The Pictures From Here exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery looks at Vancouver as a place from which numerous lens-based artist burst onto the art scene in the last forty or so years. All the usual suspects are represented: Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham and Christos Dikeakos. Many other photographers are there as well, which is both a good thing and a problem. While there is a lot to see and choose from, ultimately there is little coherence in terms of why Vancouver and what made it so synonymous with photo-conceptualism. There is little satisfactory exploration of these questions and the result is a collection of different photographers with a variety of approaches to diverse issues. Nevertheless, there are plenty of good things to see here for those interested in photography. In particular, it is hard not to be enthralled by the many large-scale photographs on display. The monumentalism of these works, often eight by ten feet or larger, magnify their rich detail and colours. Roy Arden’s Landfill, Richmond BC, 1991, a photograph of an ordinary landfill, really of nothing interesting, becomes riveting because of the huge clear graduated blue sky. The socially engaged conscience in the back of my mind kept saying “you cannot stand here enjoying these works when there are so many injustices happening in the world,” but I think that it is ok to occasionally indulge in the simple joy of looking. One can argue that the melancholic pleasure of these works undermines their ability to function critically, but I think a counter argument can be made that the activation of the senses and non-cognitive forms of thought also have a role in promoting resistance to the craziness of our world. The fact that Arden’s photograph is of nothing in particular is perhaps what makes it so interesting, one can’t stop looking and thinking about why it is so captivating. Rodney Graham’s Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour,* 2012-13, is similarly of nothing special, but is equally spectacular. The photograph’s nod to Thomas Eakins 1871 painting The Champion Single Skulls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) appears to be more of a conceptual excuse to make a photograph rather than any attempt to recreate or advance meaning. Graham’s ridiculous portrayal of himself as the paddler is what makes the work so absorbing. The sheer absurdity of his white beard and garnet toque inadvertently forces one into a prolonged stare of disbelief. Of course, the illumination of the light box enhances the detail and clarity of the river bank scene to add to the viewing pleasure, much like a giant projection of a Fuji Velvia slide with its saturated colours. The reference to painting is a good reminder that it was how Jeff Wall’s original practice of large light box photographs in the style of nineteenth-century history painting emerged in the late 1970s. However, whereas Wall tried to infuse his works with meaning, Graham’s absurd lack of meaning is in many ways more suitable to our contemporary moment. Among the many other photographers on display, Greg Girard’s photographs of a dingy dockside Vancouver in the 1970s is another pleasant surprise. Pictures From Here continues to September 4, 2017 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
* Featured image above is Rodney Graham’s Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012-13, from the Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
I purchased a Panasonic GX85 when it was first released because it seemed like a very inexpensive way to get into M4/3s cameras for the first time. To my pleasant surprise, it turned out to be an all round excellent interchangeable lens camera. It was an optimal size for me, not too small, comfortable to grip, not too large so it cannot fit into a coat pocket, and it had all the features that I had come to expect from the latest cameras. Originally I thought of using the GX85 as a kind of note taking camera for ideas that I can then later use to put the ‘big’ cameras to work for. However, it has become the camera that I carry around and use the most and that produces high quality images which are more than just ‘notes.’ While only sporting a 16MB sensor, the GX85 images are very sharp as it has no anti-aliasing filter, and it has a great sensor-based image stabilizing system as well as excellent autofocusing that together make for near foolproof image capture. Additionally there is a face/eye autofocus feature for perfect portraiture and street shooting. These are the main features that I find useful, but there is much more such as a built in flash, 4K video, time lapse, etc. My GX85 came with a much maligned kit lens, a tiny pancake 12-32mm f3.5-5.6, which I happen to really like. It is small and lets me tuck the GX85 in my pocket or in a bag with other stuff without taking too much room. As far as its optics are concerned, 12-32mm is just as sharp in the middle as many prime lenses and while it is a little softer in the corners, not by much. Of course there is a plethora of other lenses to choose from for M4/3s. I decided to stick with Panasonic lenses since I read (rightly or wrongly) that they work best with Panasonic’s image stabilization system. I also chose smaller sized lenses since I did not see the point of having a small camera with a giant lens attached to it. The Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm f1.7 lens is a great wide angle lens, super sharp and small, as is the more normal focal length Panasonic 20mm f1.7, which is about the same size as the pancake kit lens. The Panasonic 20mm lens is said to be slow to autofocus, but on the GX85 I have had no issues, seems speedy enough to me. Finally the Panasonic 42.5mm f1.7 is an excellent portrait and short tele lens that has gorgeous bokeh and with its close focus feature it can double as a macro lens. Some day I would like to add a good telephoto lens for wildlife/bird photography, that would mean a bigger lens, but it would still be considerably smaller than the full frame equivalent kit. About the only negative comment I have about the GX85 is that I am a little disappointed with the electronic viewfinder, it seems too small and a bit finicky, however, it does the job, plus I often just use the LCD for quick shots anyway. Purchase the Panasonic GX85 here.
