuns behind them served as an example to explain what the punctum was for me ( here, quite elementary) ; but when Bruce Gilden photographs a nun and some drag queens together (New Orleans, 1973), the deliberate ( not to say, rhetorical) contrast produces no effect on me, except perhaps one of irritation.

21 49 Satori

A strange thing: the virtuous gesture which seizes upon "docile" photographs ( those invested by a simple studium) is an idle gesture ( to leaf through, to glance quickly and desultorily, to linger, then to hurry on); on the contrary, the reading of the punctum ( of the pricked photograph, so to speak) is at once brief and active. A trick of vocabulary: we say "to develop a photograph"; but what the chemical reaction develops is undevelopable, an essence (of a wound), what cannot be transformed but only repeated under the instances of insistence ( of the insistence gaze).

22 51 After-the-Fact and Silence

The studium is ultimately always coded, the punctum is not (I trust I am not using these words abusively). Nadar, in his time (1882), photographed Savorgnan de Brazza between two young blacks dressed as French sailors; one of the two boys, oddly, has rested his hand on Brazza's thigh; this incongruous gesture is bound to arrest my gaze, to constitute a punctum. And yet it is not one, for I immediately code the posture, whether I want to or not, as "aberrant" (for me, the punctum is the other boy's crossed arms). What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.

Nothing surprising, then, if sometimes, despite its clarity, the punctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect, the punctum. Reading Van der Zee's photograph, I thought I had discerned what moved me: the strapped pumps of the black woman in her Sunday best; but this photograph has worked within me, and later on I realized that the real punctum was the necklace she was wearing; for ( no doubt) it was this same necklace ( a slender ribbon of braided gold) which I had seen worn by someone in my own family, and which, once she died, remained shut up in a family box of old jewellery ( this sister of my father never married, lived with her mother as an old maid, and I had always been saddened whenever I thought of her dreary life). I had just realized that however immediate and incisive it was, the punctum could accommodate a certain latency ( but never any scrutiny).

Ultimately - or at the limit - in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. "The necessary condition for an image is sight," Janouch told Kafka;· and Kafka smiled and replied: "We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes." The photograph must be silent ( there are blustering photographs, and I don't like them): this is not a question of discretion, but of music. Absolute subjectivity is achieved only in a state, an effort, of silence ( shutting your eyes is to make the image speak in silence). The photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: "Technique," "Reality," "Reportage," "Art," etc.: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.

23 55 Blind Field

Last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.

Now, confronting millions of photographs, including those which have a good studium, I sense no blind field: everything which happens within the frame dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond. When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies. Yet once there is a punctum, a blind field is created ( i.e. divined) : on account of her necklace, the black woman in her Sunday best has had, for me, a whole life external to her portrait; Robert Wilson, endowed with an unlocatable punctum, is someone I want to meet.

Here is Queen Victoria photographed in 1863 by George W. Wilson; she is on horseback, her skirt suitably draping the entire animal ( this is the historical interest, the studium) ; but beside her, attracting my eyes, a kilted groom holds the horse's bridle: this is the punctum; for even if I do not know just what the social status of this Scotsman may be (servant? equerry?), I can see his function clearly: to supervise the horse's behavior: what if the horse suddenly began to rear? What would happen to the queen's skirt, i.e. to her majesty? The punctum fantastically "brings out" the Victorian nature (what else can one call it?) of the photograph, it endows this photograph with a blind field.

The presence ( the dynamics) of this blind field is, I believe, what distinguishes the erotic photograph from the pornographic photograph. Pornography ordinarily represents the sexual organs, making them into a motionless object (a fetish), flattered like an idol that does not leave its niche; for me, there is no punctum in the pornographic image; at most it amuses me ( and even then, boredom follows quickly). The erotic photograph, on the contrary ( and this is its very condition) , does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate this photograph and that it animates me. The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond - as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward "the rest" of the nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together.

24 60 Palinode


25 63 "One evening . . ."
26 64 HiJtory as Separation
27 65 To Recognize
28 67 The Winter Garden Photograph
29 71 The Little Girl
30   Ariadne
31 74 The Family, the Mother
33 78 The Pose
34 80 The Lttminous Rays, Color
35 82 Amazement

The Photograph does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished ( by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed. Now, this is a strictly scandalous effect.

36 85 Authentication
37 89 Stasis
38 92 Flat Death
39 94 Time as PUNCTUM

At the time (at the beginning of this book: already far away) when I was inquiring into my attachment to certain photographs, I thought I could distinguish a field of cultural interest ( the studium) from that unexpected flash which sometimes crosses this field and which I called the punctum. I now know that there exists another punctum ( another "stigmatum") than the "detail." This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme ("that-has-been"), its pure representation. In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.

This punctum, more or less blurred beneath the abundance and the disparity of contemporary photographs, is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die.

40 97 Private/Public
41 99 To Scrutinize
42 100 Resemblance
43 103 Lineage
45 107 The "Air"
46 111 The Look
47 115 Madness, Pity

I then realized that there was a sort of link ( or knot) between Photography, madness, and something whose name I did not know. I began by calling it: the pangs of love. Was I not, in fact, in love with the Fellini automaton? Is one not in love with certain photographs? (Looking at some photographs of the Proustian world, I fall in love with Julia Bartet, with the Due de Guiche ... ) Yet it was not quite that. It was a broader current than a lover's sentiment. In the love stirred by Photography (by certain photographs) , another music is heard, its name oddly old-fashioned: Pity. I collected in a last thought the images which had "pricked" me (since this is the action of the punctum) , like that of the black woman with the gold necklace and the strapped pumps.

48 117 The Photograph Tamed
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Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Random House.

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography [online]. Available from [Accessed 30 April 2021].

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author (year) Title. Newspaper. Date. pages.

Page created 26-Apr-2021 | Page updated 15-Jun-2021