Love and the Lens

14Nov06

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. 

Andy

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One Response to “Love and the Lens”

  1. 1 mkg

    That’s a powerful post, Andy. We’ll be talking about Barthes’s concept of the studium and the punctum in class tomorrow, but I think that you’re exactly right that Barthes’s exploration of photography emerges from the realm of personal experience. One of the things we’ll want to consider is how that grounding in individual, idiosyncratic experience suggests an alternative to traditional interpretations of photography, which have often emphasized the universal, transcendent aspects of the medium. It’s a tension worth exploring and thinking about on several different levels. This is a good start.


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