There has been a great deal of hoopla created by the announcement of two new medium format mirrorless cameras from Fuji and Hasselblad. Having shot medium and large format film for some time, I too was excited at the prospect of medium format digital in a compact format and at a more reasonable price than the traditional Phase One or Hasselblad offerings. My previous foray into digital was primarily with Sony A7 series cameras that allowed me to use my existing collection of film era lenses as well as some of the new Sony/Zeiss lenses. I hesitated to upgrade my A7r because of the expense of moving to a A7r II and how physically large and expensive the new Sony lenses had become. For a change of pace I decided to dip my toe into micro 4/3s with the modestly priced Panasonic GX85 that came with a compact 12-35mm lens. The quality of the images from that camera really surprised me and I quickly added a Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm 1.7 and 25mm 1.4. It was a revelation that in some cases there was very little difference between the images taken on the GX85 versus the A7r. Of course if you pixel peeped, you could see more resolution at 100% on the A7r, but the quality of especially the Summilux lenses was equal to the Sony/Zeiss lenses. The major difference, as far as I could tell, was only how large you could print, but more on this later. The GX85 became my preferred walking around camera, and the Sony A7r was relegated to more serious landscape work. However, with the announcement of the new mirrorless medium format cameras I started to think about getting the look that I loved in medium and large format film that was still missing from my 35mm digital experience.
Since I had a film Pentax 645N film camera with some very nice 645 lenses, it dawned on me that I could try out digital medium format in a relatively economical manner. I purchased a Pentax 645D and although it was 5 years old and came with a 40MB CCD sensor, many Pentaxians claimed there was very little resolution difference between it and the newer Pentax 645Z’s 50MB CMOS sensor (the same one that the new Fuji and Hasselblad are using). Additionally there was talk about how the CCD sensor produced better color than the new CMOS sensor. The real big difference between the 645D and Z is better high ISO performance with the Z. But buying a 645D seemed like a good idea since I was going to use it mainly for landscape photos on a tripod, thus high ISO was not an issue and I already owned some highly rated Pentax lenses such as the SMC-A 645 35mm, an A 75mm, and an A 120mm lens. The results I got from the 645D were great, definitely better than the A7r in terms of resolution, color and a more subtle graduated tonality. Nevertheless, while I was in a forest shooting one of my favourite trees, I decided to do a little experiment as I had both my Pentax 645D with a 35mm lens as well as my GX85 with the 15mm Summilux, each having a roughly similar 28mm focal length in 35mm terms. I took some images with each camera using a tripod from the same spot and compared them in Photoshop. To my great surprise, I again did not really see that much of a difference, obviously as one would expect, the 645D image had far more resolution if you pixel-peeped at 100%. However, as you can see below there is little visible difference between the digital images, especially at Internet resolution. Oddly, the GX85 appeared to have more of a 3 dimensional appearance than the 645D image.
Pentax 645D, Pentax SMC-A 645 35mm, ISO 200, f16 and 2 seconds:
Panasonic GX85, Panasonic Leica Summilux 15mm f/1.7, ISO 200, f5.6 and 1/6 of a second:
Next I decided to do a print comparison because the real test, in my opinion, is how things look in print. My go-to paper is Canson Baryta and since that largest size that I can print on my Epson P800 is 17” x 22,” I printed the images with a small border at 16” x 20” each. Looking at the printed images was more surprising to me than looking at them on the computer as there was even a less discernable difference. Below are some close ups of the prints taken with a 120mm macro lens on the 645D. It is roughly the equivalent of having your eyeball about one inch away from the print, an unrealistic real life situation and a distance at which I certainly cannot focus my eyes. As you can see, the 645D print is a bit better at this close range than the GX85. But at a more comfortable viewing distance, as close as one foot, there is no discernable difference between the two. When I used to wet print, even in a small 8×10 print, I was almost always able to see the difference between a 35mm print and a medium format print. The fact that a M4/3’s print at a fairly good size of 16” x 20” can stand up to a medium format digital print is a testament to the quality of the M4/3 sensor of the GX85 with a PanLeica Summilux 15mm lens.
