Chapter 17. Vain Studies in Studium

I have been struggling with 35mm film photography for weeks now, with my lovely Leica II. Between shooting film, which is rarely – and I will get to that in a while – I’ve also been shooting and enjoying shooting my leica Digilux, and the digital workflow is smooth and fanastic, and a couple of my shots uploaded into Leica Fotographie International (LFI) gallery have even been selected for the Master Shots section.  It’s easy to shoot and not worry about the cost: it’s free. I take many shots, and even though I remain selective and evaluative, I am less hesitant, and more generous with myself when confronted with any of these picture opportunities.

But no so with my Leica II.  I’ve just sent in my first roll of film to develop – after a month, and I nearly decided to not do that. I’ve been extremely selective, and very careful.  Indeed scrupulous. Is this really worth a shot? What does this mean? Is it just another pretty image, or nice colors? Leave it to the Digilux.  For film, this has to matter a little more.  It has become very evaluative. Talk about practical reasoning: what I’m getting is that there are lots of things that, whilst visually attractive – what merely delights my senses – really don’t matter, and don’t deserve my roll of film.  Many things pass by, and I pass many things by. I walk around and end up thinking I should go home and save my shots for the people I love, and whom I care about.

And talk about natural law theory: in some sense my reflections mirror the insights derived from thinking through Robert Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment, discussed by John Finnis in Natural Law and Natural Rights and Fundamentals of Ethics – for all the pleasure and delight if I plug in for life, I would rather not:  what about the other important things in life?

Home. Leica ii with 5cm Elmar f/3.5 on Kodak 400. This picture for me has punctum, and is significant.

I have already said much about how the viewfinder and peering through it, i.e., the photographic process, invites such practical and evaluative reflections. But I wish to dwell on this with respect my experience shooting film a little.  For there is a difference shooting film and digital in this regard.

Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida (CL) that there are two kinds of photographs, one with studium and others with punctum. I find that distinction helpful. Studium shots are those which we appreciate but do not prick or puncture us.  They are nice, but don’t specially appeal.  Barthes writes:

“The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interests, of inconsequential taste: I like / I don’t like.  The studium is of the order of  liking, not loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi-volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds ‘all right’ “ (Camera Lucida, chapter 11)  

The punctum on the other hand is different – it grabs us, involves us, and engages us specially. But it is not shock either.  Hence Barthes notes that news photographs often shock, even traumatise, but “no puctum…no disturbance; the photograph can “shout”, not wound…I glance through [these journalistic photographs], I don’t recall them…I am interested in them (as I am interested in the world), I do not love them.”  (CL)  Barthes unfortunately is less clear about what it is exactly:

“certain details may ‘prick’ me…A detail overwhelms the entirety of my reading: it is an intense mutation of my interest, a fulgaration.  By the mark of something, the photography is no longer “anything whatever”  This something has triggered me”. (CL)

Whatever it is, it is what is not merely the studium. It is that which arrests us, and  however it pricks, perhaps it is what matters, and is for us what stands out, and is significant.

In any case, I will borrow and use Barthes’ studium and punctum in this way.  I would say that when shooting digital, I am after both studium and punctum, but when shooting film, I am keen to capture merely the image with punctum, and filter out the unworthy studium.  I want to record and develop only what could puncture – and wounds, leaving an impression, a scar if lost and missed – and not merely what is likeable.

Film teaches me to abstract the punctum, and to leave behind the studium, much better than does digital, which is quite indifferent to this distinction.  Indeed, when shooting digital, after a while I take so much delight when capturing successfully the pretty studium that I am addicted to it, and seek no more than the likeable, but which I would disregard in film.  I loose the subject, the meaning, and think of no more than the phenonema: the colors, the shapes, the lines, mostly attractive, but meaningless.

This is not a condemnation of digital.  I take great delight in it.  Look at this, a wall, taken with my Digilux 2: it’s my masterpiece – so far. I could print it out, frame it, and stare at it the whole day.   It is on my desktop now. I am very proud of it.

But what does it mean?  For my rolls of film, I hope to capture something of far greater import.  For my digital studies in studium, I am keenly aware of their vanity.