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and Barthes, Elkins ...

This page will never be finished but will often be tinkered with.

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This started life elsewhere. And see below.

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[25Apr21] The illusory E.J. Walsingham (n.d.) wrote,

I perceive the punctum as a vestigial organ or gland in the cortex, conceptually similar to the appendix or a tonsil. It is occasionally twanged by an experience that might be visual, aural, physical or of some other sensory nature. It resonates in response to the current stimulus and memory of past experiences or conditioning.

Barthes named it in the context of his reactions to a photograph of his late mother: Proust had a comparable reaction to certain biscuits [1]; in Waugh's Sebastian it is embodied by teddy bear.

The punctum probably also operates in response to first experiences that will become personally resonant, such as the visceral realisation of the importance of Beethoven (or Bowie, or gamelan, or whatever music possesses you). It might be where love and faith reside.

E.J. Walsingham Conversations with myself n.d.

The Punctum has always been there, as Fox Talbot implied in The pencil of nature (1844-46) when discussing the craft's charm. Barthes put a name to it in Camera Lucida (1980) and the European photo-cognoscenti adopted it [2] .

All it amounts to [3] is that viewers' interpretations will be influenced by their own experiences, attitudes and moods and in each case will be on a spectrum from the indifferent (Barthes, 1980, p.16) to the visceral. Barthes coined the terms punctum for the visceral and studium for some mid-point on the spectrum referred to by Batchen (2011, p.12) as "polite interest": Batchen quotes Barthes, "To recognise the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer's intentions" [that is contestable] a nd a strong reaction to an unintended aspect of the image is a sign of the punctum reaction.

The punctum can generate extreme personal reactions to particular photographs and that is why, as laGrange (2005) paraphrased Sue Sontag (1973) [4],

photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intention of the photographer Sontag, On Photography, quoted in La Grange (2005) p.37

And a similar, complementary but unnamed stimulus probably often drives the output of the photographer, whatever the purpose or meaning of the piece is intended or purported to be, remembering the Coplans dictum,

No other art form rivals photography’s capability to be meaningless, to topple into a void. As a hedge against vacuity, ambitious photographers cloak themselves in a knowledge of art. Coplans essay, Weegee the Famous, in Provocations (1966) pp.205-212

A punctonian reaction cannot exist in other visual art forms to the same extent — when the entire content of a painting (or work in another medium, Sontag's "fine-art objects") is decided, controlled and created by the artist, it is still possible for the viewer to obsess about an aspect of it in a way that the artist did not foresee, but that is a qualitatively different process from photo-punctumisation.
While the photographer may largely have control over sterile studio or still life photographs, elsewhere there can be objects in the image that the photographer does not control and may not even be aware of and thus are susceptible to charms such as Fox Talbot's "distant dial-plate". Sontag emphasises the contribution of the subject and the capricious nature of the "automated machine" and both factors loosen the photographer's grip on control, even before the "channel of transmission" (Barthes, ?) and the sensibilities of the viewer are taken into account.

It is possible that persons of age are generally more susceptible to punctum activation, in intensity, if not in frequency. This is, in all likelihood, due to them having a greater chance of intense past experiences (notably of loss), and thus more opportunity for a distractive association: Elkins takes the view that this is particularly prevalent when people feature in the image, "It's strange that so many photographs of people I have never known can be poignant" (2011, p.99).

To summarise, the photographer can expect, at the most, only partial control over any image they create and no control whatever over viewers' reactions to it.
Barthes coined the word punctum for a strong reaction to an image on the part of a viewer that was not anticipated by the photographer.

I have had a copy of Barthes' Camera Lucida for several decades and I think I read it when first acquired, but it left no lasting impression. The courses so far have all touched on the book but I have not felt ready to read it until now.

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

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). In my Barthes I have coloured all mentions of punctum and studium to aid the analysis that follows.

There is a pdf online of the whole book here.