Given the largest print size that I can produce on the printer that I own, and the fact that there is such little difference between the prints, I really don’t see the point of the extra expense and weight. I haven’t mentioned the other advantages of the GX85 such as sensor stabilization, a smaller sensor that gives more depth of field for landscapes, and lets not forget eye sensing technology that helped produce my perfect Christmas portraits, as well as 4K video to top things off. The cameras and lenses available for micro 4/3s are so outstanding, that unless you are printing really big, there is little or no reason to go to APC or full frame, let alone medium format. There are many professionals fine art photographers that print in sizes less than 17” x 22” so it is not as much of a limitation as it is may seem. If money were not an object, then I too would love to have one of the new Fuji or Hasselblad cameras. But since that is not the case, it is important think about the end product that one is actually producing, which is usually a print of a particular size, and what is the best way for one to effectively and creatively produce it.
The Pentax 645 medium format line of film cameras includes the 645, the 645N and the 645Nii. Since they use 6 cm x 4.5 cm negatives the cameras themselves are smaller than the Pentax 67 line, but considerably larger than 35mm SLR bodies. Thus, in effect you still get a SLR on steroids like the Pentax 67, but unfortunately lacking the large negatives of the 67. Although the 645 format negative is about twice the size of a 35mm negative, it remains only be a hop-skip-and-jump away from 35mm and not the dramatic improvement in tonality and resolution one sees with a 67 format negative. Like the Pentax 67 cameras, there is a complete line of lenses ranging from wide angle to telephoto, and there is the option to use Pentax 67 lenses with an adapter. Outstanding lenses include the Pentax-A 645 35mm f3.5, the Pentax-A 645 75mm f2.8, and the Pentax-A 645 120mm f4 macro. The 45mm and 55mm lenses are disappointing, not very sharp, in fact the Pentax-FA 45-85 zoom lens is much better than the either the 45 or 55mm. This is the only zoom lens that I have ever used that was better than the primes in its focal range. Not sure if this is because the zoom is that good or the primes that bad. Although the Pentax 645 is smaller than a Pentax 67, the fact that it takes six AA batteries actually makes the camera body heavier than a Pentax 67 with a waist level finder. The 645 auto film advance sounds like a loud sewing machine, consequently making you the centre of attention wherever you shoot. I think the only reason to get one of the 645 film cameras is if you are using a 645D or Z digital camera and can thus share lenses between a film and digital camera, otherwise there are too many other medium format film cameras like Rollies or Hasselblads that are far more rewarding to use. Or just use one of the many great Pentax 35mm cameras that are lighter, smaller, and more fun to use. Click to purchase: Pentax 645, Pentax 645N, Pentax 645Nii.
Like a film SLR on steroids, the Pentax 6×7 can only be described as being ginormous. The upside is beautiful large 6×7 negatives, but the obvious downside is the sheer size and weight of the camera and lenses. There were three different models, 6×7, 67, and the 67ii. They all look very much the same, however, incremental improvements were added along the way to the viewfinder, metering, shutter, aperture priority and film transport. The only model to really avoid is the first 6×7 model without the mirror lock-up feature (subsequent 6×7 models designated MU had the mirror lock-up), as there is a tremendous mirror/shutter thunk. It can be used handheld with speeds at 1/250 or higher, but for critically sharp images you will want a tripod. Some photographers even hang a camera pack or something heavy from the underside of their tripod to help reduce camera shake. I remember reading a Luminous Landscape article where the author suggested a bungee cord between the underside of the tripod and his foot to further stabilize the camera and tripod. Many fantastic lenses are available, I particularly liked the 45mm f4 for landscapes, the very fast 105mm f2.4 for portraits and general purpose, but my favourite was the very small 90mm f2.8 as a walk around lens. Another downside is the 1/60 second flash sync, although there are some lenses with leaf shutters like a 165mm portrait lens. A great fun camera that produces wonderful images, but in the end it was just too back breaking an exercise to shoot with this kit. My 4×5 Shen-Hao field camera plus lenses was actually lighter than the Pentax 6×7! To purchase click on: Pentax 6×7, Pentax 67, and Pentax 67ii.
