Reflection: studium and punctum

I don’t like criticising the course notes but sometimes I just can’t help myself…

The section on semiotics opens with an explanation of Barthes’ studium and punctum.

After defining the two terms pretty well, the course notes then go on to give some examples such as the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, the handshake in a medical ad, the gap-toothed smile in a Benetton ad.

Here’s my problem: the punctum is by definition personal to the viewer.

There is no objective punctum. There is no deliberately placed photographer’s punctum. There is only my punctum, your punctum, his punctum, her punctum (or no punctum)

Barthes is clear on what he is describing: “A photograph’s punctum is that which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” (Barthes 1993: 27).

Barthes goes to explain further that the punctum cannot be intentionally planned by the photographer:

“Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful; it does not necessarily attest to the photographer’s art; it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object.” (ibid: 47)

So in the examples given above, my punctum might not be the smile, the handshake and the smile; it might be the winding road over the right shoulder, the skewed angle of the shelves in the medical ad, the depth of the shadows in the Benetton ad.

The course notes compound my frustration on this subject by linking to a YouTube video intended to explain the concepts of studium and punctum with examples – including a photograph of an overturned car where the maker of the video says that their punctum is the overturned car. That seems a lot more like a studium to me…

I’m very clear in my understanding that the punctum is a subjective concept in the reading of photographs. In Barthes’ world view, readers are authors too…

So when the notes talk of identifying the punctum, it would make more sense if they referred to the potential punctum, or the photographer’s intended punctum (Barthes’ view on this matter notwithstanding, I do think some photographers try to engineer a punctum in some of their images).

/ rant over


Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.