1 Although Barthes mentions Proust several times in the text, he states in Chapter 35, "The Photograph does not call up the past ( nothing Proustian in a photograph)" (1980, p.82). I disagree. While A.D. Coleman (1967) stated accurately that "All photographs are fictions … [y]et most of them still pretend to a high degree of verisimilitude and transparency", they represent a version of an event, object or ?? in the past. More importantly, viewers' interpretations of photographs depend on their personal histories.

2 Fried (2008, p.96) says the US and GB, Dyer (2021, p.297) that its a Euro obsession. ADD TO THIS

3 I say "all", but of course viewers' reactions are vital to any photographer who wishes to show their work to the general public because it determines their success and their value. (The other major factor in the value equation is the venal manipulation of the market by galleries and dealers but this only affects a tiny proportion of photographers.)

4 I have been blithely touting the quotation for a couple of years, attributing it to Sontag and citing laGrange. To be more precise, laGrange writes,

… photographs do not seem strongly bound by the intentions of the photographer; they are created by '…a loose cooperation … between [the] photographer and subject - mediated by … [a] machine' (p. 53). La Grange, 2005, p.37

and Sontag actually wrote,

Unlike the fine-art objects of pre-democratic eras, photographs don't seem deeply beholden to the intentions of an artist. Rather, they owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject - mediated by an ever simpler and more automated machine, which is tireless, and which even when capricious can produce a result that is interesting and never entirely wrong. (The sales pitch for the first Kodak, in 1888, was: «You press the button, we do the rest." The purchaser was guaranteed that the picture would be «without any mistake.") In the fairy tale of photography the magic box insures veracity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience and rewards innocence. Sontag, 1973, p. 41

laGrange added the "the" and "a", I added the parentheses.


There is a pdf online of the whole book here.

[28Apr] Let's look at what Barthes meant by studium and punctum. But first we must define a few other terms he uses in his analysis:
unary — text
docile — text
docile interest — text
unary — text

come back to that

In Camera Lucida, Barthes expresses dissatisfaction with how photographs (and Photography) is (or was then) considered and described and takes it upon himself to explore new ways, "So I make myself the measure of photographic 'know ledge'" (s.4 p.9). He takes a back to basics approach,

I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices ( or of three emotions, or of three intentions) : to do,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 to 'spectacle' and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. Barthes, Camera Lucida, s.4 p.9

I'll call them Photographer, Viewer and (reluctantly, for now) Subject.

Of the three, B. can only speculate about the Photographer as he is not one and does not intend to start. He has experienced being photographed and is conscious of "posing", "I transform myself in advance into an image" (s.5 P.10)

But is the analysis and terminology of Photographs as Viewer that concerns B.

quote Barthes, Camera Lucida, s.x p.y


quote Barthes, Camera Lucida, s.x p.y


quote Barthes, Camera Lucida, s.x p.y


quote Barthes, Camera Lucida, s.x p.y


quote Barthes, Camera Lucida, s.x p.y


Hollelley - Freud





Elkins, J. (2011) What photography is. NY: Routledge.

[25Apr] Elkins is of a generation of photowriters that were rather obsessed with Barthes’ Camera Lucida — he names some others, "Liz Wells, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Rosalind Krauss, Joel Snyder, Geoffrey Batchen, Margaret Olin, Victor Burgin, Nancy Shawcross, Anne McCauley, Margaret Iverse" (Preface, p. viii) some of whom have contributed essays on the subject in Elkins' Photograph Theory (2007) and Batchen's Photography Degree Zero (2011).

The purpose of Elkins' What photography is is to chart his exploration of Barthes and the his search for photographs, or a form of photography that he can engage with to the same extent that Barthes likes that snap of his mum, but not using his punctum.
Elkins gradually dismisses various genres and practitioners while introducing a few photographs of his choosing. He begins with one of a selenite window (fig. A1), a translucent natural mineral used in a New Mexico village and a metaphor for photography that "promises a view of the world, but it gives us a flattened object in which wrecked reminders of the world are lodged" (p.17).

