Resonating Smiles

To find some inspiration for this posting, I went to the Library and Archives Canada Facebook page after reading about it in Zehra’s blog post about the clown band. After looking at a few of the photos they had posted, I found this gem and my inspiration.

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In the Library and Archives of Canada database this photograph is titled: “Elderly man wearing hat and vest in front of a tree in a yard, two nuns in the background. Taken for the National Film Board.” The photo’s date is placed circa 1955-1976, and the photographer was Michel Lambeth.

            Upon seeing this photo, my thoughts immediately went to Roland Barthes “Extracts from Camera Lucida” and his thoughts on what it is in a photo that makes us pause when we see it. Barthes initially describes that what can often make the viewer pause and look at a photo. He says, “I understood at once that its [what made him pause] existence (its ‘adventure’) derived from the co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world.”[1] The two elements in the extract he is referring to, soldiers and nuns in Nicaragua, provide greater contrast than the subjects in this image, but for me the feeling is along the same lines.

            Barthes further describes two elements of the photo that cause this pause; the studium and the punctum. The studium is what causes the viewer to “perceive quite familiarly as a consequence of my knowledge, my culture,”[2] what is occurring in the photo. The studium causes the viewer to have some interest in the photo, but it is the punctum that causes the viewer to stop. The punctum disrupts the studium. As it was explained in class, the punctum is an unexpected detail that resonates with the viewer and changes your reading of the image. The punctum is different for everyone because it is a personal disruption. This means that the punctum will not be identical between to people because everyone has different reactions for different reasons. For me, the part of the photograph that arrests my attention is the smiles on the nuns’ faces. Initially I looked at the picture and thought that the nuns had been caught in the act, and the smiles, to an extent seem like a confirmation.

As I took a closer look at the photo, the smiles also brought to my mind Barthes and his musings in “Extracts from Camera Lucida” about how people pose when a camera is present. Barthes comments on how this change comes about: “once I feel observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”[3] I feel that this may be a more logical reason as to why the nuns are smiling; that they came around the corner and saw the camera they automatically smiled as they went by (though I prefer the playfulness of the idea that they are being caught in the act).

 

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When I initially began this post, I did not think anything of the title of the photo and how it affected the reading of the photo, because it does not seem to. But, curiosity got the cat and I decided to check out the link attached to the photographer’s name in the archive. It ends up that Michel Lambeth worked for many Canadian magazines including Star Weekly, Saturday Night, Maclean’s, Time and Life, as well as the National Film Board of Canada.[4] With a little further digging, I found out that a copy of this photo is also in the collection at the National Gallery of Canada. In their collection it is titled “St. Joseph’s Convent School, Toronto Ontario, 1960.” I find that having a different textual reference can completely change the way the viewer reads the photo. If I had seen this description, the photo may have been less compelling because with knowing the context of the convent, I would have expected to see the nuns. Wells and Price touch on this in the reading “Thinking About Photography: debates, historically and now” when they discuss the number of titles used for the 1930s “Migrant Mother” photo and how the affect and can even limit the ways in which the audience views and interprets the image.

This new information and the inclusion of an additional location of the photo brings to mind the external forces that are present over the photo, namely the archive and the archivists who collected the information. I wonder why one or both locations do not note the presence of another copy at another location, thus causing me to question the general context of the photo. But, I shall leave these thoughts until we have delved into “Archival Encounters.”


[1] Roland Barthes, “Extracts from Camera Lucida,” in Photography: A Critical Reader ed. Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), 24.

[2] Ibid, 25.

[3] Ibid, 22.

[4] Maia-Mari Sutnik, “Lambeth, Michael” The Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Dominion, 2012), http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/michel-lambeth (accessed January 30, 2013).

Quotes on Photography

For our first week of class we were asked to look in the back of On Photography by Susan Sontag quotes that she included in an appendix and choose our favourite one. After reading a number of the quotes, one by Paul Rosenfeld resonated with me. He wrote:

Life appears always fully present along the epidermis of his body: vitality ready to be squeezed forth entire in fixing the instant, in recording a brief weary smile, a twitch of the hand, the fugitive pour of sun through clouds. And not a tool, save the camera, is capable of registering such complex ephemeral responses, and expressing the full majesty of that moment. No hand can express it, for the reason that the mind cannot retain the unmutated truth of a moment sufficiently long to permit the slow fingers to notate the large masses of related detail. The impressionists tried in vain to achieve the notion. For, consciously or unconsciously, what they were striving to demonstrate with their effects of light was the truth of moments; impressionism has ever sought to fix the wonder of the here, the now. But the momentary effects of lighting escaped them while they were busy analyzing; and their “impression” remains usually a series of impressions and superimposed one upon the other. Stieglitz was better guided. He went directly to the instrument made for him.

Upon reading this quote, I immediately connected with the concept that Rosenfeld describes, having experienced it from both the point of the photographer and the viewer of photo of such an image. The ability to see a moment and capture the all the vitality and detail that are present in a mere second is amazing. It seems as if the image will come flying off the page or screen at any moment.

Though, this quote also causes me to think that sometimes it may seem that a photographer, speaking from some experience, strives to take the photo that best captures the moment. When they initially do not capture what they see, they continue to analyze and repeat the process in hopes of achieving the goal. In this case, it seems to me that the photographer may not be so different from the impressionist painter. They can both be so focused on capturing the “truth of the moment” that it can pass while they attempt to achieve the perfect image of it.
I feel that with a camera it is possible to capture these moments if you focus less on achieving the perfect representation and just live in the moment because you experiencing it to the fullest, thus any image will have more meaning connected with it.