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Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Punctum Exhibit Showcases Poignant Photography

    Photo courtesy of Photographic C
    Photos courtesy of Photographic Center North West

    Taking inspiration from Roland Barthes’ 1980 look into the art of photographer Camera Lucida, the Photo Center Northwest has opened a new exhibit on Capitol Hill.

    The exhibit, titled Punctum, is named after Barthes’ term that describes his feeling of being “pricked” by a photograph. Barthes also labels different aspects of a photo in his book, more specifically the “Spectrum,” which is the subject of the photo, and the “Studium,” which is the setting. However, the exhibit focuses on the “Punctum,” which is something less definitive.

    The Punctum is the piece of a photograph that leaves the viewer with a question, an emotion, an intrigue or even an answer. What is important and interesting to one viewer could be completely different to another and that, according to Barthes, is the beauty of photography. The Studium and Spectrum are all present in each and every photograph, but the internal and possibly expanding artisanal value—the poignant detail—is found in the Punctum.

    The studium of a photograph, according to Barthes, is its cultural context—the space in which it is created. In Barthes’ own words, the studium is the source of the viewer’s usually mild, “polite interest’’ in a photograph, “the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes [that one finds] all right.’’ The punctum, on the other hand, breaks through this layer of general apathy and provokes a visceral response, inciting a reaction in the viewer. It is the detail, or “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” and thus stands out as the lasting impression of the photograph in question.

    “This something has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock, a satori, the passage of a void,” Barthes said about what he takes away from a photo. “However lightning-like it may be, the Punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion.”

    This mentality of looking for a somewhat shocking aspect in the art is what led juror Julia Dolan to select the photographs in the exhibit. The work of 30 different photographers is displayed, including photographers from New York City all the way to Australia. Five of the 30 artists featured are from Seattle. Dolan, who is the Minor White Curator of Photography at the Portland Art Museum, had to select just a fraction of the 1311 photographs submitted from a total of 213 photographers to be displayed in the exhibit.

    The nature of the exhibit is up to interpretation. When walking through the gallery, no universal theme can be drawn out. However, as Barthes would desire, the themes unique to each photo have to be self-determined. A close up of a man’s face cringing while he shaves the last few hairs of his mustache is adjacent to an orange peel buried among flowers.

    The ambiguity of theme within the gallery is indicative of the ambiguity within any Punctum. Given that the term itself is defined by its ability to inspire feelings of incompleteness—unanswered questions, mysterious emotions—it seems fitting that the exhibit should avoid any single theme and instead focus on an array of sensation inspiring images.

    By focusing on photography that inspires a visceral response, the theme of the gallery then appears to be reaction. That is, the exhibit is defined by its ability to inspire emotional reactions in viewers. Thus, photos of all kinds are displayed, so long as they insight powerful reactions.

    Dolan will be hosting a lecture at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) on Thursday, Dec. 10 at 6:30 p.m., where she will be discussing objectivity in photography using the Punctum exhibit at the Photo Center NW and the SAM’s new Topographic exhibition. Awards for Punctum will also be given out at the talk.

    Punctum runs at Photo Center NW until Dec. 20.

    Chaucer may be reached at [email protected]

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