Death of the Author
Barthes’ essay ‘Death of the Author’ in 1967 suggested that far from the author being in control of any text, a text’s interpretation relies on the reader. Effectively, the reader ‘rewrites the text with every reading'(Goring, Hawthorn and Mitchell, 2006) . Barthes’ quotation that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author’ makes this complex argument a little easier to understand (ibid). The essay suggested that a reader should be less passive and should have to work harder to interpret texts.
We generally think of an author (or a photographer) as creating something original; something new. However, Barthes is suggesting that every idea is sourced from somewhere else or from something else that the author has seen or experienced before. Any practitioner is aware of previous texts and every word that s/he writes has been written before. In photography, the whole World has been photographed already.
Barthes is saying that the author become irrelevant; it is not possible to know exactly what the author intended and it is the reader that decides what a text or image means.
While researching the concept of ‘Death of the Author’ I came across this additional work by Barthes. Regarding photography, Barthes, in his book ‘Camera Lucida’, introduces two concepts:
The studium is the broad sense of what the image is about (the where, when and what, of the image). The term relates to the overall interest the photograph has for a viewer and its attractiveness regarding lighting, subject matter, composition and so on. An image of a little girl in a pretty dress eating an ice cream may be a pleasant image to attract our attention.
The punctum is distinct point of interest that jumps out at the viewer. A photograph may be perfectly ‘good’ without a punctum but it is the small unexpected detail that makes the photograph more effective and interesting. The punctum may be different for different viewers as it can be personal to the viewer depending on what resonates with him or her the most. More usually though the punctum will be obvious, the spider on the hem of the little girl’s dress etc.
Barthes was ‘sensitive to the subtle nuances of photographic visual language’ (Short, 2011) and his concepts of studium and punctum have shown me how one small detail can transform an image from something that a viewer may ‘like’ in to one that he may ‘love’.
I have recently attended the Impressions Gallery, Bradford and saw a display of images celebrating the shared history of the UK with Pakistan. I saw the image below and as I had been recently studying studium and punctum I was aware of this in this particular image. It is always good to apply my learning to images that I see. Forgive the reflection of my hand in the image.
The inclusion of the boy’s face at the right hand side was an ‘extra’ detail that was unexpected. The image would have been successful without it but it made the image more interesting. I considered this to be the punctum of the image.
Rhetoric of the Image
Sharon Boothroyd in the OCA course notes says that ‘picture essays were often printed with heavy text accompaniments, placed there to enhance the story and give extra factual information about the pictures’ (Boothroyd, 2014, p55).
Smith used text in Country Doctor such as ‘Thomas Mitchell, who has gangreen in his foot, being operated on by Dr. Ceriani’ and Campbell used text in The Dad Project when she stated ‘sitting in the garden became an event, then a days activity, and eventually a strain that he endured only to comfort us. Or was it to comfort himself? I wondered endlessly, but really there was no difference’.
Both these narratives provide additional context. Smith provides brief additional factual details such as a patients age and the medical event. When we learn the details of Thomas Mitchell’s illness and can empathise with the seriousness of the operation he is about to endure and consider the skill of the doctor as a surgeon. Campbell’s narrative is lengthier and very personal and adds feeling and emotion to the image along with a sense of time passing.
Barthes’ in his essay Rhetoric of the Image’ identified two terms that describe different ways of using narrative with photographs.
Text used as an anchor, fixes the meaning of an image so that it cannot be misinterpreted. Examples could be titles or labels.
Text used as a relay is characteristic of a post modern approach and together with the image itself provides additional information that is not found in the image alone and can change the meaning of the photograph. The image and the text each bring something to the meaning.
Boothroyd, S. (2014) Introduction: Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts
Goring, P., Hawthorn, J. and Mitchell, D. (2006). Studying literature. London: Arnold.
Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative (Basics Creative Photography). AVA Publishing.