Above: A man is detained by Police in West London (detail). Credit: Paul Bevan.

A Photograph I Remember

A colleague of mine recently made a photo of a ram-raider being captured, close to where he works in West London (above). The photo shows the man handcuffed with his arms behind his back. He is kneeling and his trousers have pulled down slightly to reveal the elastic waistband of his pants, which are designer branded Calvin Klein. This detail, stuck in the mind of my colleague, and as he shared the photo with me he noted the designer pants as a punctum, "the brand label shot out of the chaotic situation"--the criminal may be a street hoodlum, but he still wears suitable luxury brands, even down to his underwear. For Roland Barthes one way of reading or enjoying a photo-image is via the photo's "punctum", an otherwise insignificant component or element that "reaches out and stings me sharply." The whole point about the punctum is that the photographer's own effort to make an interesting image usually resides in the scene of Barthes's "studium"--the accepted obvious meaning and purpose of the photo. Whereas, the punctum is typically a highly subjectivized detail which sparks off some specific memory or feeling and may well be a factor that the original photographer had only vaguely considered, if at all.

One thing that Barthes says about the punctum, which is not frequently commented upon, is his assertion that it often comes into the mind after the image is no longer in front of him. If you look at an image, and later, when no longer confronted physically by it, some detail comes back into your mind, then it may be that this is a key which unlocks an interpretation and understanding of the picture. As Barthes says, "I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at."

Sometimes, in order to gain insight into a photo or set of images it may be valuable to remove them from view and then take time to see what seeps back into consciousness--a remembered detail is likely to be of significance, and may well be surprising. This quality of recollection may be schematized: if you are critiquing or appraising a photo, place the image out of view and write down a list of details that come to mind. The point here is that the photo, like the novel, the film, the painting, takes up its place in one's thoughts in unpredictable ways. If there is one minor detail or component that "shoots out", then this may be a punctum, as per Barthes.

(22 November 2019)