Lewis Baltz established himself as a key contributor to redefining American Landscape photography when he participated with seven other photographers, including Robert Adams and Stephen Shore, in the influential exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Lansdcape, 1975, at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The current exhibition, Lewis Baltz Portfolios at Griffin Art Projects, of Baltz’s work from a slightly later period in the 1970s and 1980s deals with similar subject matter and is drawn from the private collection of David Knaus. Baltz’s photographs, like the better-known work of Robert Adams, documents the effects of urban expansion into the previously pristine landscape of the American West. However, unlike Adam’s work that focuses primarily on suburban tract housing, Baltz turns his attention to the kind of waste that is added to the landscape at the margins of urban sprawl. The photographs are displayed in a grid format that appear to emphasize the monotony and repetition of a man-made environment. His minimalist aesthetic focuses on lifeless subject matter and pays a great deal attention to surface texture and contrast in the many close-ups of mounds of dirt and debris left behind from the urbanization process. These supplements to the landscape have a kinship to the additive method of sculpture and are in a curious way reminiscent of land art from the 1960s and 1970s. In fact a dotted line could be drawn between some of Baltz’s photographs and earth artist Robert Smithson’s 1967 photographic dérive “A tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” Instead of large format cameras that were favoured by traditional landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams, Smithson used a 35mm Kodak Instamatic due to its “generic” and “objective” replication of reality in a straightforward and unromantic way. Baltz similarily used a 35mm camera, but he was far more concerned with the quality and appearance of his prints than Smithson was. Though Baltz’s silver gelatin prints are small (approximately 8×10), they contain great depth of field and exceptional detail that draw you in to look closely. Baltz perfected the contrast in his prints by experimenting with some of the whitest papers available for silver gelatin printing. The exhibition is worthwhile seeing just to take in the quality of the workmanship that went into prints.
While the adverse effects of urbanization on the landscape in Baltz’s work appear timid in comparison to some recent documentation of what humans are doing to our environment by photographers such as Edward Burtynsky or Sebastiao Salgado, Baltz’s photographs still function in a provocative way. The focus on smaller details highlights on-going everyday toxicity that happens all around us versus mega disasters that are largely only accessible at a removed distance. The close attention to detail in the photographs calls out for us to do the same and continues to have a thoughtful impact. Lewis Baltz Portfolios continues at Griffin Art Projects until May 20.
Rollei has been making twin lens reflex cameras since 1929. Like their German brethren, Leica, they were extremely well engineered with outstanding lenses, however, they easily surpass Leicas in the quality of prints that can be obtained from their large 6cm x 6cm negatives. Rolleiflexes were favoured by legendary photographers such as Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus and Vivian Meier, as well as celebrities like Paul McCartney and James Dean. It is a testament to their craftsmanship that many of these 50+ year old cameras still work flawlessly today. Sadly, Rollei ceased operations in 2015.
Besides a Rolleicord VA, at one time I had in my possession a Rolleiflex f3.5 E3 and a Rolleiflex f2.8 F, which allowed me to evaluate their handling and results side by side. The Rolleicord is a simplified and cheaper version of the regular Rolleiflex. I initially found the Rolleicord somewhat difficult to shoot because of the retro cocking mechanism. You have to cock the shutter and then pull the cocking mechanism the other way to fire the shutter (apparently there is an original soft shutter release button that can be inserted into the cable release socket, but these were invariably lost and are very rare today). The Rolleiflexes have a more traditional shutter button. However, with some practice I found that I was able to hold and fire the Rolleicord steadier than the Rolleiflexes when I braced my thumbs on either side of body and used my middle finger to pull the shutter. With the Rolleiflexes you press the shutter into the body from the front and thus unless you have the camera braced against your stomach I found I had some camera shake at slower speeds. I also found the Rolleicord’s winding knob preferable to the Rolleiflex’s crank, so in the end the Rolleicord handling was more to my liking.
