When I first read this exercise I was completely baffled by it. Then I read Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (2000, Vintage) on the recommendation of my tutor and concentrated on his concepts of “studium” and “punctum”. In effect, stadium is what the photograph is about and the punctum is something that pierces the picture plane and grabs the viewer’s attention, disproportionately to the size of the point itself (Section 10, page 26), something that “paradoxically, while remains a ‘detail’, it fills the whole picture” (Section 19, page 45). For a moment I thought I understood what this exercise is about. Now I am not so sure so I will have to think again. Some of what follows might therefore come across as bit ‘stream of consciousness’.
One of the difficulties that I have is that so far as Barthes is concerned the punctum is accidental, it is simply something in the picture that catches the eye. It is not for him a design element. Indeed, it ceases to be the punctum if it is placed by design. If placed by design it effectively becomes part of the studium.
What this exercise is talking about though is the deliberate placing of a point in a certain position in order to give it an impact or significance. Indeed, it is described as “the most fundamental design element”.
In so far as Barthes’ book is about his personal response to photography, are he and the course material talking about two completely different things that happen to share a name?
What I thought I would do therefore is to lay any preconceptions aside and try an experiment using the picture of the cup under the chair for my first few images; obscuring the original cup and moving a small scrap of paper around to various positions on the photograph to see what happens.
How to evaluate these pictures? One of the reasons I feel that the original image worked was because of its relationship with the other main elements of the scene, the chair and planter, and specifically its location within the internal frame of the chair’s legs. None of the above pictures work in the same way. In the first one the point is a bit out on a limb and does not seem to relate to the rest of the scene, just to the edge of the frame. The one in the centre seems both too neutral, and also too central (literally and figuratively, visually) and dominates the rest of the scene. The third one is perhaps more successful, not least because the point is close to the leading line the paving slab joint. Here it acts both as punctuation and a point of entry into the image. It also nicely helps define a triangle between what are now the three main elements of the image: the point, the chair, and the planter. (For this version I deliberately placed the point in accordance with the rule of thirds.) It also occurs to me that the placing of the point is significant for being close to the frame. I would expect that it would have less impact if moved further into the body of the scene.
I am not sure that there is necessarily a right or a wrong place but one, the third, strikes me as having greater visual impact – more along the lines of Barthes’ punctum.
I think these three pictures can also serve for the second part of the exercise, and I have already touched on the relationship to the frame.
In so far as the point is within the picture it clearly is in relation to the frame. I cannot see that it cannot be in relation to the frame. Rather, the significance of the point will vary according to the relationship to the frame. As I have said above, I feel the relationship with the frame is more significant in the third picture above in that it gives the placing of the point a greater overall impact in the picture.
I am though not at all sure of the balance point. In so far as the placing of the point in the third picture is better from a compositional point of view this picture is more balanced – at least comparatively, than say the first picture. But it does not seem to me to be the position in relation to the frame that is significant here, rather than the relation to the other compositional elements.
Using two of these images I have tried the eye tracking exercise. Of course, this is not an accurate record of actual eye movements but nevertheless offers an impression of how I feel my gaze moves over the picture. The first, with the point in the middle, the arguably most neutral place, the view of the scene is incomplete and disjointed. The gaze is continually drawn back to the centre, at the expense of the rest of the composition.
The second, in my compositionally preferred location seems more integrated and covers a greater area of the picture as a whole. I also feel it draws attention not only to the scene but also the frame, giving the image as a whole a greater sense of depth and solidity.
By chance while thinking about this exercise I came upon two very different pictures that might usefully be put forward as further examples, and which might help to resolve my Barthes/design conundrum.
The first is the work of Annemarieke Van Drimmelen for the fashion house Toast and appears on the back of their Early Spring catalogue. (it is all ladies’ clothes. I am not interested in ladies’ clothes, the catalogue was sent to my wife!)
In Barthesian terms I originally thought the puncture was the pigeon in the lower left corner. On reflection though I now feel the pigeon is too large and so is a shape. On any view though I think it is important for a compositional point of view as it counterbalances, and acts as a visual anchor in contrast to the receding figure of the clothes model descending the steps. Rather I now think the puncture is in fact the small circle close to the frame on the lower left side. Not only does it, to my eye at least, pierce the overall picture plain it sets up another important compositional element, creating an extra ‘eyeline’. One runs from the pigeon diagonally across the picture plane through the three circular man-hole covers, effectively isolating the model from the lower left half of the frame. leaving her to be emphasised as the try subject by the two sets of railings which could be regarded as pointing towards her. It also acts as the start of a further line bisecting the first, drawing the eye directly to the model.
The other is a portrait taken by Jonathan Kelso for the Guardian in an article that appeared on Saturday 11 February.
What I see as the ‘point’ here in a compositional sense, as well as being the punctum in Barthes’ sense is the pale blue edging to the inside pocket of the sitter’s open jacket (ringed in the version below). Not only does it catch the eye, puncturing the image as Barthes would have it, by being a small flash of colour in an otherwise dark, and neglected are of the frame. It also acts as a compositional point, establishing a triangle in the middle of the picture which, to me, serves to emphasise the sitter as the subject.
Have I resolved my conundrum? To an extent yes. Barthes and the exercise are talking about what can be, but will perhaps not always be, the same thing. The punctum can not only catch the eye and animate the image by puncturing it, but it can also be a compositional element that establishes the structure of the picture and gives it balance. That dual role might just be happy accident. It could equally be deliberate (even if only unconsciously on the part of the photographer). Is Barthes perhaps being a little puritanical in his rejection of the deliberate placing of a point allowing it to become his punctum?