Yes, yes, we're still stamping around in this same swamp. Barthes, despite his flaws, seems to have been one of the few people who have thought seriously about how photographs actually work. So, you know, interested.
First, as is my habit, let me clear a little underbrush. Part 1 of this book is
where all the studium and punctum business that nobody understands
is. At the end of Part 1, Barthes wraps up with a very short chapter which says, in
effect, "yeah well, not so much. this doesn't get to the essentials, so now I will
make my recantation, my palinode." A palinode is a poem that retracts a previous poem.
He's not saying that studium, punctum, and blind field are all
wrong, but he's definitely saying they're not the answer. So he wrote a whole second half
of this damned book about other stuff, which nobody every seems to mention. The second
half is where the so-called "Winter Garden" photo appears, the possibly fictional photo
of his mother and uncle as children, taken in a conservatory.
As an aside, it is notable that mostly we don't even see blind field referred
to, despite the fact that inducing it is literally the definition of punctum. My
working theory is that almost nobody has made it to Chapter 23 of the book (which has 48
chapters) let alone all the way to Part 2.
The standard take on Part 2 is to interpret Barthes' ecstatic reaction to this photo, in
which reaction he finds his mother's true essence, as one of punctum and
to pretty much stop there. This is not only incomplete, it's simply wrong,
as we shall see. He's talking about something else.
The more sophisticated readers will drone on a bit about Death, because Barthes
does talk something about Death in this section, and while that's probably not
wrong, there's rather more going on here.
So, what is going on, smartass? Glad you asked!
The essential thing a photograph does is this: it testifies that something was
there, and that someone saw it. It does nothing else but that. I photograph
a can of beer, you see the photograph; you have no idea where the beer is now
(you can probably guess, if you know me, but you don't know). You know that
there was a can of beer, and that the photographer saw it.
This is very much absolute. Yes yes photoshop, I've heard. Also trick photos, etc.
The point is that those are the exceptions. The photograph's testimony of
that-has-been is far more definite than anything else we have. If I tell
you about the can, if I write about it, if I paint it, draw it, if you recall it,
etc, none of those have the same weight or the same character as a photograph of
the same can.
Throughout, Barthes is comparing History with Religion, although you have to pay attention
to notice the Religion. Much of the material about Death is actually Religion in disguise.
Religion, as I see it, is a stand-in for a greater/older culture that is built on myth,
story, song, tradition, and so on.
500 years ago, we understood ourselves as people by way of these latter things. We had
songs and epic poems and traditions. We had religion. We had stories. These things
mutated and evolved. They lived. Some of the material was frankly squishy, some
of it was pretty darn firm, but even the firm stuff you might dress up the stories with
some local color. We're goat people around here, so let's make the Sermon on the Mount
have some goat people in the crowd. The guys in the next valley raise sheep, so their
priest chucks in shepherds from time to time. The stories live even if we're very
particular about, for example, the exact words Jesus spoke.
At some point History comes along, and now we're dotting tees and crossing eyes that
previously needed no such decorations. While History is framed this way or that depending
on fashion and necessity, once framed the details are filled in statically, in a way
that does not live in the same way.
Folk singers are less likely to extemporize, and more likely to give us a period-correct
rendering of the version from 1798, and possibly get involved in fistfights about
the ordering of verses.
History pins our understanding of ourselves as a people, as a culture, a little like
butterflies in a display case. The whole point is to nail it down and render it as
certain and immobile as possible, to render it lifeless. History replaces
culture, and religion. Or rather it subsumes them. There's a fair bit of religion around,
but we're rather oddly consumed with it as history considering that it is by its
very nature mystical.
In the same way, the photograph consumes our personal understanding of ourself, ourselves,
Once, our families were built on traditions about grandmother's grandmother and the story
of the badger. Was it really grandmother's grandmother, or has a generation been inserted
or deleted somewhere? Was there really a badger, or is it really a mashup of two
stories, one involving a cat and the other a skunk? Who cares? The point is, our family
histories lived, and stretched back, back, back in a living braid of story.
Now we have a photograph of great-grandma, and her name is pencilled on the back, and that
is the end of it. When the photo gets lost, great-grand is also lost.
Both History and The Photograph behave the same way, and for the same reason: they are definite,
they are certain. They cut off all possibility of change, or evolution, and thus render lifeless
and exact what was once inexact and living.
Ok, so that's Barthes' point, and he's not wrong. It might be a bit dramatic, but there it is.
So what's the deal with this Winter Garden Photo?
There is a thing, Barthes suggests, that can happen in a portrait. It is analogous to
punctum but he doesn't call it that so we can reasonably assume that whatever
it is, it's not punctum.
The effect of this thing is an inversion of punctum's effect. The punctum
spontaneously generates a kind of ecstatic direct access to a belief in the larger world
that surrounds the photo; the punctum causes our visceral understanding of the
photo to abruptly, ecstatically, expand outwards past the edges of the frame, through time and
space. This other property causes the inverse effect, although with the same ecstatic,
visceral, violence: we believe in, we perceive the essential character of the
subject of the portrait. It is an expansion inwards, rather than outwards, an inversion.
