Book Review: On the Punctum in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida

    Unary Image
     In a world where we constantly make subjective judgments on the images we peruse — take for example, the host of websites that displays portraits of users that can either be voted as “hot or not” (I am ashamed to say I have indulged in this entertainment) — the object of the observer is to rate images according to subjective tastes.  Roland Barthes's idea is that the host of images flashed across our eyes on any given days are what he calls “unary” images. The unary image lacks a phenomenological “prick.” These naïve images are at the level of what Barthes calls “the pornographic” (41).  For Barthes, these images are “without intention and without calculation” (41).
The Punctum
    Barthes calls the punctum a “prick, sting, a speck, a cut, a little hole.” (27).  For Barthes there seems to be something at stake in the interplay between the photograph and the subject’s gaze.  What fascinates Barthes is that the photograph can lack its punctum, this sting that he calls it, between the image and the observer. This lack of sting is the unary image (41).  There is no shock, Barthes says, in the image that does not “shout.”  For Barthes the experience of the punctum is a purely subjective experience that designates a “I like / I don’t like” posture.
Sontag and Barthes
This lack of a “sting” in the photographic unary is probably what Sontag has critically noticed.  For Sontag and for Barthes, the unary image offers itself only to be consumed by the observer.  This leads to desensitization.  And a lack of empathy in the suffering of others.  This is the “pornography” that Barthes talks about as a quality of the unary image.  What the unary image places before us is the hope of a gift.  This is the punctum and what Barthes calls precisely eroticism.  This is the photograph’s ability (or inability) to evoke a response that rises above the level of sentimentality or at the risk of becoming over-stimulated by the image.
     The Good Photograph 
     For Barthes, a particular photo, for example, of Napoleon’s brother, that he mentions in the first lines of the book (but does not offer an image) is insufficient to tell us anything about what photography is in of itself.  What we are struck by is the eyes of the emperor’s brother.  But the eyes simply point.  And it hopely goes beyond the tedium of the studium.  When I see a photograph in a magazine or in a family album, I am drawn to the image as a particular image, chosen out of a seemingly infinite array of images and I am distracted by the particularness of the image which evades the eidos (the idea) of the image itself.  What Barthes seems to be saying is that I can never get at the being of photography for photography is written in a deictic language, he says, that by its very essence can only refer.  The picture of my cousin Zack which hangs sits on my bookshelf is an image of Zack, a particular shot of him taken at a particular moment in time. His eyes are looking awry outside of the borders of the frame.  And his mouth is formed in a slight smile.  He is posing.  His look shows that he knows that a photograph is being taken of even though he gives this recognition away only minimally.  I cannot, as Barthes says, remove the photograph from the image nor can I remove the image from the photograph.  The photograph has meaning only because I can situate the picture within the point of view of an observer or from the subject observed.  The good photograph, for Barthes, is the photographer having found the right moment, the kairos of desire” (59).
    The Studium
    But is there a capture of the image from the point of view of eternity? Apparently, for Barthes, the image always evades.  It always points to something — like desire points to an object or essence to existence, but to grasp the thing-in-itself is impossible.  But, it seems, what Barthes is really trying to say. is that the image cannot be thought of in this platonic way. The image’s something “has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock, a satori, the passage of a void (it is of no importance that is referent is insignificant)” (49).  The studium of the image is its landscape, it is the broadened face of the image that can garner our interest, even our passion, but in the banalest of ways.  The studium is the part of the image that is “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies” (57).  It is the punctum — the image’s tiny shock — that grabs our attention and attracts us to the picture.
                                                                The Hope of the Punctum
    The hope of the punctum — if I can call it a “hope” — is to stumble upon the image that goes beyond the stagnancy of the studium.  The viewer hopes to stumble upon an image that proves a “punch”!  If I take an image that Barthes uses as an example at the end of the book, I can take this a little further.  The image is a striking, handsome image of a young man.  The caption reads, “He is dead and he is going to die …” (95).  The image is Gardner’s photograph of Lewis Payne who was condemned to die for the assassination of the Secretary of State Seward in the late 1860s.  His hands are cuffed and he sits abrasively against a prison wall.  For me. the eye of the subject provides the punctum.  His eyes at first seem vacant, but on a second look, coupled with his strange wan smile, and a thick neck.  But for Barthes, it is the knowledge that he is about to die — or that he is dead.  The point of departure that brings the image to the level of the punctum is that the man is going to die.
    What this means then, and I think is the weakness of Barthes’s book is that the punctum rests on something outside of the image — that he is dead is the knowledge that we glean from the text.  The punctum — which is supposed to prick our consciousness is exterior to the experience of the photography itself.
Experience of the Photograph   
    The penetration of the image relies on the experience of the photograph and not the photograph itself which Barthes states clearly at the beginning of the book.  But this is a problem and I think what Sontag seems as lacking in the punctum — that the observer has to rise to the level of the punctum.  If we do not have the aesthetic or phenomenological capacity to rise about the photographic landscape, or even beyond the intention of the photographer. there is no “punch” to be gained.
    The photograph, then, cannot stand on its own — and what gives it status then, is not its essence — but what the image points to is important.  If the image’s essence cannot be apprehended, then, the punctum of the image, then, relies on the capacity of the observer to be pricked.  This, I think is a high call.  But, an admirable one. 


  1. Stumbled across your post while researching "punctum" in a psychological context, as referenced in Jed Sekoff's piece, "Necromancy and the Inner World" in Gregorio Kohon's collection of essays on the Dead Mother complex.

    Thanks for turning me on to Barthes again – read Empire of Signs years ago, now have fresh eyes for Camera Lucida. Sontag's essays, "Against Interpretation" also cut deeply I think.

  2. Yes, Sontag has a completely divergent take on the image compared to Barthes. I am especially thinking of her book "On Photography." She sort of repositioned her original argument in light of the Abu Graibh prison photos. Another good person to look at about the image is Edward Said and his collaborative work with the photographer Jean Mohr in a book called After the Last Sky.