Punctum

At her writing desk, by the empty windowsill where her glossy black cat, Ivan, twitched and stared this morning, the woman skims an essay on photography by the curator Boris Groys. It was written for an exhibition in Germany—Punctum—that Moyra Davey lent artwork to. She wants to understand what “punctum” means. She has an inkling, but she’s not sure. She blushes just a little, imagining what her editors would think if they knew of this gap in her art-theoretical knowledge.

In the heavy black book, Groys cites two scholars of the history and theory of photography: Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes. She pauses, taps her computer keyboard; her eyes wander to a small, deep blue and grey painting on the white wall behind the monitor: circles and squares, made by a close friend who passed away. She has just noticed that both Kracauer and Barthes began their theoretical inquiries into the nature of the photographic image with deeply personal reflections on photographs of women they had lost, grandmother and mother respectively.

Feelings of loss, distance, or disconnection made the photographs difficult to look at for the two scholars, she thinks. (There’s something in common, she thinks, with the way that her friend’s painting is hard to look at, because he’s not really there in the blue and grey shapes—is he?) Kracauer’s grandmother lacks individuality because her clothing, hair, and makeup are so dated that, to him, she could be almost any Victorian woman. Barthes’s photograph of his mother has punctum, because she is just a child in the picture. The woman realizes—aha!—that this photograph has punctum because it turns Barthes’s attention away from the image and toward “the void that these photographs cover.” (Groys, 2014, 7-8.) It’s a sort of existential awareness of time and death, the impossible distance between adult Barthes and child mother. 

The woman smiles with her eyes, mouth pursed in thought, hands resting on the computer keyboard. So often, she thinks, academic research and deep, productive thinking begin with powerful personal experiences. And while Barthes, she reads, believed that paintings can’t have punctum because they’re “fictional, non-referential,” (Groys, 2014, 9.) she begins to think otherwise.

Why else would the blue-and-grey painting invoke such similar emotions? Well, that's a research question for another time.