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Barthes’ Studium and Punctum Essay

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The word “photography” derives from two Greek words: Phos (meaning “light”) and

Graphe (meaning “writing” or “drawing”). Thus, photography implies, literally, “writing

or drawing with light”, in turn implying combination of something that occurs naturally

(light) with practices created by human culture (writing and drawing).



Generally, photographs are understood to have a direct connection to what they depict-

providing the impression that they show “reality”. They are often also seen as being able

to preserve a moment in time. In the course of my paper, I will be exploring such issues

through an analysis of the terms Studium and Punctum that Roland Barthes uses in his

book Camera Lucida (or La Chambre Claire) : Reflections On Photography (1980,

London: Vintage). Barthes’ book, is simultaneously an enquiry into the nature and

essence of photography and a eulogy to his (then) recently deceased mother. Published

two months prior to his own death in 1980, it is one of the most important early academic

books of criticism and theorization on photography, alongwith Susan Sontag’s On

Photography (1979, London: Penguin) (infact, Barthes mentions Sontag’s book in the

original bibliography to Camera Lucida, henceforth referred to as CL). Critics and

commentators, ever since the publication of CL, have felt a morbid sense throughout the

book – it seems as if, for Barthes, photographs and photography have only to do with

death and the past. It is said that he tends to focus on photographs only as memento mori.

Sontag in her book says : “All photographs are memento mori” and that “to take a

photograph is to participate in the person or thing’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability”.

(For quotes from Sont...


... middle of paper ...


...et Me Not: Photography and Remembrance New York: Princeton.


Bazin, Andre (1980) “The Ontology of The Photographic image” in Alan Trachtenberg (ed.) Classic Essays on Photography New Haven : Leete’s Island Books.


Benjamin, Walter (1999) “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” in Illuminations London: Pimlico.


Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1952) The Decisive Moment New York: Simon and Schuster.


Green, David (2006) “Marking Time” in Stillness And Time : Photography and The Moving Image, Brighton : Photoforum


Moriarty, Michael (1991) Roland Barthes Great Britain : Polity Press


Peirce, Charles Sanders (1998) “What is a Sign?” in Selected Philosophical Writings Bloomington : Indiana University Press.


Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography London: Penguin.


Welch, Edward and Long, J.J. (2009) Photography: Theoretical Snapshots, Abingdon : Routledge



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