The Barthian Punctum is Dead. Digital Killed It.

In the film era, the photo was valued as a record. The photograph resulted in a fixed image. The best of these fixed images contained the aura effect of the image, what Roland Barthes calls ‘the punctum’, the thing that takes us outside the image to the reality it stencils. Analog was representation of the real.

Who today, except for a few film photographers pushed to the margins of irrelevancy, still respects the Barthian punctum when taking a photo? According to French philosopher Roland Barthes, the ‘punctum’ is the thing that jumps out at the viewer within a photograph creating an ‘element which rises from the scene’ and unintentionally fills the whole image. Punctum is the rare detail that attracts you to an image, Barthes says ‘its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value.’ What’s important for Barthe’s argument is that the photo itself be a faithful rendering of something “out there”, that it have some connection to the thing photographed, much as Sontag talks of a photograph as a “stenciling from the real;” the instant, the conjunction of events, the link with time. In Camera Lucida, Barthe’s discusses this in the context of a photo of his mother; in some sense, the puctum of that photo for Barthes is that it was directly stenciled from his mother’s body and in some sense still partakes of her (now vanished) corporality.

What’s the Punctum of This Photo? Can You Trust It?


Digital is the age of the reworked image. It’s no longer essential to catch the eye when the importance of the shot is only relative. You can ad lib the punctum later with Photoshop. But in doing so you’ve disconnected it from its truth value. The photo is now not a material thing directly connecting us to the real but an algorithmic formula. As such, are photographs still capable of being repositories of truth? No. Photographic digitization requires each of us to reconstruct the world, in Paul Ardenne’s words, “using image-games rather than trapping it in image-pictures.”

The transition to digitalization in image making sweeps away Barthe’s punctum: the right to trust the photo as a witness, proof “that was.” There is no truth in a digital image, the stenciled connection has been severed. The digital image can be, at best, “that could have been.” The consequences of this destruction of the photo’s essential link to truth are two-fold. First, we now must always entertain, to our enduring discomfort, that what we are being offered may, probably is, false to reality. Is this photo deceiving us? We have no way of knowing. On the other hand, subjectivist imagery has become the norm. Modifying images is no longer taboo; a few clicks of the mouse and you can reconfigure the image to go well beyond the source image in its fidelity to what’s “out there.”

Along with the removal of the “sacred aura” that traditionally attends a photo, there is now an infinite potential for playing with the photo. No regrets, no remorse. Photography is no longer a repository of images plucked from the real but a combinatory and endlessly fluid medium of self-serving half-truths i.e. lies.

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12 thoughts on “The Barthian Punctum is Dead. Digital Killed It.

  1. Rob Campbell

    Digital has, imo, ruined the movie star portrait. Before that, film kept the world a little more honest.

    You just have to think about one movie, The Misfits, to see that played out in spades. All those Magnum photographers granted access made glorious shots of the production; you can see Marilyn in all kinds of states: laughing, studious, defeated, tired (outwith the movie, think Avedon and Stern, too, for that kind of shot of her) and you get the person, the human being. I believe that it was seeing the humanity behind the stardom that made her loved by so many. What do you get today? You get photos of lumps of fucking plastic. Interchangeable chunks of product that show you the fears of being different, of taking a chance, in the souls of the copycat teams surrounding these people and their allowed, vetted presentation of those in their care. It is fake and it comes across as fake; there is no way that any adult can feel any sympathy, empathy or even the slightest connection with those contemporary masks. That sure can’t be very good for creating long-term fans.

    I can see that it might appeal to very young teens, but do modern stars ever have any older fans? We are in the age not only of the lie, but of the great dumbing down.

    Exactly the same problem hit the Pirelli Calendar once they brought in the later Vogue snapper heroes. Production killed the charm, the sweet reality that those girls once let you enjoy. Simple shoots became massive over-productions. People, basically, forgot that humans have real skin, hair that gets wet, that it’s the human that’s the subject, the ”punctum” of the whole deal, not the hairdresser, the makeup artist or the set designer. Ye gods, it was supposed to be the world’s best pinup calendar, not just another fashion spread. That’s what happens when something gets so much money thrown at it, so many committees get a finger in the pie, so many con-artists find a way into the action. Digital gave them all keys.

  2. Dan Newell

    It’s been said that hell is where the Germans are the police, the French are the politicians and the English are the cooks….and the photographers are graphic artists.

    1. Rob Campbell

      Thanks for the link: for a moment, I thought that I was watching myself! I wear the same denim shirt, and the shine on the head is identical, too. The tonsorial difference is that enough still gathers at the rear to enable the remnants of a ponytail. This state is, I believe, somewhat helped by the tight elastic band that helps prevent more escapes from taking place.

      Many photographers have said that it is now essential to be able to make films in order to survive in the business. I would, then, no longer have stood a chance. A benefit of age, at last!

  3. Bill B

    The light reflected off my mother did enter the camera and did leave a latent image on the silver salts and so film can have a direct relationship to what was photographed. But with double exposure, you too could make photos of fairies at the bottom of your garden, or photos of ectoplasm during a seance. It did, however, take real expertise for book illustrations to look like real fairies. Then came photojournalism and F64 and a respect for the image.

    As you lay out, digital has made it easier to lose respect for the image, along with the marginalisation of photojournalism. I remember when a photograph of the accused in the Port Arthur Massacre was shown with his eyes digitally altered to make him look more of an insane murderer and the subsequent public scandal. That was in the 1990s. Would we notice if it was done today? You can buy a phone advertised with a one touch button to remove your frenemy from the image, something you might say to a young Stalin. This is why I am a marginalised, irrelevant amateur photographer who continues to use film and uphold its virtues. Some of those are articulated by Rob (cf above), when real, natural and beauty meant something inherent to the person or object in front of the camera.

