Camera Lucida – Roland Barthes

In his book “Camera Lucida”, Roland Barthes asks himself what gives a photograph impact. Why do some photographs command our attention while other just do not draw us so powerfully, even though we may still recognise an interesting subject and/or technical qualities in them?

Barthes believes that a photograph talks to is viewer using ‘two languages, one expressive, the other critical’ (p20). What he calls ‘expressive’ is what I call ‘intuitive’. He goes on to define to define the specific discourse of the photograph within those two languages.

The ‘studium’ is the appeal of a photograph on a critical level, the way it can grab a viewer’s attention on a cultural level, mediated by moral, cultural and political references.

The ‘punctum’ is something, often a small detail in the photograph, that disturbs the neat interpretative order offered by the ‘studium’, thus creating ambiguity and different levels of reading. A photograph without this ‘punctum’ only has one level of reading, whereas the punctum brings a ‘duality of language’ to a photograph. For the punctum to work, it must not be a too obvious contrast within the photograph, but rather a surreptitious detail. Something elusive enough so that the viewer cannot easily name it or explain it. For Barthes, the impossibility to name something is ‘the best symptom of the feeling of uneasiness.’

I find that Barthes concern with ambiguity and different level of meanings is similar to what interests me in particular artworks.

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