With the various different lenses available on the Rolleicord and Rolleiflexes there is the inevitable endless debate about which is better. Different models come with either the Zeiss Triotar, Zeiss Tessar, Schnieder Xenar, Zeiss planar or Schneider Xenotar. The Zeiss Planar f3.5 and f2.8 lenses are the most highly regarded and are reflected in their prices. My Rolleicord VA came with a Schneider Xenar 75mm f3.5 that has 4 elements and 3 groups. Both my Rolleiflexes had the sought after Zeiss Planar lenses. When I compared the negatives from controlled shots on a tripod, I could see very little difference, perhaps a very slight advantage to the Rolleiflexes, however, the bokeh from the 2.8 lens was not particularly more attractive than either the 3.5 lenses. The 2.8 Rolleiflex had a problem so it was sent back to the seller, and I decided to sell the 3.5 Rolleiflex as it was almost 7 times more expensive than the Rolleicord but was not anywhere near 7 times the advantage in optics or handling. Maybe I was lucky with my Rolleicord, everything works perfectly, the speeds are spot on, it was overhauled and new skins put on by a Rangefinderforum member, and did I mention that it is more compact and lighter than the Rolleiflexes? To top it all off when I compared negatives from the Rolleicord and a Hasselblad 500CM with a Zeiss 80mm 2.8 C lens, the Rolleicord was again equal if not better. Hard to believe but true, here is a more scientific evaluation that came to a similar conclusion. The Rolleicord is one of the best medium format deals available if you can find a good one; it is super compact, fits into a small bag and delivers great images. Click on link to purchase: Rolleicord, Rolleiflex 3.5, Rolleiflex 2.8.
This is more than a one-minute review, consider it ten-one-minute reviews in one since it is a topic that requires a little more detail. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is one of the three classic books on photography, along with Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography and Susan Sontag’s On Photography that attempt to get at the slippery issue of the essence of photography. A notorious tricky thing to do, as we all know, even from a form factor perspective, a film negative is a different thing from a digital file, which is different from a print, as a computer screen image or a light box is different from a slide projection. Photography does not easily fit into being categorized as just one thing. All three books are fascinating in their own ways, but there is a curious relationship between Benjamin’s book and Barthes’s. What I find particularly interesting about both books is the way in which Barthes and Benjamin curate and select the photographs they decide to highlight. Although both discuss some photographs that can be considered part of the art historical canon, they often go outside this club and select photographs that have specific meaning for them. This approach brings attention to the diversity of the photographic world and how many different kinds of photographs create compelling meaning. On the other hand, Camera Lucida has been criticized for being focused too much on aesthetics and is largely discounted in today’s climate where everything important in art must be about “social” or “political engagement.” Hopefully I can show how Camera Lucida is much more than just aesthetics.
Roland Barthes was a French theoretician, whose writing career spanned the post-war era all the way up to his untimely death in 1980. Shortly after Camera Lucida was published, he was hit by a van crossing the street and died about a month later. His obsession with death in the book is almost an uncanny foreshadowing of his own death. Barthes is generally associated with the rise of structuralism as a new dominant form of academic discourse in France during the 1960s. Photography has always been something of interest to him and he has written many essays on it. His best known works on photography are “The Photographic Image,” 1961, “Rhetoric of the Image,” 1964, “The Third Meaning,” 1970, and of course Camera Lucida. However, even his other essays that were not strictly speaking about photography have a strong photographic presence. For instance in his Mythologies book from 1957, which is a collection of his magazine articles, the text is very much concerned with photographic images. Chapter XIX on “Photography and Electoral Appeal” and the last essay in the book “”Myth Today,” Barthes offer a semiotic analysis of the kinds of myths that he associates with systems of representation. He wants to consider everyday images as operating like semiotic sign systems. There is his now famous example of a Paris Match magazine cover were a young Blackman salutes the French flag. For Barthes the meaning here is a mystification of French Imperialism and translates into something along the lines that imperialism is good because the oppressed are saluting the French flag so we are one big happy family and colonization is not such as bad thing. Because it is a photograph, we tend to assume it is true. Thus what Barthes is doing here is uncovering the abuse of the evidentiary force of photography, or what makes photography a powerful ideological weapon in that it works to naturalize a view of the world that is in fact always political and historical.
