When his mother died, French cultural theorist Roland Barthes found consolation in a picture of her as a child and, taking the picture as his starting point, in writing an essay about photography. The essay, published in 1980 as La Chambre claire (Camera Lucida, 1981), stands alongside Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Walter Benjamin’s Kleine Geschichte der Photographie (1931; A Short History of Photography, 1972) from almost 50 years prior as one of the standard works of photography theory.
Barthes described the photograph as ‘the living image of a dead thing.’ This was something that it shared in common with the painting, which had originated – as documented by ancient Egyptian funerary objects – in portraits of the dead. But what was unique to the photograph, according to Barthes, was its punctum, which he defined as the sensory, intensely subjective effect of a photograph on the viewer: ‘The punctum of a photograph is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).’ Barthes contrasted the punctum with the studium denoting a general approach to a photograph that is conditioned by historical and cultural experiences and is not categorically different from how other art forms are approached. Several generations of writers have since reflected on and speculated about the significance of the punctum for photography’s theoretical interpretations without arriving at any consensus.
For his first exhibition Punctum. Reflections on Photography, Séamus Kealy, the new director of the Salzburger Kunstverein, asked 50 artists and theorists to each select one photograph and write a brief text explaining the reasons for its selection. The exhibition aimed to examine to what extent the concept of the punctum, developed in an era of analogue photography, is still viable in today’s digital age. Most of the 50 photographs appeared at first glance as impersonal and anonymous and almost insufferably nostalgic: the majority of them black and white.
Only under closer observation and with recourse to the accompanying texts did exceptions begin to stand out. Felix Gmelin’s was a highly personal selection, choosing a screenshot of his 84-year-old mother from a Skype conversation (Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 21.41.58, 2014).
Only the top of her grey-haired head is visible. This was one of the few photographs in the exhibition that engaged with the present era and brought digitization into play. The photography theorist Doina Popescu selected a black and white abstract image of an radiating shape photographed by the artist Spring Hurlbut (Deuil II: James #5, 2008), depicting the ashes of Hurlbut’s dead father. Another abstract photograph was similarly auratic: Rabih Mroué’s contribution showed a white expanse flanked by black columns. The picture was taken by an unknown photographer in Syria in 2009. The accompanying text didn’t provide justification for the image in a strict sense, but rather Mroué’s personal feelings arising from it: ‘I wonder if I ever saw that white; a white with neither past, nor present, nor future.’
This example made apparent just how anxious most of the other accompanying texts were. Many tried to theoretically justify images that were in a lot of cases relatively insignificant. Very few of the contributors dared to put into words what captivated them personally about the images. Duncan Campbell, for example, chose to praise his selected photograph, Willie Doherty’s Incident (1993) for, of all things, its documentary content. This encapsulated the problem of the exhibition: paradoxically many of the photographs would in Barthes’ terms belong to the category of studium – documentary photographs selected out of intellectual considerations. In too few cases was a sensory relationship to the photograph evident. And this was what ultimately made the exhibition rather insipid.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 17