there’s a word for that

helen_levitt_01You know how certain photos kind of reach out and grab you in the gut? maybe give you a haunting sense of loss? or wonder at the passing of time?

Well, lo and behold, there’s a word for that. Punctum. Roland Barthes was fascinated by the way he was consistently emotionally affected by a photo of his late mother as a child; he explored this phenomenon in Camera Lucida, his 1980 book about the essence of photography. Here’s what he had to say, first about what he calls studium, then about punctum:

“What I feel about these photographs derives from an average effect, almost from a certain training. I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study”, but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.

The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: this word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole- and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). —Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

This photo, shot by Helen Levitt in New York City in 1940, is one that grabs me. The content is compelling, yes, and the composition is striking. (And if I’m understanding what Barthes meant, this is studium.) But what moves me is the feeling of time gone by. Those children, if still alive, would be in their 70s now. The older people in the photo have almost certainly died. Lives lived. 70 years come and gone . . .

And yet looking at the photo (What did the children do the moment after the photo was snapped? Whose tricycle was that? Was this a day any of them remembered afterward? Are any of them still in touch with one another?), I feel like I can almost know what it was like to be there. 70 years dissolve and I am there, in the summer street-play of the moment.

The simultaneous ISness (of looking at the photo and feeling like I’m there) and WASness (of knowing that those people are gone, the signs are gone, the buildings may be gone) might be, I think, the contradiction that creates this thing called punctum.

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Photo above: Untitled (Broken Mirror), c. 1940, by Helen Levitt; ©Estate of Helen Levitt


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