Structuralism, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss, another Frenchman who is considered one of the founders of the movement, claims linguistics “presents us with a dialectical and totalizing entity but one outside (or beneath) consciousness and will. Language, an unreflecting totalization, is human reason which has its reasons and of which man knows nothing.” Structuralism’s implication is that relations are governed by laws that one may not be fully conscious of, and thus subjects are just the product of symbolic systems or power structures for which self-determining autonomy is a mere illusion. Barthes, however, had a slightly different perspective on structuralism. In a 1963 essay called “On the Subject of Violence” he states: “ there exist certain writers, painters, musicians in whose eyes a certain exercise of structure (and no longer merely its thought) represents a distinctive experience, and that both analysts and creators must be placed under the common sign of what we might call structural man, defined not by his ideas or his languages, but by his imagination-in other words, by the way in which he mentally experiences structure.” Consequently, even in the heyday of his structuralist period, he is clearly assigning some room here for a self through experience, and something very personal, an imagination. This notion of selfhood is something I would like to carry forward through his other writings on photography. On the other hand, the problematic part, and something that he also slips into occasionally in Camera Lucida, is that he appears to call up a kind of Modernist notion of genius in which only certain people, people like him, have this ability to rise up above the overwhelming power of social and cultural structures.
Camera Lucida itself is divided into two parts that suggests a kind of separation between the mind and what is typically termed as emotion. I prefer to call it non-cognitive because I think that what Barthes is talking about is more than just emotion. In addition, Barthes emphasizes a split between the public and the personal. Right from the first page when he describes looking at a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, he makes it clear that his insight is personal, something that others might not share and he comments how “life consists of these little touches of solitude” when no one else seems to understand what he is talking about. Each half of the book is divided into 24 little chapters (like 24 exposures in a roll of film). There are 24 black and white photographs, plus one Polaroid. In his drive to find the essential feature of photography, he bases his theory in the first part on two terms: studium and punctum. The studium denotes the publicly available meaning of the image that is charged and determined by cultural context. This is the literal meaning of the photograph, that which the photographer intended you to see and is linguistically explicable. The punctum on the other hand, is the ‘unexpected prick’ that pierces through this cultural field. The studium is the “field” and the punctum is that which pierces the field or something that disturbs the field. Consequently what Barthes comes to see drawing him to the photograph, is the detail or punctum, that which supplements the informational or symbolic meaning with something that is contingent and/or unintentional. A ‘referent’ usually designates a relation to something outside of language or something in the real world, for Barthes it becomes something more personal. The punctum lurks in the details of some photographs, which then takes the viewer by surprise and alters the sense of the image.
One of these details that is of crucial importance to Barthes is outlined in his claim that “A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent … “ As in his essay “Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes uses the term being-there in Camera Lucida as a loosely borrowed term from philosopher Charles Peirce, meaning index or indexicality, which represents its object through a kind of contact (such as a footprint, fingerprint, smoke, etc). In the case of film photography the light reflecting off the object is absorbed by silver halide crystals on film and then fixed through a chemical process. The resulting seemingly natural and authentic representation of photography gives it a suggestion of an authentic relation to life and thus an evidentiary and persuasive force.
Throughout the history of photography its inevitably association with a claim of objectivity has always been a source of much discussion. While the unique truth telling aspects of photography have always been championed, right from the beginning of its history, the practice itself was bound up in a certain slight of hand. Susan Sontag recounts in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, the American Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardner. One of Gardner’s photographs called The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, 1863, is an example where the duty to record history as a truth beyond appeal required a little further assistance than what the battlefield left behind. What the photograph actually shows is a dead confederate soldier who was moved from where he fell in the field to a more photogenic site by the rocks. The photo includes a rifle that Gardner leaned against the barricade, however the rifle is not the special rifle a sharpshooter would have used but rather a common infantryman’s rifle. So basically Gardner faked the photograph. What Sontag finds odd is not that the photographs were staged, but that “we are surprised to learn they were staged, and always disappointed.” The disappointment comes from the expectation that photographs are truthful. However, I am not sure that Barthes is concerned with the truth telling power of photography in this way. He speaks of the stickiness of the referent, and in Gardner’s example, even though things were re-arranged, there is no doubt that they were at one time placed in front of the lens. Barthes calls “every photograph a certificate of presence.”
The following quote from Camera Lucida summarizes what Barthes sees as specific to photography:
“I call ‘photographic referent’ not only the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. … in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography. … the name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That-has-been,’ or again: the Intractable.”
