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Posts tagged “Roland Barthes

Connotations: Syntax

The Syntax. © Knut Skjærven.

Syntax is the last of the connotation procedures mentioned by Roland Barthes.

He says: “Naturally, several photographs can come together to form a sequence (this is commonly the case in illustrated magazines); the signifier of connotation is then no longer to be found at the level of any one of the fragments of the sequence but at that – what the linguists would call the suprasegmental level – of the concatenation”./24

The Free Dictionary defined concatenation as “a series of interconnected events, concepts, etc.” Or simply “To connect or link in a series or chain”.

In spite of the difficult words used by Barthes the idea is very simple. If there is more than one image you have a possible picture story. The connotative content is then based on all the images involved and not the single ones in isolation. I don’t think it is necessary to be more difficult than that? Call it suprasegmental if you like.

Henri Cartier – Bresson would have liked this since he 9 years earlier spoke about the same phenomenon. In his prelude to The Decisive Moment (1952) he speaks about the picture story and the need for having more than a single photo to illustrate a point: “Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is the whole story in itself. But this rarely happens.”/The Minds Eye/23

Often Cartier – Bresson uses more than one image to cover a story. As do most photo journalists.

There are different dimensions in this phenomenon. Both Barthes and Cartier – Bresson suggest that the syntax is within a single story, for instance, in a magazine. But what about the connotations that might emerge from all the images in a specific magazine? Or even more magazine. Could be called an editorial style. There certainly is a level of syntax there too.

What about the even more complex situations that emerges when both the viewer and the viewedthe perceiver and the thing perceived, are considered as segments in the same event? Just a question.

Definitely the last words on connotation procedures have not been said yet. That is another story. As for Roland Barthes, the story ends here.


Training Sessions:
 See Street University.

Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977; Henri Cartier – Bresson The Minds Eye, aperture, New York 1999.

Connotations: Photogenia

Fusion. © Knut Skjærven.

It is a fascination notion. Maybe the most spectacular of them all. Speculative.

Ronald Barthes calls it photogenia and it is the fourth of his connotation procedures. But he does not really give you anything more than a clue as to what is to be understood by photogenia. He cleverly escapes the question by stating that “it will suffice to define photogenia in terms of informational structure. In photogenia the connoted message is the image itself, “embellishes” (which is to say in general sublimated) by techniques of lighting, exposure and printing.”/23.

“The theory of photogenia”, he states, “has already been developed (by Edgar Morin in Le Cinéma ou l’homme imaginaire) and this is not the place to take up again the subject of the general signification of that procedure”./23

Thank you Mr. Barthes. Thank you for this extensive explanation.

That is where he leaves his readers, in nowhere land.

What, however, after all is important is the clue that he gives you: in photogenia the connoted message is the image itself. I need to dive into the sources if I want a grip on this idea. And that is just what I will do. Therefore, I will come back with an update on photogenia. Pretty soon.

In the meantime you can work with me in solving the mystery of photogenia. Here is a sentence from an article by Jean Epstein called “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie”. It goes like this: “What is photogénie? I would describe as photogenic any aspects of things, being, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction”.

Yes, Epstein talks about filmic reproduction, but we will talk about photography. I’ll be back soon.


Relates posts in this section: Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Library Thing: Image, Music, Text, Fontana Press, London 1977.


As you probably know by now these post are written for the blog: Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The blog is under development but not public yet. Stay tuned. Have a very good day :-). Thanks for reading.

Connotations: Pose

K-Damm Couple. © Knut Skjærven.

IMPORTANT: I am preparing a new site named Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The site is aimed at active street photographers.

The new site is not ready for publishing yet, but some of the posts are.  This is one of the new posts. You will not be able to open all of the links in this post at present. Stay tuned. 

The second connotations procedure Roland Barthes mentions is Pose. 

He talks about people pose which suits us well since we define street photography as having people as the distinct and bearing element. Barthes’ example is a portrait of President Kennedy. The example in this post is far from it. More on that below.

Let’s listen to what he says and expand on the theme just as we did in the post on Trick Effects.

Barthes:”Consider a press photograph of President Kennedy widely distributed at the time of the 1960 election: a half-length profile shot, yes looking upwards, hands joined together. Here it is the very pose of the subject which prepares the reading of the signifieds of connotation: youthfulness, spirituality, purity.”

A bit later in the same text: “The message in the present instance is not “the pose” but “Kennedy praying”: the reader receives as a simple denotation what is in actual fact a double structure – denoted-connoted.”/Page 22.

No one would argue that a shot like that was anyway near what we would want to do in street photography, but it stresses what pose is and what it can bring in terms of connotations. Pose is the direct or indirect arrangement of a scene to be photographed. Like setting up President Kennedy in the shot mentioned. Like setting up anything else under any circumstance you can think of. Pose is a broad and very important thing in any type of photography.

So also in street photography.

It is a good idea to dishinguish between three types of poses. First there is the posed pose, then there is the unposed pose and finally there is the provoked pose. 

