In 1980 Roland Barthes wrote a book called Camera Lucida. It was supposed to be a book about photographs, but it was really a book about death.
Barthes comes back over and over to a photograph of his mother as a child. He searches out an explanation for the effect that this, and other photographs, have on him. But he constantly negates and rejects rationalisation. He defends the subjectivity of the photograph’s power in the notion of the punctum – a singular point, like a black hole, too finite and slippery to be seen, but from which all the energy of the dead radiates. The punctum is a kind of humiliation (and this is why we recoil from sentimentality): it strikes one on an animal level, and lays waste to the flimsy conceits of the intellectual, spiritual, and logical.
I cannot help but hear punctum violently – as a puncture, a rupture, in the present. And this is after all what Barthes experiences as, still steeped in grief for his dead mother, he is suddenly wounded by what he searches for, an image that really shows her as she was. ‘I was interested in photography only for ‘sentimental’ reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think.’ This expansion of the Cartesian assertion refreshes me. I feel. Since my own mother died I’ve known that observing and thinking alone are paltry ways of being in the world. When something really happens to you, everything else you might have been interested in becomes utterly stupid. You really feel how banal we all are, and for a while, everyone and everything seems frivolous and distracted. Look! Stop! She is dead!
‘The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like / I don’t like. The studium is in the order of liking, not of loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi- volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds ‘all right’’ (27).
This is the problem I have (though I do think that these are the last ones – the last paintings I make of my family). Everything but grief is an irresponsible interest, I don’t believe myself when I profess to be invested in anything apart from death. I don’t really believe that anyone is interested, really interested in anything apart from their own memories, the damages that their own have inflicted upon them. Everything else we do, it seems to me, is either to basically survive, or to distract ourselves from these painful puncta. Barthes is honest.
Then again, perhaps it’s just my lack of culture. If studium is culture, punctum is the before-culture, the base, the involuntary. It’s the poignant Christmas TV advert that makes you cry, the pop song that moves you in spite of yourself. Knowing that these things operate on your autonomic nervous system like a hormonal party trick doesn’t make them any less effective. Maybe that’s too unkind to the punctum. It’s more deeply tapped into the individual psyche.
Barthes talks about the origins of theatre, the Cult of the Dead. How photography is the new theatre (it’s the 80s, remember). ‘However “lifelike” we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of an apprehension of death), Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead.’ (32). Does this explain why it was only by seeking out as much photographic evidence as possible that my mother had once been alive, that I was able to really understand that she was dead? That I find myself wanting to show the world images of her, over and over again, to say this is what happened to me. This is what I lost. And that when I look at those photographs, all I really see (in spite of myself) is death?
‘Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning: It wants meaning, but at the same time it wants this meaning to be surrounded by a noise (as is said in cybernetics) which will make it less acute’ (36). The punctum is the uncoded, it is meaning without acculturation, without noise. The unnamed. To be able to name something is to master it, to prevent it from wounding you. So that’s why I’m doing this, painting images of my dead mother and my siblings when they were young. To be able to name the power of these images. To say, ‘No, it never really was like this. This image has a power over me because of its false promise, a false promise of the past (an impossible thing in itself), which I can only stop from haunting me by naming it.’ As Barthes says, ‘What I can name cannot really prick me’.(51)
‘...it means that they do not emerge, do not leave; they are anaesthetised and fastened down, like butterflies.’(57) Like butterflies. In painting a photograph, this fastening down is compounded, reiterated. Sometimes looking at a photograph isn’t enough – it needs to be studied as closely as possible to commit every detail to memory and to incorporate it into one’s personal history. Barthes barely speaks about painting in Camera Lucida – only as the paternal structure from which photography must break free. And I wonder what a painting of a photograph really is? It’s not just another ‘fastening down’, it’s also a perversion. The painting has to become more than a copy, in order to remain a painting – something needs to be added or taken away.
Of course, it’s obvious what has been added to these paintings. These little fragments – literal puncta, punctures, punctuations – started happening almost by themselves. Perhaps they are the ‘noise which makes the meaning less acute’. I am well aware of the discomfort of looking head-on at someone else’s private mourning. So the little punctuations are noise, distraction, something to counter the bluntness of the paintings. Something to remind you that what you are looking at is an artifice, literally affected. A last barrier for the painter and the spectator - are you sure you want to go there?
Barthes says, in the closing of the book Camera Lucida, ‘I passed beyond the unreality of the thing represented, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die’.