Elkins Elkins Elkins Elkins Elkins
Box A
1. Elkins, What photography is, front cover (Darwin's Rhea)
2. Selenite window, c. 1927
3. Kertesz, The Puppy, from Barthes Camera Lucida
4. Darwin's Rhea, c. 1924
5. Darwin's Rhea, detail
© the artists, their agents or their estates
img: 1-5 Elkins, 2011



Amongst the dismissals are:
Ruff, Gursky, Sugimoto and Dean (p. 77), Sally Mann (p.89)


[date] text




[date] text



This is where it started in C&N, or maybe EyV.

I haven't read Barthes' Camera Lucida for several decades, but I need to grasp his concepts of studium and punctum so I am hoping to come up with a management summary.

Barthes' text is a revered pronouncement within photographic criticism. It was prompted by the death of his mother and described by Brian Dillon in The Guardian as "an essay in 48 fragments" ([1] Dillon, 2011).

My sources here are originally pieces in the Guardian and the Telegraph, then two sections from C&N
Part 1 - photograph = message = a source of emission, a channel of transmission and a point of reception
Part 4 - Objective (translation, signifier, denoted, studium)
and Subjective (interpretation, signified, connoted, punctum)
plus intertextuality

Guardian and the Telegraph

According to Dillon (ibid.), the studium, "is the manifest subject, meaning and context of the photograph" and the punctum is, " that aspect (often a detail) of a photograph that holds our gaze".

In the Telegraph's Photography theory: a beginner's guide ([2] Bush et al., 2014), Tim Clark covers Barthes and offers similar definitions, elaborating on punctum as, "something intensely private, unexpected and thus indelible".

This writer offers:
studium - those objective aspects of a photograph about which most might agree (the "W"s);
punctum - the individual's personal, subjective, reactive triggers.

Part 1 of C&N

[2Dec19] I have used Barthes in Part 1 of C&N.

Barthes (in The Photographic Message (1961), included in Sontag's reader [3] and neatly summarised in Modrak's Reframing Photography [4, p.351]) refers to a news photograph as a message comprising three parts, "a source of emission, a channel of transmission and a point of reception" [3, p.194]:
the source is the photographer and the photo editor who selects the image and perhaps gives it a title;
the channel (in this example) is the newspaper itself, including any text associated accompanying the photograph, but also the nature of the newspaper (Barthes gives examples of "the very conservative L'Aurore [and] the Communist L'Humanité");
the point of reception is the public that read the paper.
And, as Modrak puts it, 'the "meaning" of the same photograph can vary widely depending on how and where it is seen and by whom' [4, p.355].


Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Random House.

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

Batchen, G. (2011) Photography Degree Zero. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

Bush, L., Clark, T., Hamilton, S., Smyth, D. (2014) Photography theory: a beginner's guide. The Telegraph 9 June. [online] Available from: [accessed 17 December 2018]

Coleman, A.D.(1967) introduction to Tress, A. Theater of the mind. NY: Morgan & Morgan.

Coplans, J. (1996) Provocations. London: London Projects

Dillon, B. (2011) Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. The Guardian. 26 March. [online] Available from: [accessed 17 December 2018]

Dyer, G. (2021) See/Saw, looking at photographs. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Elkins, J. (2011) What photography is. NY: Routledge.

Fox Talbot, W.H. (1844-46) The pencil of nature. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. Cited in Thompson, J.L. (2016) Why photography matters. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Fried, M. (2008) Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic critical theory for photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press.

Sontag, S. (1973) On photography. NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Sontag, S. (1983) Barthes: Selected Writings. London: Fontana.

Modrak, R. & Anthes, B (2011) Reframing photography: theory and practice. Oxford: Routledge.

Walsingham, E.J., (n.d.) Conversations with myself. Unpublished.

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

author (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author, (year) Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) title [online]. website. Available from url [Accessed nn January 2020].

author, (year) Book Title. Location: Publisher.

author (year) Title. Journal. Vol, pages.

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

Page created 17-Dec-2018 | Page updated 25-Dec-2023