For the photographer the different is that in the posed pose he directs the person or the people in question. Like in a studio he sets the light, brings the chair or whatever to sit on, etcetera. In professional cases such posing might well include laying the makeup and setting the hair. Male of female. For the street photographer the pendent would be that he asks people to take on a certain bodily pose, move to a certain location, etcetera.

The provoked pose is when you call indirect attention from people and you by that get them to act in certain way based on such a provocation. Could be that you in a street set up your tripod and photographed people when they came looking and wondered what you were doing. Could be you wanted to shoot people in their face using a flashgun. The last variant seems to be popular and would be a direct provocation quite literally.

These are three different ways of doing street photography sure, but the way we in Street Photographer’s Toolbox understand it is photography as unposed pose. In other words: Cases where you do not directly interact with the people you want to picture. No before you take the picture.

Maybe you say that unposed pose is an awkward expression? I agree with you. The reason why it is a good idea to use it is that is stresses the obvious fact the all photography to a certain extent is posed photography. Already being there  as a photographer under a certain sky; in a special location; at a time of day or night you have partly decided/posed the content of the shot. Call it pre-posing. You may not interact with people themselves but you model everything else. And by setting the camera you model that too.

All the decision you make in this respect have influence on the connoted content you will end up with. You may think that you are there as a spectator alone and that you render untouched reality. That is not the case I am afraid, but you can do your very best as a photographer of unposed poses. That will have to do because there is no other way.

Such a thing as a street photography untouched by man does not exist. By the way, the photograph above, K-damm Couple, is unposed pose, but not quite. I asked the girl to look into the camera, and that little gesture makes a big different. You might say that I was stretching the rules a bit. Hopefully Barthes would have liked it.

Thanks for reading.


Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.

Connotation Tool: Trick Effects

The Flying Dutchman.© Knut Skjærven.

IMPORTANT: I am preparing a new site named Street Photographer’s Toolbox. The site is aimed at active street photographers.

The new site is not ready for publishing yet, but some of the posts are.  This is one of the new posts. You will not be able to open all of the links in this post at present. Stay tuned. 

I am going to treat Roland Barthes’ connotation procedures in the same order that they appear in his article The Photographic Message in the book Image, Music, Text.  And I am going to add a little to them to point out their potential for street photography.

The first procedure he points to is Trick Effects. By that he really means trick effects: doing trickery, or faking an image. He talks about inserting an object or a person that was not actually there when the picture was taken. We know this from political propaganda but most of the times when a person is removed from an image after having fallen out of grace. Removing is in the same visual vocabulary as inserting.

Barthes mentions an image where an American presidential candidate was faked to be in the same shot as a communist leader. Thereby connoting a positive connection and even friendship between the two. The communist leader was inserted into the photograph. (We are back in the cold war days.)

Today, we would say that an image like that was heavily photoshopped by inserting an object or a person in a frame where it/he/she did not actually belong. Like in concept photography where this type of manipulation is quite alright. It will, however, not be acceptable in street photography were documentation is an important issue.

You may rightly wonder what this connotation procedure is doing in toolbox for street photography? Particularly as we speak of street photography as straight photography. Straight meaning that we do as little post production or editing as possible. Surely there is no room for trickery and faking images when you define street photography?

You are absolutely right, but as our mission here is to be loyal to Barthes procedures we have to include trick effects as one of his connotation procedures.

There is another reason which is even more important. That reason has a direct relevance for our understanding of street photography.

Roland Barthes: “The methodological interest of trick effects is that they intervene without warning in the plane of denotation; the utilize the special credibility of the photograph ( … ) in order to pass off as merely denoted a message which is in reality heavily connoted; in no other treatment does connotation assume so completely the “objective” mask of denotation.”/Page 21.

What Barthes is trying to say, is that photography of all media have a special capacity to trick people because people or object inserted into a photograph, done well enough that is, really seem to be part of denoted reality. Thereby you also manipulate connotations as in the case of presidential candidate and the communist leader.

Is that it then? Are Trick Effects of no use in a street photographer’s toolbox? Off to the next procedure in Barthes cluster of connotation procedures? Not quite, because photograph’s capacity to blur the distinction between denoted and connoted content can also be used with great effect in proper, unmanipulated street photography.

How come?

Let’s switch the words insert with include, and fake with make. Then the situation becomes very different. We manage to hold on to photograph’s capacity to be truthful to reality. Now we no longer have faked denotations that produce false connotation. We have real denotation producing truthful connotations. By substituting insert with include and fake with make we manage this.

Why is this important? It is important because I never understood quality street photography as a plain and a mostly mechanical rendering of street life. To stress the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary takes a special effort of including or excluding (not inserting or removing) things that in the rush of passing (through life) are normally overlooked. That is the overall mission of proper street photography if it has any. That is its humanistic perspective.

