to be or not to be… and then to be
The theme set for this week of studies was ‘Interdisciplinary Approaches’. In this, the second post related to my studies at Falmouth, I would like to reflect on the terms studium and punctum as presented by Roland Barthes in his book ‘Camera Lucida’ and attempt to show how these two terms can help inform and establish interdisciplinary practices between photography and my other beloved: painting.
Let me start by asking you, my gentle reader, to ponder on the image featured above (by Niépce. 1826 or 1827. Point de vue du Gras), which is purported to be the oldest known photographic image produced by a camera.
Let us now try to come up with a plausible scenario of how events unfolded on that faithful day when this image was taken.
We can start by imagining the creator of this image having just put the last finishing touches to his photographic apparatus and now readying himself to test his new invention. He is fully aware of the technical limitations of his technology and has therefore placed the apparatus in front of a window in his house that looks out onto a dull and prosaic vista of the neighbourhood settlements. This decision of his to place the apparatus in front of a window is incentivised by the fact that a long exposure time is required; and the light streaming in through the window will allow a good exposure. He is now set and can therefore start exposing his light-sensitive plate.
Let’s stop here and move forward to the present time. I will construct another scenario, this time less fictitious, as it involves me being the subject, that narrates my feelings and thoughts as I set my eyes for the first time on this photographic image.
When I stumbled upon this image on the Internet, I knew not that this was the oldest known photographic image produced by a camera, and the quality of the image struck me as rather poor. Yet something about this image kept nagging at the back of my mind. Was it the eeriness of the light that shrouded this image? Or was it the angularity of the buildings that looked surreal and seemingly lifted from a long gone past? It was, I discovered later, the act of looking at the image itself which was so captivating and alluring. I looked at the image over and over again, and each time I had the same sensation of being drawn through a black hole and suddenly being spat out onto a vista, desolate and grim, lit by a weak and fragile light. The image in this photo is impenetrable, frozen – what we see when we look at this photo is what the lens saw as it stood in front of that window that looked out onto that desolate and grim view.
But isn’t this the case with all lens-based photography? Aren’t we always seeing through the perspective of the lens used to take the photo? I surely think this is so, but it is the disinterested feeling that permeates this image that makes it so peculiar and different to all kinds of other photographic images, past or present.
How do I explain what I mean by describing the above photo as disinterested? Let us return to our first scenario, that narrated the hypothetical events that occurred on the day that led to the creation of this image.
The creator carefully removes the light-sensitive plate from the apparatus and, there, behold, the first photographic image produced by a camera! Now where were his intentions all along during this ordeal in creating the first photographic image? Surely, any preconceptions with the formal aesthetic qualities the resultant image would come to bear were either completely unknown to him, and in that case not thought of before the start of the exposure, or, even more plausibly, irrelevant at that stage. His decisions during this laborious process were informed by the technical limitations of the medium and directed accordingly. The exposure time, we are told (and this is now factual, not hypothetical), was very long, and this would have surely hindered the creator from, for example, taking the apparatus out onto the street and exposing the plate there. It was also fitting, maybe, that the first photographic image produced by a camera be rendered inside a private abode, away from the prying eyes of the world that was readying itself to steal his invention away from him. Yet he still needed to extract from that world that magical ingredient that it alone could render his apparatus functional: light. And therefore he placed the apparatus in front of a window in his house. It is thus safe to presume, I believe, that the creator of this image was not interested in any aesthetic accomplishments the ensuing photograph might be endowed with. His concern was to test and prove the success of his invention. The photograph he obtained was ‘the report’ affirming the efficacy of his invention – any artistic or aesthetic merit attributed to this photograph must surely be ulterior and arbitrary. It is in this sense that I venture to call this photo a disinterested photo.
This notion of the disinterested photo seems to ally itself with Barthes’ notion of the studium, which he explains thus: “[the studium] has the extension of a field, which I perceive quite familiarly as a consequence of my knowledge, my culture; this field can be more or less stylised, more or less successful, depending on the photographer’s skill or luck, but it always refers to a classical body of information: rebellion, Nicaragua, and all the signs of both: wretched un-uniformed soldiers, ruined streets, corpses, grief, the sun, and the heavy-lidded Indian eyes. Thousands of photographs consist of this field, and in these photographs I can, of course, take a kind of general interest, one that is even stirred sometimes, but in regard to them my emotion requires the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture” (in WELLS 2019: 25). Barthes contrasts the studium with a second element, the punctum, which he describes as “this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me” (Ibid. 25-6).
The above photo, which I have described as disinterested, seeing that its creator seemingly ignored, intentionally or not, all formal aesthetic qualities, he being more concerned with making and proving his invention successful, would be, according to Barthes’ own principles, “inert” (in WELLS 2019: 26). For what could be more inert than a poor quality photo showing the frail semblance of a desolate and grim vista, lit by a weak and fragile light?
Yet, I can vouch from my own experience of looking at this image, which I have narrated previously in the second (less hypothetical) scenario I laid out, that this image is anything but inert!
My experience of the image is unitary and it is only through the spoken or written word that I can invent, explain and, to a certain degree, induce belief in my interlocutors or readers in a dichotomy.
How does the refutation of the dichotomy studium and punctum inform and establish interdisciplinary practices between photography and painting? When it dawns upon us that perception is unitary (and it is even interesting to add at this point that contrary to common belief this unity is even maintained in our spoken and written words), then we can fruitfully venture to truly discipline ourselves and craft our images with artistry – a venture, let it be said, that will remain undecidedly hopeless should we strain to maintain this dichotomy and hold ourselves on that perilous edge looking onto oblivion whose ground is ironically enough propped up by the mighty punctum itself.
After the breakthrough that came about with the invention of photography had cooled off, the concern with the apparatus itself could be let to subside and an interest in the image itself made to germinate. Photographers freed from the concern with the apparatus could now concentrate on the formal aesthetic qualities involved in the making of photographic images, qualities which they had already witnessed and studied by looking at and examining paintings.
Merleu-Ponty states: “My own words take me by surprise and teach me what to think” (cited in BENNETT & ROYLE 2015: 122). In a similar vein, we learn to draw before we learn to see proper; and in learning to draw, we teach ourselves how to see the world right.
BENNETT, Andrew and ROYLE, Nicholas. 2015. This Thing Called Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. Oxon and New York: Routledge.
WELLS, Liz. (ed.) 2019. The Photography Reader. 2nd edn. Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. 1826 or 1827. Point de vue du Gras. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras,_Joseph_Nicéphore_Niépce.jpg [accessed 8 February 2019].