“A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent (as is the case for every other image, encumbered– from the start, and because of its status– by the way in which the object is simulated): it is not impossible to perceive the photographic signifier (certain professionals do so), but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection.”
-Roland Barthes in “Camera Lucida”
This past winter I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. One of the exhibitions hanging was a collection of work by Hiroshi Sugimoto, who specializes in large-scale black-and-white photography. I’d never been impressed by photographic exhibitions, but the scale, lushness, and elegance of his pieces blew me away. One of the rooms of the exhibition contained several photographic portraits of historical figures, such as Henry VIII. Here is the photograph “of” Henry VIII:
I put “of” in quotation marks because clearly, Sugimoto could not have photographed the actual king. The true object of the quoted preposition is a wax reproduction, which itself was based on paintings made by Hans Holbein in the 16th century. Sugimoto arranged and posed this wax object to be the subject of his photograph.
While this photograph and the method by which it was made reminds me of Antonino’s arranging of Bice in “Adventures of a Photographer,” it also reflects Barthes’ musings about how one cannot separate the photograph from its referent. I suppose the point Barthes is making here is that there is no photograph without the referent– unlike a painting, which can exist as simply paint on a board without a subject, if one equates the subject with the referent. The referent of Sugimoto’s photograph, which references in composition and style not only the posed photographic portraits of important figures (important by virtue of being photographed in such a manner, perhaps), but also the painted portraits done in the traditional manner dating back to the 16th century and earlier, is not Henry VIII, as our typical viewing of such a photograph would lead us to assume, but a wax figure based on another man’s paintings. What does it mean that the referent of Sugimoto’s photo is a collection of historical references– wax figure; Holbein’s paintings; formal, traditional pose and composition– rather than a “real” man?
To quote Sugimoto himself: “If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, perhaps you should reconsider what it means to be alive here and now.”
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— by mechanicalrivers
“I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science, it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.” (Barthes, 73)
One thing I find fascinating about photography is its ability to bring people together while absolutely seperating them at the same time. For example, a photograph of the Holocaust would allow a group to, as a whole, lament on the sadness of the situation, yet at the same time, each would be seperated from the others by past experiences and personal beliefs. One person might have a great grandfather who died in a concentration camp, causing feelings of deep sorrow and connection, while another might have had a great uncle who was a Nazi, and therefore emits feelings of shame as well as sorrow.
The photograph I chose was one that I took myself. As Barthes states, there is no way that anyone will understand, truly, what this photograph is, other than myself. Because of this, I felt that my own photograph had to be chosen to represent this quote, because I could in no way claim to fully understand the photograph of anyone else. Others may observe that it is a rather pretty sunset over the lights of a city, most likely taken from a high point. Perhaps a mental connection to other pretty sunsets that they themselves have experienced will bring about a feeling of unity. People from my town may perhaps guess that it was taken at the Pagoda, a landmark that represents our city, being that it is one of the highest points in the area. They might feel a heartening connection to where they came from, perhaps pride, with personal memories of the Pagoda floating in their minds. No one else, of course, would recall the biting cold and harsh winds that I had to brave to snap this photograph. The feeling of being above a city full of people is mine, and mine alone to cherish. My emotional connection to the photograph includes that it was my first time at the Pagoda since I was a young child, and that I was there with my boyfriend of 4 years; we, alone at the Pagoda, experienced the moment in time that the photograph captured.
I am not saying that no one else can appreciate the photograph in any way, but as no one has experienced it like I did, they can never fully appreciate it. The visual pleasure of the photograph can be shared by many, the studium, but the emotional connection, though I would not call it a wound in this case, is not to be understood by anyone else.
Though I suppose that in photographs one is supposed to focus on the picture, not the situation in which it was taken, it is not really a fair seperation if one wishes to fully comprehend the photograph. Though I agree that because no one else experienced it, no one else can fully understand it, I do not believe that the only pleasure anyone can derive from it is merely from the studium. Everyone has their own memories that they can attach, which is why photography, though so personal, can be used so publically.
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In researching the texts I plan to discuss for my final paper, I came across this essay by Sandra Kemp entitled “‘Myra, Myra on the wall’: The fascination of faces.” In it, Kemp discusses image, identity, and desire in relation to photography. She analyzes several literary texts, including Camera Lucia and “Veronica’s Shrouds” to compare the iconographic images of Princess Diana and Myra Hindley. It’s very long and, in my opinion, not very concise in terms of what exactly her point is (the essay reads more like a series of valid, interesting, but ultimately incohesive points– or maybe I was in over my head), but the references that she makes to literary texts, actual photographs, and the words of other people who have thought about photography and identity, and the analysis of said references, provoke much thought. It’s worth a read, or at least a quick once-over.
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While reading both Calvino and Barthes’ thoughts on photography, I began seeing photography as an intrusion. I had always thought that photography captured moments to be remembered forever, but the more I read the more confused I became about my stance on photography. Barthes writes that photography is not actually capturing a moment, but killing it. A photo can never fully encompass any moment or personal identity and therefore photographs may actually hinder your memory of events or people.
