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  • Raquel Rivas

The Studium & The Punctum.

I see lots of photos every day, everywhere; Some I remember, the majority just pass through my retina with not much to say, and just a very few sticks to me. Why some photos stand out and others just blend with the overall? What it is that makes a good photo? The answer is here:

Reading Camera Lucida is the equivalent of taking the Red pill in Matrix. I won't see photography in the same way never again. Barthes on his quest to find what Photography is “in itself” came to many conclusions. I found a special interest in the concepts of Studium and Punctum for its relevance with today's overconsumption of photos. To realize and understand these two concepts, not only, will make you a better photographer, also a better spectator, critic and consumer.

Barthes in his investigation of photography, while glancing at a magazine, a photo made him pause. He identifies two elements whose co-presence, made him take interest in certain photographs and not others.

The Studium: is an extent, it has the extension of a field, this field can be stylized, depending on the photographer's skills, but it always refers to a general body of information. Thousands of photographs consist of this field. We might find them, more or less, interesting but what we feel about these photographs comes from an average effect.

“The Studium is of the order of liking, not of loving” (R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980.)

Most photos we encounter are inert, they provoke only a general polite interest: they have no punctum, there is only Studium. To recognize the stadium is to encounter the photographer's intentions, to approve or disapprove of them, but always understand them. The stadium trying to inform, to represent, to surprise, to provoke. It is the equivalent of reading myths but not quite believing in them.

The second element “The punctum” will break (or punctuate). Without looking for it, it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces us. This second element which disturbs the Studium has the power to prinks us. Occasionally a “detail” attracts us. Its mere presence changes the reading of the photograph and feels like looking at a new photograph. The punctum overwhelms the entire of the reading and there is a change in our interest, the punctum has triggered something, provoking a tiny shock. As Barthes said, “The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance”. Sometimes, I realized the punctum when I’m no longer in front of the photograph, I keep thinking back on it. The studium died with the frame, but the punctum travel, it emerges its two-dimensional space and touches me, bringing out something on me that change the photograph.

“The punctum: whether or not is triggered, it is an addiction: It is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1980.)

What is touching and meaningful, making the image interesting to YOU, is nevertheless Subjective. What punctures you is personal and differ from people to people.

Some samples of photographs that Ronald Barthes used to make his point:

Little Italy, New York, 1954. William Klein.

Nicaragua 1978. © Koen Wessing

Koen Wessing photographs are a good sample of the use of studium and punctum, It is shown throughout all his work and its very effective on me.

Amsterdam 1966. © Koen Wessing

Moldavie 1992. © Koen Wessing

Among other photographers with the ability to pierce me badly, is Sally Mann.

Candy Cigarette 1989. From the series Immediate Family © Sally Mann.

Scarred Tree, 1996. From the series Deep South © Sally Mann

Much has been discussed and written about Camera Lucida since 1980, much has changed likewise in the photographic world since Barthes wrote what it was to be his last book. Nevertheless, his work continues to influence generations of artist and critics and serve as a solid starting point for those who want to adventure in the deeper aspects of Photography.


Barthes, R. 1984. Camera Lucida. London: Fontana


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