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Tuesday, 26 March 2024


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I enjoyed Ken's well-written and thoughtful essay, even though I disagree with large parts of it -- especially the part you quoted. "Punctum...a needlessly obscure way of saying that certain photographs have a certain something about them that makes them special to certain someones—a commonplace that when draped in Latin becomes a shiny original thing, a breathtakingly sophisticated utterance."

If you wish to discuss Punctum, once you understand the concept, what should you do? Should you say, "Punctum" each time you need to, or should you say, "a certain something about them that makes them special to certain someones?" Frankly, I would find repeating a 12-word phrase each time I wanted to refer to a concept to be tiresome. Barthes could have chosen some other word, of course, but he didn't -- and it was his book.

I found the concept of Punctum much more interesting than the second part of the book, which I thought was the commonplace part. Most people consciously experience what Barthes is talking about in Part II -- in fact, it's really the whole reason people take personal photos. Like Ken, I have a couple of personal photos like that, hanging from the wall a few feet from my writing desk.If I were to see Ken's photo of his wife, or if Ken were to see my photo of my daughter with a pumpkin, I think we might both recognize the quality of engagement in the photos.

But that is not Punctum. Punctum is something entirely different; I think there are a great many famous photographs that do not have Punctum, for either their creators or their viewers. Punctum has a shock to it. It's not something you anticipate or share with others. It doesn't give you a warm feeling (though I suppose it could.) It's a quality outside the expected, and it doesn't necessarily have any fixed meaning, even for the person it shocks. It is a quality that goes directly to an individual psychology, which is what makes it hard to discuss; it's there for you, but not for me, and vice versa. I do think most serious photographers experience it from time to time, though it maybe be a rare thing.

I just bought Ken's book for my Kobo e-reader, and it's great. Perfect way to sit out the snowstorm we are experiencing in Duluth right now. Nice find.

Thanks, Mike. I will read the essay. I too had trouble with the Barthes, even as I admire him, just as I did with Sontag's "On Photography". I think my main issue is that they both seem to be writing to hear themselves talk. They're clever more than profound in these essays. I was once called clever by a professor I really admired; it wasn't a compliment. Cut me to the quick, and it wasn't entirely true, but partly so, and that was bad enough.

A few weeks ago, I came across a cover of "Plastic Jesus" online by Justine Lucas and Jordan Finlay (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVcDZLNW-gA), first time I'd heard the song in decades. That's exactly what I thought when I heard it, 'I wish I'd written that.'

Thank you, John Camp.

Thanks for sharing that.

Makes me wonder if Ken ever wrote a similar critique about Sontag, given how he started his essay. That would also be an interesting read.

I tried a quick search, but no useful results.

I haven't read Barthes but I own a copy of Sontag's book and I've tried to read it a couple of times. I keep giving up. What she's talking about strikes me as interesting to critics of photography but as a person who takes photographs she's talking about things which don't interest me.

I've got a couple of books by photographers about how they approach photography and the things in photographs which interest them. I've got a copy of Stephen Shore's "The Nature of Photographs" and what he says about photographs interests me. What Sontag says in her book doesn't interest me.

From what you and Ken have said I don't feel an urge to read Barthes and it isn't because I can't handle dense discussions, I've got a degree in philosophy and I've worked my way through modern philosophers like Wittgenstien and even a bit of Sartre because I had to but I was a lot younger then and doing it for a purpose. I'm older now and I don't want or need to dip into theorising that doesn't grab me.

On the other hand I'm quite happy to read what people like you, Ken, and John Camp want to say about Barthes and Sontag and I'm open to being convinced about having a go at Barthes. I'm just not about to volunteer to do that until someone says something that gives me a reason to do so.

Keep up the discussion, I'm very happy to watch from the sidelines.

Mr. Dixon’s essay strikes true, particularly his wonderfully-phrased first half, as do many of the comments.

Much of Sontag and Barthes remind me of a comment by one of my first-year law school professors that wordiness and obscurity evidence a lack of clear understanding of your case.

One other thought: much of the discussion, and perhaps a source of the obscurity, revolves around over-generalization of the authors’ own subjective reactions to older photos of personal import.

An interesting, generally enjoyable and/or bracing essay. Some good writing I may crib from. \;~)>

"There is no question that it is a melancholic medium—to experience it as a tragic one requires a certain exertion and a certain predisposition."

Here, he seems to me to have fallen partway down Barthes' rabbit hole. I do not find it that way. I would perhaps say:

"to experience photography as a tragic medium requires a certain exertion and a certain predisposition."

I am not given to melancholy, nostalgia and so on. He makes, in a way, the same mistake as Barthes, and endless others, generalizing his own feelings to be those of all others.

This talk about Barthes and Sontag makes me think about books by people who make photographs and other visual art, rather than people who make words about the art others make.

Jay Maisel talks about the photos he has made in way I find interesting and helpful (and just plain enjoyable).

The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr and Michael Wood
Why Photographs Work, by George Barr
have been very helpful to me.

August Kleon's Steal Like an Artist makes sense of looking at LOTS of photos, not to duplicate, but to find what moves you and work to create something from that.

Like Kleon, David Bayles & Ted Orland are not photographers, but in Art and Fear, address problems germane to photographers.

I have a weird relationship with God Is at Eye Level, by Jan Phillips. I just couldn't get into it. Then, I read another book full of quotes from it, which were wonderful. I went back . . .

My problem turns out to be that I am not much engaged with her illustrative photos. I do visual first. In my own photo books, there is only one line of text, thanks to a friend and host. (So glad I did that, before her untimely death.)

Her own writing and the large collections of quotes from others are excellent. I just need to imagine other illustrations. \;~)> You may not need that.

And just because . . .
Mother Earth, edited by Judith Boice, is such a beautiful plethora of photographs, apposite quotes and beautiful writing, that it just might fire or refire your passion to capture from the world stuff that feeds your soul . . . and perhaps those of others.

[Great comment, but one small correction, Ted Orland is indeed a photographer. --Mike]

". . . but one small correction, Ted Orland is indeed a photographer."

I knew that, I think so, anyway. Why didn't I when I wrote? Good thing I'm not a blogger. \;~)>


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