Barthes sees his mother's essential nature in the Winter Garden Photo. He exclaims "there she is!"
is what I think simply has to be a sly reference to "Ecce Homo!"
He insists that the photograph is not resurrection, even metaphorically, it is purely reference
to what was. A portrait, indeed, does the opposite of resurrect, it directly implies the Death
of the subject. They were, that is all.
This new property Barthes has invented he called air which seems to mean exactly the same
in French as in English. It's "air" in the sense of "manner" more or less, but with a more
mystical nature (of course.)
It is the air of his mother in the photo that transmutes a basic
that-has-been (and now she's
dead) into there-she-is! (Ecce Homo!)
For those of you in the know, or who have googled it, "Ecce Homo!" (See, the man!) is what Pilate says when
he presents Jesus to the mob, and we all know what happens to Jesus.
The Winter Garden Photo bridges the worlds of History and Religion. It is a dead,
static, incontrovertible testimonial to the effect that once a little girl stood with
her brother on a little bridge in a conservatory, and that someone saw her, and that
she is probably dead by now. It is simultaneously a metaphorical resurrection of that
same little girl, Barthes' mother, a myth of his mother, a legend, a song, a poem of
his mother. It is a memory of her, that visceral living thing we keep inside
and which is, all too often, killed by the literal, intractable, unarguable, testimony
of the photograph.
This, says Barthes, is madness.
At this point, I must say, he seems to open himself to the possibility that this kind
of bridging is possible with more photos, or perhaps even with all photos. We don't allow
it, because we reject madness, and so we neuter photographs and retreat to the banal,
to the mere that-has-been testimony of the things as Art, or as bland and endless
There is an analogy here with Part 1, and I suppose you could describe Part 2 as
an expansion on Part 1, but I think it is in fact different material.
The that-has-been testimony is the normal operation of a photo, it's what it
does. You could say that this is kind of like studium, that also being the
normal operation. They are both normal operations but on, as it were, different
planes of operation. The testimony is what the photo is in its essence,
but the studium is really what you, the viewer, do in response.
You could argue that air is a kind of punctum except that the effects
of each are inverses of one another.
Finally, blind field is kind of like that direct perception of a person's
essence, induced by air.
There is a fair analogy here, but these are not the same things in any meaningful way.
What do I think of all this?
Well, for starters I think it's important to keep in mind the extremely limited frame
he's set himself within. He's investigating this whole thing purely, willfully, and
explicitly, in terms of his own reactions, his own sensation, his own perceptions
of things. He is not, for example, trying to make sense of these things in neurological
terms, or in terms of Art History, or some sort of generalized theory of perception.
In some sense, we kind of have to grant him whatever he sees, then. If this is what
he experiences, well, that that's what he experiences, no?
On the other hand, his experiences do not seem to generalize. These ecstatic,
visceral, responses seem to be an exclusively Barthesian thing.
My take is that he has both punctum and air upside down. He views them
as disturbances to, as additions to, the normal operation of the photograph in one
sense or another.
My position is that the normal operation of the photograph as a social, cultural,
visual actor is almost exactly the effect he ascribes to punctum and to
air, minus the ecstasy and violence.
It is certainly true that the photograph, in its nature, only testifies to
that-has-been and it is true that we read photos in terms of cultural codes,
we make sense of them in terms of the ways things we see mean in our social
context, and our own ideas of culture, etc, (studium.) So, he's right about
those, but these are not particularly relevant.
What is relevant, to both me and, I maintain, to Barthes, is that we believe
the photo first. Our first response is that visceral one, where we believe in
the blind field, where we believe we see the character and essence of
the subject of the portrait. Both the outward and inward expansions of the photograph
are normal, baseline. They are acts of imagination which we perform without thinking.
These somatic reactions, these nearly biological reactions are the basis, and it is
the reading of cultural codes, the recognition of the static, fixed, testimony
of the picture, and all that other machinery which disturbs that. The studium,
if you will overrides, obliterates, the effect of the punctum which was already
So in some sense I agree with Barthes. I agree, in general, that there are these
opposing effects going on, and the general shapes of them. Where we differ is in
the relationship between them, which ones are on top as it were. I also think we
have more control than Barthes seems to imagine. He seems to lean toward spasmodic
responses beyond our ken, beyond our ability to control, spontaneous and violent.
I, on the other hand, think that the somatic responses are not merely basic, underlying,
but can be recovered by the attentive reader. Yes, it's tempting to wander off into
the cultural meaning of the policeman's uniform, or the expensive shoes, or the
tumbled-down house and the un-mowed lawn. One does that kind of thing. It's tempting
to fade away from the reality of the scene, and to consume a photo as merely banal
media. Another celebrity, another riot, another dog, ho hum.
We can choose to recover the visceral reality of the thing, the sense of knowing
the scene, of knowing the person, if only we consciously reach for it. We can set
aside the banal, the static, the cultural, and find that living, breathing, beating
heart of what is in the picture, simply (I think) by taking a moment to look for it.
We know it's there, or we ought to, all we have to do is open our eyes for a moment.
The photograph is nothing more than testimony to that-has-been but that's
all it needs to be. We do the rest.