NB: It can often be difficult to detect if a content is inserted or simply included. The difference is critical. In The Flying Dutchman above, the boy jumping in the background could have been inserted in the photograph. It is not. The connoted message could be described as livelyplayfulpositive.

Taking into account that the image is shot at Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the connotations takes on yet another layer of meaning. Maybe a symbolic one. One of reconciliation perhaps. You decide.   The image holds first (denote) second (connote) an even third (symbolize) level contents.

Thanks for reading.


Relates posts in this section:  Introduction; Trick Effects; Pose; Objects; Photogenia; Aestheticism; and Syntax.

Street Photography Training Sessions: See Street University.

Studium and Punctum in Camera Lucida.

Mauerpark, Berlin, Germany.

Dirty Dancing, Mauerpark Berlin, August 15, 2010.

I needed to re-read Roland BarthesCamera Lucida from 1980.  I use an English translation in a print from 2000. The numbers you find in brackets refer to pages in that version of the book.

There were certain things that I needed to check up on. What does that book actually say about studium and punctum in photography? What was Barthes’ original ideas?

In handling these issues this is the first regular post on phenomenology and photography, this blog. There will be more of such notes. I label (and tag) these posts “working notes” since that is exactly what they are. They are private notes, that I have chosen to make public so they might be of use to others as well. Very slightly adapted.

The notes will all be new, and presented here as I make them.

The specific issues I wanted to investigate were if studiums and punctums (as Barthes use these words) are general qualities that you will find in/with every photographs? Or are they, on the contrary, qualities that goes only with certain photographs.

Or maybe the terms should be understood in different ways all together?

On Images:

Roland Barthes: “I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking; that are only “images,” their mode of appearance is heterogeneous.” (16)

And then Barthes continues:”Yet, among those which has seen selected, evaluated, approved, collected in albums or magazines and which had thereby passed through the filter of culture, I realized that some provoked tiny jubilations … and that others, on the contrary, were so indifferent to me that by dint of seeing them multiply, like some weed, I felt a kind of aversion towards them, even of irritation.” (16)

There is, it seems, a distinction between photographs that invoke tiny jubilations and those that are indifferent to Barthes or even invoke irritation.

Barthes says: “I decided then to take as a guide for my new analysis the attraction I felt for certain photographs.” (18)

In this task Barthes borrows “something from phenomenology’s project and something from it language.” (20). I will, however, leave that discussion to another time.

Related to the photograph above, at this level of discussion, it will be a question if it evokes a tiny jubilation, or simply is an indifferent image. That is for you, the observer, to decide.

On Studium

Barthes then enters into an analysis of couple of photographs from the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing:

“What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training. I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which does not mean, at least not immediately, “study”, but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. (26)

And: “It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the setting, the actions.” (26)

Related to the photograph above studium would be issues to the where, the when and the what of the photograph. Among many other things that culturally do, and could, relate to it.

On Punctum

That much for studium. Now, what does Barthes has to say about punctum? Its comes here:

“The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time is it not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness),  it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out f it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exist to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that is also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely these marks are so many points.” (26-27)

Further: “This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also the cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). (26-27)

And he continues: “Many photographs are, alas, inert under my gaze. But even among those which have some existence in my eyes, most provoke only a general and, so to speak, polite interest: they have no punctum in them: they please or displease me without pricking me: they are invested with no more than studium.The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like / I don’t like“. (27)

Related to the photograph above punctum could be almost anything. Punctum is a capacity that hits you, and not anything that could be read out of the image as part of the studium. Normally it would be a detail that speaks to you. And it would be very individual what/who is speaking and what is said.


I am not going to take this note any further.

I was interested in seeing if studium and punctum, by Barthes, were initiated as concepts of general qualities inherent in all photographs. It seems that they were not. They are special qualities that come with certain pictures and certain attitudes.

And what is more: Images that qualify as objects worthy of studium, will not necessarily “contain” punctums. Barthes is very clear about that.

There also seems to be images that fall completely outside the studium area: those “merely images” that the author simply is indifferent to. However, this does not mean that these images are without interest for everybody. Barthes may be indifferent to images that might have quite a different status for others. Even if Barthes would not have invested in those images, others might. This is a very important point.

We have, however, to be a bit cautious when reading Camera Lucida. Questions have to be asked. Is Barthes, for instance, talking about qualities in a) the object, in the b) subject or in c) the subjects reading of photographs? He is, in my opinion, talking about  c) the reading of the photographs. This is quite consistent with phenomenology, or should I say intentionality. That discussion will, however, be left to another time.

Barthes’ stand on these issues could be phrased like this: Studiums are investments, punctums are gifts. Investments do not grant gifts. But they don’t exclude them either.

Some people don’t invest and they don’t get gifts. Others do/get both.

That’s all :-). Thanks.

Roland Barthes: Cameras Lucida, Vintage Books, London 2000.
Library Thing.
Don’t forget to follow the other blogs in the barebones blog universe. Here are links to the other blogs: barebones communication, Berlin Black and White, Photos of  The Danes.