I first came across this picture in class when we were to find a picture our group could agree on to evaluate in studium and punctum. I almost started begging that we analyze the photograph, but sensing reluctance on the part of my peers, I decided we would probably be better off discussing a different photograph (mostly because picking this picture would only involve me talking at great length, and honestly who needs more of that in a class period?). But even after finding a separate photograph, I could not erase this image from my retinas. It called to me. I knew this photograph would haunt me forever.
The studium, as Barthes discusses in Camera Lucida, is the simple "likes" or "dislikes" on the part of the Spectator; it is the thing that initially grabs your attention. This was easy for me to identify. As I've stated in previous posts, I have an affinity for black and white photography. Perhaps it was the Amsel Adams book of photography that always held its place on the coffee table in my many homes growing up, or perhaps it was the fact that I always felt a black and white photo captured my "good side" in a way color photography never could. Whatever the case, I've always held a special place in my heart for the simplicity of black and white. However, this is not the only thing that initially drew me in. I love (am slightly obsessed with) (would own one if I thought it humane) (no seriously it's a problem) elephants. When I saw this picture, I wanted to immediately go to the nearest scanner, blow it up, and hang it on my wall. It is so epic and yet simultaneously elegant - so true to the beast. The other thing I love about this photograph (yes, I'm going there) is the dress the woman is wearing. It is a beautiful piece, modest but also alluring. But I think what I like most about her wearing this dress is that it does not distract the viewer so much from the elephants that one forgets they exist, but it also acts as a focal point for the image simultaneously. Kudos to Richard Avedon for accomplishing this superb conundrum!
Punctum, another Barthes-ism, describes that thing that pierces the Spectator. Punctum is different from studium in that they are the discoveries made by the Spectator after viewing the image for some time. It is the thing that keeps the viewer wanting to see more. Wanting to come back. The punctum in this photograph comes in both positive and negative forms for me. I'll begin with the negative (I was always taught to deliver bad news before good news because it's always better to end on a positive note). In my immediate distraction with my love for elephants, it did not occur to me to look down and find the chains wrapped around their feet. I would be lying if I said this did not make me want to cry. It brought me back to a time when I was eight years old. It was my first trip to the zoo and naturally, I wanted to see the elephants. But when I got to their exhibit (if you could even call it that) I found nothing more than the hollow shell of the creature I loved so dearly trapped in a puny cage, stomping the ground and (literally) roaring to get out. I bawled hysterically until we got home. Seeing the chains on the elephants in the image brought me back to that painful moment. I can still hear the pain in the elephant's voice echoing through the image of those chains. The second thing that pierces me about this photograph is the position of the woman. The way her neck dips back so smoothly; she almost appears to be swooning in the presence of the animals before her. Maybe she is experiencing their pain as they bellow with their trunks and their feet to be freed. She is herself a Spectator within the photo, admiring the elephants with us. This almost makes me forgive the chains, knowing there is someone there to sympathize with the elephants... almost.
It kind of pisses me off, though, that this photo is classified as Post-War Fashion Photography according to Hackings. How can you take these creatures, chain them to the ground, and abuse them for the sake of fashion week in Paris? Where the hell was PETA when all this was going down? Maybe they were too busy at the Maine Lobster Festival handing out pamphlets about the inhumanity of boiling lobsters alive (the picture was taken in August after all). But I digress.
It's funny how your feelings can change so drastically the longer you look at a photograph. I think this is what Barthes is trying to say when he talks about studium and punctum working together to determine the quality of a photo. If your attitude and emotions stay generally the same throughout the viewing, then the photograph isn't really doing its job. It simply exists as a dead thing on a wall, distinguishable from the paint behind it only by its formation of a differing image. But when an image stops you, when it really makes you think, when you continue to see different things in it each time you look upon it, that is when a photograph has true meaning. That is when the insatiable hunger for more evolves. That is when the tears come. That is Dovima with Elephants (at least for me).
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. Print.
Hacking, Juliet. Photography: The Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson, 2012. Print.