This new addition to punctum in the second half of the book is about the notion of time, the emphasis of the noeme (‘that-has-been’) and its pure representation. Any photograph now has this what he calls “about to die/already dead,” quality. While the punctum is associated with the necessary real thing of the image, in a number of occasions the punctum that Barthes describes appears to be something that is in fact absent from the photograph. Barthes attributes the “necessarily real thing placed before the lens” as something that triggers the punctum of a higher order of emotional intensity due to the reality of its origin. Thus the punctum is like some kind of residue that has been caught in the photo and undermines or disturbs the viewer. Barthes assesses the nature of photography’s effects on himself when he states “ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, then it thinks.” The punctum he proposes, is an element of a picture that evades analysis and is often an incidental or unintentional and an uncoded aspect of the photograph that is sometimes recalled or even transformed by memory. This is why I prefer to call this aspect of the punctum as non-cognitive, it is not pure affect or emotion, it is a form of knowledge or insight that is just outside of language, and Barthes confirms this when he states that “what I can name cannot really prick me.” This suggests that punctum is not necessarily found within the photograph itself.
We can see this working in some examples such as the first photograph Barthes describes (but he does not show), that of Napoléon’s youngest brother. Barthes claims he is “looking at the eyes that looked at the emperor” and he is overcome with the desire “to learn at all costs what photography was ‘in itself.’” Barthes is fascinated by the closeness between Jérôme and Napoléon, but there is nothing in the photograph that bears witness to this closeness. Instead the knowledge that the photograph in question is of Jérôme, and that Jérôme is the younger brother of Napoléon, allows Barthes to experience the punctum. It is memory outside the photograph that supplements that actual physical photograph.
Another example is when Barthes describes the punctum of Alexander Gardner’s photograph of the assassin Lewis Payne the day before his execution, as being the fact that Payne is about to die. What pricks him is the discovery of the equivalence of “This will be with this has been.” However, the knowledge of the impending death of Payne is again not disclosed by the photograph but rather through knowledge outside the photograph. Lastly, there is the much discussed problem of mistaken identity in the James Van der Zee portrait where Barthes attributes the real punctum to a braided gold necklace he claims one of the women is wearing, when in fact she is wearing a pearl necklace. In this case the “that-has-been,” never actually was.
So we have this contradiction, Barthes is attempting to find the essence of photography but the punctum often appears to be outside the actual photograph. He writes “A photograph touches me if I withdraw it from its usual blah-blah: Technique, reality, reportage, art, etc: to say nothing, to shut my eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness.” So the punctum here appears when he is not even looking at the photograph. Elsewhere he writes: “sometimes, despite its clarity, the punctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect, the punctum.” Barthes here is, as he claims, trying to dismiss all knowledge, all culture, he doesn’t want to inherit anything from another eye other than his own. This sounds almost like a naïve Modernist quest to retrieve some kind of primitive purity, some moment of plenitude, to be able to see clearly again without the lens of culture blocking his view. In fact early on in the book he states “yet I persisted; another louder voice urged me to dismiss such sociological commentary; looking at certain photographs, I wanted to be a primitive, without culture.” He doesn’t want sociology, psychoanalysis or semiology to cloud his vision, he wants something direct. Thus the contradiction is that he wants something direct from the details to bring out the essence of photography that disturbs him, but at the same time he ignores what is in the photographs and retrieves more important details from somewhere else.
Near the end of the book he writes the “Last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.” Writer Geoffrey Batchen, in his excellent book Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, points out that in the French edition Barthes calls punctum a “supplement” rather than an addition. Batchen claims that this is important because “consigning punctum to the logic of the supplement is to displace it from certainty, to put it in motion, to turn it in on itself. The most important element of the photograph is also, apparently, something supplemental, unnecessary, in addition to requirements. Like the referent, it is both there in the photograph and not there, both natural (a matter of indexical science) and cultural (brought to the image by a human observer) and therefore not quite either.” This elusive nature, this combination of contradictions, in Barthes’ punctum is for me analogous to how not only photography but other images and artworks disturb our complacency and make us think. Over and over again Barthes makes it clear it is not the shock value of the photograph that distinguishes it from others, it is something that provokes thought. So the arrow that pierces the punctum or to put it in another way, the non-cognitive aspect that is outside of language, or the things that slip through the totalizing net of rationality, in turn cause us to reflect by creating a kind of crisis of perception.
