Punctum: Reflections on Photography, edited by Séamus Kealy

Punctum: Reflections on Photography, edited by Séamus Kealy, Salzburg, Salzburger Kunstverein, 2014.


Producing Punctum, Boris Groys

Groys compares/contrasts Barthes’s analysis of mother-referent photographs to Siegfried Kracauer’s analysis of his grandmother’s photos in Die Photographie (1927).

For Kracauer, every photograph is merely, as he says, a general inventory of diverse fragments or details that lacks any inner unity … photography kills …He writes: “The meaning of images of memory is linked with their truth-content. As far as they are embedded in uncontrolled sensual desire, they acquire an inherent demonic suggestiveness.” … Demonic, sensual desire is projected onto the surface of things. The camera is a demonic machine that blocks the way to the true core of things. In other words, Kracauer does not want to recognize his grandmother in an image that has no identity, an image that covers a void (18).

And also:

Now on the one hand, Barthes believes that every photograph can be seen as opening the access to the reality of Time moving toward Death. At the end of the book he writes: “Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront it in the wakening of intractable reality.” But, on the other hand, Barthes finds that there are particular photographs that provoke us to switch our gaze from the contemplation of the surface of these photographs to the void that these photographs cover. The photograph that is able to do this has punctum–or even is punctum (19).

Groys sets up punctum as produceable via context, insisting that when Barthes finds the “prick” in a photograph of his mother as a child, he cannot be so affected by the figure, who is unrecognizable/unknown to him. The punctum is therefore produced by the family history, the attached story, that gives the referent meaningful situation “in life.” “In other words, punctum is not a quality of an individual photograph; rather it is a relation of the photograph to its context–real or fictional. One can produce punctum by creating such a context” (29).

Furthermore, Groys asserts that, by this logic and despite what Barthes says, painting [and also digital photography] can have punctum when a story/album/collection makes the image indexical, referential, contextualized. “Production of punctum is independent from the production of photography and the technical characteristics of this production” (29).

Arriving at Punctum, Séamus Kealy

In an “inevitably flawed exploration of sorts” (37), Kealy reveals details of the collaborative exhibit’s becoming. As a facilitator of the exhibit, Kealy feared that if he had also participated as selector that the project would have been “corrupted by [his] own inclinations and sensitivities” having “emerged from such a personal place” (38).

He does not embrace Groys’s “impartial, mechanical, even cold gaze on photography [which] ends up indicating that even a replicant can see punctum, as a means of illustrating, what for him, very much is as a concept” (38). However, he notes that adding a rational philosophy to the punctum experience enhances the term, despite “artfully evad[ing]” its nature.

The slippery nature of the term, which has been greatly misunderstood since Camera Lucida was published in 1980, needs to be considered without destroying it by applying reckless layers of meaning. That was indeed one goal of this project. However, I do not feel that punctum can be easily nailed down as a concept. It is a literary device applied by Barthes to photography, but what makes the term so powerful in its application to a photograph, is that it is derived by Barthes from a place of longing and love, a place before language. Desire is at its root, as are very dense considerations–pre-lingual and not–on existence, death, and mourning. It is a phenomenological term and it is likewise a personal and profound moment of reflection (39).

An interesting consideration that Kealy draws in is that the striking “detail, i.e. partial object” that wounds, may not be a mere “detail” of the image at all. Rosalind Krauss argues that the translation from French could actually be “part object” instead. Krauss sees here a connection to Lacan’s objet petit, “the unattainable object of one’s desire, connected to one’s complex psychology” (39). In this light, Kealy presents punctum as more than puncture; it is “an intricacy specific to photography that has an affective and critical relationship to the viewer’s gaze, history and character, as well as to time past … profoundly rooted in one’s emotional past while simultaneously rooted in philosophical enquiry” (39).

Victor Burgin [Re-reading Camera Lucida] also considers how “unconscious desire operates in the scopic drive” (39). Because desire is born before language, there is an inability to understand it. And so, “the emotional charge carried by the unconscious fragment will then ‘spark’ across the gap to the configuration in conscious perception, investing with it a ‘feeling’ for which there is no rational explanation” (39).

