It’s nearly the end of the school summer term and my son returned home not long ago with a copy of his year’s photograph. Initially it was nothing more than a sea of small faces above blue jumpers but slowly details began to emerge. I spotted some of my son’s friends; one who was mortified to learn, having been lined up by height for this photo, that he is indeed the shortest boy in his year, another who I was intrigued to see in reality, having only my son’s description of him (when aged 5) as being grey and from another planet. Several children were in fierce competition for the ‘most ferocious scowl’ award, and one, down in the left hand corner, had been caught in the middle of an explosive sneeze. Increasingly I found myself drawn to the sneezing child, to the point of repeatedly seeking him out. It was such a funny image, a red-headed child with his sneeze on its full downward trajectory, and the experience made me think of the slim volume on photography published in 1980 by my favourite cultural theorist, Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida is studded with photographs which Barthes has humorously captioned, and one is A. Kertész’s 1931 photo of the schoolboy, Ernest. A stocky child he faces the camera with youthful insouciance and a Mona Lisa smile. Underneath the image Barthes writes: “It is possible that Ernest is still alive today: but where? How? What a novel!” And of course I think of the red-headed sneezing boy of today, projected 50 years into the future: what will his life be?
Barthes wrote his book on photography having been gripped by the urge to find out what distinguished this artistic medium from all the others. His quest had a personal dimension as well; his mother had recently died and whilst analysing the art of photography, Barthes was sifting through all the photos he had of her, trying to find one that would in some way return her to him. Photographs have an irrefutable ‘there-ness’, particularly in 1980 before we all became sophisticated about digital trickery. But Barthes knows that the photo is no simple operation of presence and he will come to the conclusion that it is instead ‘a modest, shared hallucination (one the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality.’ What he is pointing to here is the way that the photograph memorialises the transcient, fleeting moment; hence the enormous implicit nostalgia of the snapshot – Ah! Here we are happy on our honeymoon, or, Do you remember that party? Look how grumpy you looked that evening! What makes Barthes uncomfortable is the way that the photograph then imposes itself as memory, slides into the place where our hazy, indistinct memories once were and sharpens them up precipitately. The photograph is thus ‘violent’ Barthes claims, because ‘nothing in it can be refused or transformed’. What he means is that photographs bully us with their evidential dimension, displacing our truths with their own.
However, Barthes is not a man to be discountenanced by inanimate objects. The book is justifiably well-known in academic circles for the distinction he goes on to make between the cultural elements that fill a photograph and the more subjective elements that we unexpectedly discover there. Our experience of the photograph, according to Barthes, is split over the parts of the image that we are culturally trained to recognise and read, which he calls the studium, and the weird little details that strike us in arbitrary but punchy fashion, which he terms the punctum. The sneezing child is a classic example of this punctum; it’s not important or significant in any way but my attention is irrevocably drawn to it. The studium, the duller of Barthes’s two categories, contains all the cultural information that we expect to be presented with and that we read easily, seamlessly, without even knowing we are doing it. Journalistic images attempt to be composed entirely of elements of studium – weeping widows and mothers, flying flags, soldiers stalking with guns, red-faced idiots raising pint glasses, rebellion, grief, celebrity. The punctum works as a kind of tiny defiance of the photo’s legibility. It’s the detail that slips through and opposes all that coded information, and its effect is to make us pause and wonder, and often go off into a reverie of our own. What intrigues Barthes about the punctum is that ‘it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.’ Why this is so important to him, is because it indicates an extra layer of meaning that has been added to the detail by the viewer and the viewer alone. We don’t often get to see our minds in motion, Barthes reckons, and the experience of the punctum is to see our interpretative, reading faculties as if cast in shadow against a wall. The individual, subjective quality of the punctum proves this point; equally such details tell us nothing about the subject of composition, only about our own interest in looking.
Fundamentally, Barthes likes this because looking at photos is never a truly disinterested exercise. Particularly not when it is a case of looking at images of ourselves or our loved one. Despite the odds, Barthes does finally find a picture of his mother that brings her back, in which he not only recognises her, but discovers her, the ‘So yes, so much and no more‘ effect he was chasing that is contained in what he can only call ‘the air’ of the person’s image. ‘I have been photographed a thousand times,’ Barthes says, ‘but if these thousand photographs have each “missed” my air (and perhaps, after all, I have none?), my effigy will perpetuate (for the limited time the paper lasts) my identity, not my value. Applied to someone we love, this risk is lacerating: I can be frustrated for life of the “true image”.’ After reading this I checked the face of my own son in the year photograph. He is staring defiantly at the camera, mouth a straight line, as if to say, go ahead then, but I will give nothing away. Without seeing them, I know his fists are in tight balls. It is a pose that delivers him in some ways to me, but it is not what I, as his mother, would call his ‘air’. Which again makes me wonder about the multiple subjective responses to photographs: would our friends all agree on the photograph that reproduced our most authentic being, and would our parents choose a different one again? It is difficult, on the inside of a face, to know what others outside are expecting from it, and projecting onto it. Hence the irresistibility of photography, I suspect, which might hold the answers to such queries, if we only knew how to recognise them.