In this, the first of many Idea Exchange posts, we’ll share an interesting idea that someone is teaching or learning recently in an Honors College class. Here’s our first from Dr. Timothy Berg, Associate Teaching Professor of Honors Humanities.

By Professor Tim Berg

In my Honors 390 colloquium on photography, we explore the idea of the photograph: what it is, how it works, what it can say, and the alternate universe it creates. We read some of the major theorists in the history of photographic thinking. One of the most prominent is Camera Lucida, by the French writer Roland Barthes (1915-1980). Barthes’ goal is to understand what photography is and what it does that no other medium of expression does.

In doing so, he posits the ideas of the studium and the punctum as critical to understanding photography. When we look at a photograph, the studium is the general reading we can do with a photograph; it’s from a certain time period, appears to be from a certain place, has x, y, and z things or people in it, etc. It’s fairly straightforward and everyone can do a version of this reading. The punctum, however, occurs when a detail in the photograph seems to fly from the image and strike the viewer. It’s a detail that wounds, something that gets our attention in a way that’s disturbing, often for reasons we cannot name. It’s not a detail we find, we cannot go looking for it. Rather, that detail finds us. It pricks or punctures us, causing a psychological wound to which we must attend. Not all photographs have a punctum in them for each of us. They are unusual, and probably rare, events. Photographers cannot put them into an image. These are very personal experiences.

But, later in the book, Barthes introduces a new revelation about the punctum – that of time. He does this with an image he saw of Lewis Payne, a young man who was part of the assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln in 1865. In the photograph of Payne, by Alexander Gardner, Payne is handcuffed and will shortly be hanged. Here’s the image:

Photograph of Lewis Payne

As Barthes is looking at the image, he has this thought that causes a rush of disturbed panic: “He is going to die!” He is going to die. Barthes was viewing this image in the late 1970s. Payne was executed in 1865. In looking at this photograph he has a real emotional reaction, fearing for a future event that is already long in the past. Time itself has moved in two directions simultaneously toward Barthes – the past came forward and the future came backward. That collision was, for Barthes, wounding. The disorientating effect of this swirl of time introduces him to a new punctum – the punctum of time – that all photographs, no matter what the content or how long ago they were made, have this punctum of time in them. Time, for Barthes, is a lacerating wound that leaps from all photographs, reminding us, usually uncomfortably, of the passage of time and the death of all things. It’s usually an exciting moment in class as everyone’s head is spinning along with Barthes’.

Photographs, by their very nature, force us to think about the passage of time, the mortality of all things, including us. They also mess with our conceptions of time as they are always of the past but also existing in the present, while also evoking thoughts about the future of what was depicted, a future that is already in the past. The photograph lives in an alternate universe, frozen moments plucked from the flow of time, forever still, forever young, but also dead moments, a window into a present that is, for us, long past. Navigating that universe is, for me, a great experience in time travel, and a goad for deep thinking.