Spectrum vs. story:

Where the story is determinable, tellable, and contained within language as a narrative that can be remembered or repeated whether through speaking or writing, and thus attaches itself to the photograph–the Spectrum of the photograph indicates ‘the return of the dead,’ it is a framework appearing as the Real, whether it is fantastical, fictitious or true. Spectrum is thus clarified and simultaneously encases the story as it only can through a photographic moment where Time is clearly shown as passed. It can only be so, the appearance of the Real is receding from us continually … that which we try to embrace as meaning is in fact situated beyond language, and its application in terms of examining punctum and the understanding of photography from the position of punctum is inseparable from that. It is in fact, before a story while also accompanying it. This is what punctum of a photograph also thus contains: the feelings, thoughts, memories, associations and so on that are attached to the story, but cannot appear within words (40).

Finally [from Kealy]: “Where Groys states “Producing Punctum,” I would rather indicate that we arrive at punctum” (40). [I tend to agree here.]

As a curator, I feel comfortable resisting declarative answers and instead residing in agnostic pondering while giving means to others to remark upon this dilemma or not through the exhibition. We might remember that Barthes uses words such as “madness,” and “ecstasy” in his text, especially in relation to punctum. These are not terms that one usually associates with logic, nor with phenomenology, categorization or rationalization. As such, we might resist positioning the nature of photography into a “civilized code of perfect illusions” and signs by trying to situate it crudely with meaning and familiarity. We might resist the field of illusions that it has become caught up within (44).


Collaborative Insight

Punctum: the wound in the photograph by which we enter. –Guari Gill, 125

If one were to name the punctum, it would be the moment of irritation that triggers: The spatially encapsulated situation in which the artist enters the photo is paradoxical. –Silvia Eiblmayr, 129

Can the readability, affective perception, and meaning of photographs still be fixed on one point? Or has the punctum–as illustrated in our photograph–already been multiplied into many vanishing points scattered within and beyond the image that affectively organize particular perceptions and emotional experience that are dependent on the location and perspective? — Sabine Bitter & Helmut Weber, 137

The punctum obeys a supplementary logic … The same photograph can produce both punctum and studium; the two entities turn out to be interchangeable and indistinguishable. Based on this insight, Barthes finds himself nominating another punctum that for him lies at the heart of every photograph–Time. –Geoffrey Batchen, 143

To be sure, in the continuum of life, we do not see the world like a camera when it freezes for a fraction of a second … In this perspective photography is detached from its aura of representing what-has-been [‘that-has-been’]. This is how it turns into a what-could-have-been, which opens up a field of endless possibilities. — Barbara Probst, 163

In the punctum, Barthes sought the eidetic charge in a photograph, what was in it for him. The studium was what was left over–and of no particular interest … — Geoffrey James, 169

A perfect crime: an absent punctum; rejected desire, or a meta-punctum. As an essence, punctum takes over; it is in charge to navigate through absence (hypothetically). A labor of mourning over. Myself. –Adam Budak, 179

Still wondering:

  • How can punctum be identified/measured, except experientially? Can it even?
  • Karin Hanssen mentioned a “global punctum.” It felt like maybe she was talking more about what Barthes calls studium (a colorful poppy in the foreground), but makes me wonder: Can punctum be felt communally? Or is it relegated to individuals within a collective sharing common histories, desires, sense? Can your punctum also prick me?
  • What does story do to/for punctum? I did not find myself “pricked” by most photos in this exhibit. And I admit to occasionally feeling more prick when a photo was paired with a story that spoke to me, than I did sans context. What is the relationship between image and accompanying text/language? How to explore that? Also, isn’t a lack of context sometimes more jarring? Perhaps a lack of story is what affords the production of punctum (but by the individual viewer)?
  • In re-reading Camera Lucida this semester, I’d like to notice the treatment of punctum more carefully. I previously understood punctum as something in the photograph itself that triggers viewer response, but it seems to be located within the viewer instead (particularly considering Krauss’s insight) or perhaps more precisely even, in the resonant space between the image and the viewer.

Wanting to read: some Rosalind Krauss


One thought on “Punctum: Reflections on Photography, edited by Séamus Kealy

  1. Pingback: Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave” | {kin}aesthetic composure

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