I had never really thought of photos this way before, but once I started to it reminded me of this summer. It was my last summer with all my highschool friends before each of us headed in different direction toward our college of choice. I felt as though I had so much fun and experienced so much during this summer, but when I started packing for college I realized I had almost no photographs, nothing to show for such a great summer. This upset me as I thought, “Will i forget everything that has happened, will I even start to forget what my friends were like.” Now I realize, however, that I was just being stupid and emotional and think that not having any photos may have actually helped my memory of the summer, just as Barthes states. I know that all I have of the summer is my memories so I work harder to keep them, and knowing my memories are the only souvenirs I have of the summer almos makes them even more special.
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One of the most engaging ways to read a piece of literature is to discover connections and differences between yourself and a character. One theme that quickly emerges is the power of one’s love for a parent. This is where the camera comes in, as it is photography that can eternalize a loved one. To accentuate the passion with which Barthes views photographs of his mother with, two concepts are brought to light, which are studium and punctum. Studium is defined as “a general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity” (Barthes 26). To give an example, this refers to a photograph that one likes, but doesn’t love. The other concept is punctum, which “is that accident that pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Barthes 27). Therefore, punctum invokes stronger emotions, such as love, in viewers of photography.
In Part 2 of Barthes’ grief process, it is clear that the author achieves a sense of punctum upon examining photography of his late mother. One picture in particular stands out in Barthes’ soul, which is referred to as the Winter Garden Photograph. The philosopher leaves no doubt as to the presence of punctum when he says “the Winter Garden Photograph was indeed essential, it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being” (Barthes 71). For once Barthes feels a sense of satisfaction, as not just his mother’s physical attributes are shown, but insights are given as to what made her “unique” as a person. After all, Roland Barthes doesn’t just desire the return of his mother’s body, but the return of his mother’s mind, spirit, heart, and soul. For Barthes, photography unlocks love for a parent.
I can relate to Barthes insomuch that I can only rely on photography to see a parent. In my case, there is one photograph of a father who I haven’t seen or spoken to in over a decade and a half. To bend from the author, I don’t feel punctum from peering at the picture. This is not to say that I don’t like my father, nor is it to say that I never want to see him again. I would characterize the picture as giving me a sense of studium. Unlike Barthes, I never got to know the photographed parent very well, which prevents me from feeling outright love toward the photograph. The photograph is a very basic, pocket-sized, color illustration that has not been touched up using technology. I look at it occasionally and astonish myself at the half of my heritage that I can’t interact with or see in person. Also in contrast to Roland , I don’t feel as though I can delve into the mind of my father through the snapshot. To toss out a banal phrase, I don’t believe in judging a book by its cover. In otherwords, this photo brings out his physical “identity,” but not his “truth.” This could also explain why I can’t feel a sense of punctum. Like Roland Barthes, I have to rely on a photograph to learn about one of my parents.
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“The photograph is like old age: even in its splendor, it disincarnates the face, manifests its genetic essence.”
-Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida
Upon reading this quote, I thought of a photograph that I took about a year ago on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. An old man with aged skin and penetrating eyes sat on the steps and smoked his cigar. For that moment, I was captivated by the wisdom this man encompassed through his stare alone. I wanted to know everything that man would have to say to a teenager like myself. Would he amuse me with stories of his long gone childhood, or reference a magnitude of books throughout our conversation. Once I came to my senses, my immediate desire was to capture this man’s wisdom through the lens of my camera. After creating the most fitting composition for this man, the shutter closed and killed this man, froze him right before he took a drag of his cigar.
I attempted to do exactly what Barthes was saying could never be done. I took a photo of this man in hopes of capturing his wisdom. This makes me think of Antonino’s attempt to capture Bice’s essence through his lens, in Calvino’s Adventures of a Photographer. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in my attempt and ultimately killed the moment and the memory for this man and myself. I was unsatisfied with my photograph as he was interrupted by my stare. After that moment, I made a promise to myself to experience before capturing. This was not an attempt for me to swear off photography, just a reminder to lower the camera from my eye and see the world through my perspective rather than the filter of the lens. I have decided to follow this pattern: see, experience, capture, kill. This way, my destruction of the moment is excused by my willingness to experience the moment before-hand.
By Cana Sarnes
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“This fatality (no photograph without something or someone) involves photography in the vast disorder of objects-of all the objects in the world: why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other? Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences;”
-Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
The photograph I chose reflects Barthes’s thoughts on the confusion of what makes an object worthwhile to photograph. There are various objects, construed randomly throughout the photo, yet each one is of equal importance. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint any one of the objects significance though. Why one object or moment in time is photographed and why another is not is at the core of Barthes’ question. This is also a question that Antonio tries to answer in “Adventures of a Photographer,” but it is hard to say whether or not he comes up with a sufficient answer.
However, it is generally true that when a photographer devotes his or her time to taking a photo of an object, they must think it is somewhat important. Thus choosing something to photograph is completely subjective and up to the person taking the picture. What one person might see as meaningful may be viewed by another as inconsequential. Photography is also a way to communicate with others and raise questions, so in photographing an object one may be trying to illicit a response or reaction. Simply photographing something does not give it any importance, but it does provide a glimpse into some of the photographers views and what they wan to share with the world.
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