Finally, I think the personal approach to reading photography, not the typical art historical canon of great photographs, that Barthes takes has wider social and political associations. The idea of a personal history of photography seems to fit well with the notion that photography was one of the instruments that has enabled the democratization of image making, where now almost anyone is able to make an image. There is an emancipatory quality associated with making one’s own images and then to be able to read what is visible in them. As there is also an emancipatory and political element to be able to document all aspects of life and culture in a process that does not stop at borders and enables other cultures to be accessible and visible. Photography’s accessibility to all creates a new kind of citizenship that can produce, distribute and look at images. The images that Barthes uses in Camera Lucida are not found in many art history surveys and he has been criticized for his aesthetic judgment, but it is interesting that at least half of his photographs deal with marginalized people and situations. Thus it is apparent that Barthes’s personal curatorial process was potentially far more political than aesthetic, and it fits well a quote from his Mythologies book where he states: “To parody a well-known saying, I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it.”
Like the Pentax MZ-3 , the Contax Aria is a 1990s all electronic camera that has great ergonomics, a high shutter speed (up to 1/4000), spot and matrix metering, and various program modes. Immediately noticeable is the Aria’s much nicer build quality and as a result its more expensive price. However, unlike the MZ-3, the Aria does not have a built in flash and it does not use autofocus lenses. Nevertheless, the use of only manual lenses means that the Aria has a traditional ground glass/split-screen viewfinder, and what a beautiful viewfinder it is! There are probably very few film SLR viewfinders that are as large, as bright and as crisp as the Aria’s, a true pleasure to use. The other big advantage of the Aria is the availability of a fantastic line-up of Contax Zeiss prime lenses. Ranging from 15mm to 1000mm, plus a plethora of zooms and other manufacturers lenses means an extensive number of options (CY lens catalogue here). Several highlights are the 28mm F2 “Hollywood” lens, as well as the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm fast f1.4 lenses. I particularly like the Contax/Zeiss 45mm f2.8 Tessar tiny pancake lens, which on the Contax Aria turn it into a small and light walking around camera about the size of a point and shoot. Thus it would seem that the Aria is an overall better option than the Pentax MZ-3, except for the fact that I prefer Pentax lenses for B&W photography. The Zeiss lenses for the Aria are excellent, but they have a very modern contrasty look, too close to what digital looks like than I would prefer. On the other hand, the Pentax K, M and Takumar lenses are less contrasty and render nicely in B&W. For colour, the Zeiss lenses win hands-down, but since I do very little colour photography, my MZ-3 sees far more action. Purchase Contax Aria here.
The MZ-3 is a cheap plastic camera from 1997 that strangely has become my one of my favourite Pentax film SLRs. It is electronic so it will only work with two CR2 batteries for shutter/meter/film advance. I don’t have any autofocus lenses so I only use it with manual lenses, and although the viewfinder screen is not as crisp as the ground glass of Pentax manual cameras such as the MX, I have not had any trouble focusing the MZ-3. There is a focus detect function, but I have not had an instance where I had to use it. The size and ergonomics are perfect for me, the grip on the front and the small contour thumb rest on the back make it very comfortable to hold. The plastic construction makes it light, but not unbalanced with smaller lenses and short teles, although I can see longer teles as being a problem. The major benefit is both the high shutter speed (up to 1/4000) and the inclusion of a spot meter. My preferred method of shooting B&W film is to spot meter the shadows and manually adjust the speed up by 2 stops, or simply meter something in Zone 5 and press the exposure lock button. Typically I would just let the camera pick the shutter speed. The high shutter speed allows you to use the glorious fast lenses like the SMC 50mm 1.4 or the 50mm 1.2 in daylight, even with ISO 400 speed film. The built in pop-up flash is great for snapshots when you need it without the bother of mounting an external flash. I believe all the MZ-3s came with the annoying date back door, but I easily replaced it with the back door from my MZ-5 to get rid of the needless additional bulk. The advantage of the all-electronic 1990s camera is that the shutter speeds will always be accurate, the meter is excellent, and if it breaks, you can replace it with another for only $20-$40! The MZ-3 may not feel as nice as a Pentax LX or a K1000, but it will get the job done. Purchase Pentax Mz-3 here.