  4. Dogman

    To liberally paraphrase my dear and long departed mother, “If a lot of people were taking pictures for shit they’d be a turd and a half in the hole.”

    Seems to me a lot of folks delude themselves into thinking they are photographers when what they are is knowledgeable in the moving around of pixels. Designing, not photographing.

    As a digital shooter I still have to agree with everything said. Digital technology has progressed from utilitarian to the ridiculous. People do ridiculous things because they can. Certainly not because it’s necessary for the sake of the photo. Me? I’m old and lazy. I’ve mashed shutter releases for over 50 years and I love photography with a religious zeal. I value the ability of digital to enable me to dodge and burn and spot images more efficiently, without so many mistakes and the waste of that nice expensive silver paper. I can still get nice looking pictures so why not? My religious zeal doesn’t extend into dogma. And I have no illusions about exhibiting my photos or showing them to a lot of people anyway. Most of my friends have now passed on so the audience is sparse. I’m now reduced to opening a Flickr account to massage my ego.

    You know, I still look lovingly at my old photos. And I still kinda love film cameras more than digital cameras. And I can’t force myself to use my iPhone for pictures and I will never learn to love electronic viewfinders glaring irritatingly into my jaundiced old eye. Can you be a Luddite and still enjoy the benefits of progress?

    1. Rob Campbell

      Unless you have one already, why not just start a website?

      Mine came a helluva long time after I stopped working, and its main function, really, is to gather in one space the stuff I shoot if I think of it as a keeper. It doesn’t matter if anyone else likes or dislikes it all; it represents easy access, anywhere, plus freedom from the chains of a desktop computer and a hard drive search.

      I find that if I haven’t looked at it for a week or two, I get a kick from revisiting. My regret is that when we left the UK to go live in Spain, I either sold to clients or just destroyed so many professionally shot negatives and transparencies; today, that would all have been a little goldmine of images; not financially, of course, but for their own sake. I suppose the miracle is that there was anything left at all. How I miss those murdered memories.

    2. Keith Laban

      “Can you be a Luddite and still enjoy the benefits of progress?”

      Sure can.

      Please, just be thankful for the miracle that is the digital world and the processes that enhance our lives and livelihoods. Where would we be now without them? We certainly wouldn’t be here chewing the fat. Sadly, many of us would be dead.

      Just who is Tim Vanderweert, Rob Campbell, or Dogman? Inevitable perhaps, but even now some we’ll never know.

      1. Leicaphila Post author

        Keith, yeah, we have to put all of this in context. While we can pontificate about the negative effects of our digital world, IMO it’s made my life much better. I now can communicate with people around the world at the push of a button; I can find the answer to any question in a few clicks, I can produce prints in a few minutes that would have taken me days in the wet darkroom.

        An example: I shot my wedding trip 11 years ago in Portland with my M5, 13 36 exposure rolls, had them developed and just put them away. Recently, given my health, my wife has been after me to print them. The other morning I found them – 450 negatives, 13 uncut rolls. It took me about an hour to bulk scan them all on my Pakon scanner, then another few hours to edit the good ones and print them up. By that afternoon my wife had 50 beautiful 8×11 B&W prints of our wedding day – 50! – all scanned, processed and printed in one morning. That would have been a week in a wet darkroom and the results wouldn’t have been half as good.

        I am glad I shot them all with film. All of them just have that look I can’t duplicate with digital. However, I did find myself tossing the negatives after I’d scanned them, so the old saw about having a physical copy as opposed to some numbers on a computer is somewhat overblown in this instance. But I do have ‘the look’, and there was something special about doing it all with film.

        All in all, digital rocks. That doesn’t mean we can’t point out its flaws though.

  5. Keith Laban

    Tim yes, understood. Thankfully I’m not attempting to emulate anything. I used film for more years than I care to remember, I’ve simply moved on.

    Now my colour options allow me to exceed anything I was capable of using film, whether output on a huge range of Giclee media or C-Type prints produced with laser printers.

    Perhaps my mindset would be very different if, like you, I was still producing mono work.

    1. Rob Campbell

      I started on b/white, shot it for much of my fashion work as well as a couple of calendars which I rather liked. The rest of them were shot on Ektachrome, but mostly Kodachrome. Oddly enough, the colour ones never really made me feel particularly satisfied with them. I guess I felt that they just looked like any other commercial work, whereas the black and white ones did not: I felt much more involved shooting the latter. Perhaps the time living with them, printing them up, also contributed to the emotional tie that I felt.

      Work done, I feel that colour is no longer of much interest to me in my own photography, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy other people’s colour stuff. Leiter and Feurer come instantly to mind. I suppose that in my own case, it’s just second childhood time. Also, I don’t feel any desire to shoot happy imagery; colour seems to have a built-in quality of doing just that to pictures.

      Tonight’s Spanish news was full of today’s appalling fresh cases of male violence and murder on partners, girlfriends or wives. Machismo is a national sickness here. They dug up a guy who makes art colour shots (very staged) of such violence; reminded my of those large, staged tableaux from Crewdson(?)… but the point is, the gore and colour simply gave them a theatrical glamour that black/ white might not. Maybe that’s partly why I don’t like Nan Goldin’s stuff very much. I have never seen a colour Arbus; it would probably not have worked. I guess Sally Mann’s charm is largely based on her good black/ white printing. On the other hand, the late David Hamilton managed to make his style work in both mediums.

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