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Wednesday, 04 February 2009


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I've come to believe that a photograph can acquire, or take on, meaning as time goes by -- especially to those familiar with it. In fact, I think that *you* solidified this belief -- initiated by my wife -- in "The Empirical Photographer" but I can't find the reference point.

The downside being that our personal connection to these scenes clouds our judgment of what is "objectively"--or at least externally--interesting to others?


Sorry, but I can't see any piano in this picture...

Chris Jones

It's right in back of the man, with the angel and the lamp on it.

Mike J.

Didnt read the story but I like the photo. A bit brighter would have made it stand out more. Never the less the photo shows a great story of people and whats important in life. Like this one.

What a wonderful photograph!
The piano, the chairs, the books, the pictures in the wall, the tree - so many stories that i can buil in mi mind. I can see this room full of hapiness and wonderful stories.
Nice work!

The lowly, much maligned snapshot: it's the family snapshot album that many people will grab as they rush from a burning house, while the "art" on the wall is left to the flames.

The fact that your friend immediately recognized his piano, while the rest of us had to look for it, makes your point succinctly concerning the personal meaning and significance of photographs.

Oh, but we can all tell this picture means a lot to someone for sure!!

A snapshot is something that has to be "seasoned" or "aged" before it becomes something special. It's made like a fine wine. Every year the harvest varies, technology changes production, and time ripens the flavors.

You say it probably doesn't mean much to me, but then why do I feel so invited "in" to the photo, especially after your background explanation. The details are rich and numerous. For me it's like seeing a glimpse of my own memories except that they're somebody else's. I remember a few of Carl Weese's pictures that are kind of like this.

To me, the photo has "meaning" far wider than the purely personal, because it so vividly expresses human emotions and interactions. The specifics might be personal, but the feelings are universal. I love this photo.

Dear JS,

I'm no wine drinker, but I think that's a beautiful metaphor/simile/whatever (no, don't bother telling me which; I won't remember, never do). Captures the concept perfectly.

pax / Ctein


Thanks for the compliment.


A comment from Hugh Look (he had trouble posting):

This post gave me a lot of pause for thought. As did the photo itself,
which I think is terrific because it works at a lot of levels. Anyway,
the combination of the two and some of the posts that followed hit a
nerve - mainly because it synchronised with changes I've been trying
to make in my own photographs, to eliminate the blandness that you
talk about.

Talking about meaning is always tricky - it's got too many layers.
"Significance" can be more useful - not least because it breaks away
from unresolvable discussions about that the
photographer/artist/writer "meant". We just can't know. But if we can
agree enough *shared* significance in a photograph, whether between
photographer and viewer or just between viewers, then there is room
for an interesting conversation about significance and perhaps even
meaning. Experientially, bland photographs don't give rise to that and
interesting ones do. This is the "intrinsic general interest,
sufficient to involve the viewer" that you describe.

So what makes the difference? Why is your photo of your friend's
family so full of that interest and significance, even to someone who
has no idea who these people are? Why do most of my photographs seems
bland even to me (even though they had some significance at the time)
and a handful of others seem to catch at a nerve, both for me and for
other viewers?

I've found one really interesting approach. In Camera Lucida, Barthes
(not a photographer himself, but a very acute viewer) splits out two
things: studium and punctum. For him, studium is the general
impression of a particular photograph (and by extension, styles of
photography). The punctum, though is the "...element which rises from
the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me". This is
very useful.

In your photo, the studium is that of a well-composed, well executed
Christmas informal family portrait, with warm lighting and all the
trimmings. And there are lots of that type of photo around. But what
gives it significance to people not involved is the punctum, or rather
the punctums (sorry, I can't remember how to decline it so I'm going
to wimp out and stick to English plurals). The expressions,
definitely. The piano, which at least temporarily has ceased to be a
musical instrument and has become at one level a set of shelves - and
at another, simultaneously a shrine or altar for some kind.
Counterposed, the wonderful profligacy of the Christmas tree (doncha
just hate all that prissy white-lights-only nonsense: these are people
who know how to decorate a Christmas tree properly), another kind of
votive object. The white paper or cloth on the ground - what? why? And
so on.

Studium doesn't create much significance; punctum does. Lots of
photographers took full-length portraits of a wide range of people -
why do we see August Sander's as something special? My guess is that
because time and time again there's a punctum (and the cumulative
effect is a punctum in itself). In the same way we can look at
hundreds and thousands of photographs of Antelope Canyon (or its
British equivalent, the beach below Bamburgh Castle) and drown in
their utter blandness, emptiness. All studium, no punctum. By
contrast, Simon Norfolk takes that same studium of the beautifully
executed large format landscape photograph, combines it with the
studium of the painted classical landscape and uses it to photograph

Barthes makes the point that the punctum can be very personal. It's
not in the control of the photographer. I'm trying to get to grips
with the implications of that. It feels like both a curse and a
blessing. It seems to imply that a punctum can arise entirely by
accident, without intention on the part of the photographer.

Now, it's easy to say that this is just sticking new labels on old
winebottles, but I think it's more than that. Studium and punctum have
precision and name concepts that can't really be named in other ways.
Gradually, by thinking more and more about the punctum and less and
less about the studium I'm groping my way slowly to being able to
understand what makes some photographs permanently more interesting
than others, and I hope also towards becoming more interesting

This comment written by Hugh Look

Punctum? I would agree that this photograph has that, perhaps for several different reasons or because of a combination of them. But it is the exquisite lighting that does it for me, both in the Christmas tree (and the bookcase behind it) and in the background on the far right side---just beautiful.


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