The sulky princess

I like pictures which ask questions, pointing us to the before and after; pictures which subtly slip from the confines of their frame, weaving their own wordless narrative before our eyes.

I like incongruous elements too, like the cigarette. Perhaps this might be Barthes’ punctum? (It reminds of a picture I have of one of my good friends after she got married in her big glamorous dress having a cheeky fag round the back of the church: not quite what you would expect).

I would tell you the story behind this, but it’s probably not as interesting as the one you will conjure up in your own head.

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

Vintage love

I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.

I have a bit of a thing for all things vintage, especially when it comes to cameras.

Recently, I acquired a fantastic little gadget: a Kiwi Lens mount adapter which allows me to use all of our manual OM lenses with my Lumix. It’s such a treat to be able to enjoy all of these fabulous lenses again which have literally been gathering dust in our camera cupboard for the last 5 or 6 years at least.

It’s a great thing. And I feel like a new photographic avenues have been opened up to me.

Yet… it has also rekindled a spark inside me. I feel nostalgic for analogue again. In addition to that, starting this blog and seeing other photo bloggers such as Steve Barnes, Benjamin Donath and Andy Fasoli who are making fantastic pictures with film, I have realised I really want to get back to it.

As much as I love digital (and I do, it’s really a great step forward for photography), I miss the excitement of picking up the latest roll of film from the printers, and even experimenting in the darkroom (badly, admittedly). I yearn for that sensory experience of making my own pictures; being immersed in a shadowy haze of red (always felt a bit illicit, somehow?), engulfed by that pungent acrid aroma of developer, stop bath, fixer… then that wonderful, private moment in the almost-darkness when the chemicals swish gently over paper and your image which you made starts to emerge, slowly, magically, before your very eyes.

It’s a thrill which never fades even if you do it over and over, and, even though you know that it’s all just the chemistry of light reacting on silver halides, it really feels like a little bit of alchemy which you made happen. There is something perfectly meditative, almost religious, about the whole process.

Film also has an aesthetic all of its own, of course. And yes, I know you can achieve all of those effects using Photoshop now, but half the fun for me was always exploring all the subtly different characteristics of all of those wonderful films I used to use, and finding the right film for the right subject: Ilford FP4, panF, Kodak portra, fuji superia, and then all of those colour reversal films which were just so pure in image quality, like ektachrome velvia, provia and sensia.

I think every aspiring photographer should go right back to basics and have a go at experiencing the craft of photography: shooting a roll of black and white negative film, then developing and printing it themselves. I remember with such fondness my first darkroom experience. The dizzying array of materials and equipment: enlargers, easels, trays, chemicals, tongs, filters, timers; not to mention paper of all qualities and grades. Then the excitement of negotiating the semi-blind process: fumbling clumsily around in a changing bag; mixing those chemicals; focusing an enlarger; exposing the image: burning in highlights; dipping the paper in one tray, then the next, and the next; and finally holding it up with the tongs proudly, in the knowledge that you did that from start to finish without the need for a computer, or even a printing lab. At least once, everyone should try it. It’s just so much fun apart from anything else.

Alex and I have built up quite a collection of old cameras over the years, and if I had the funds I would collect more. I love old camera cases too – I have to admit to having a bit of a fetish for metal against leather. Throw a bit of velvet lining in there as well and I’m totally smitten. I love the look and the feel of old cameras; the familiar clunk of the shutter (such a great sound), the satisfying weight in my hand.

Roland Barthes writes evocatively of the physical (almost sensual) experience of making photographs:

I love these mechanical sounds in an almost voluptuous way, as if, in the Photograph, they were the very thing.

Camera Lucida

Old cameras have their own personality, their own idiosyncracies (like people, maybe, it’s the imperfect bits that make us loveable). So then the camera becomes part of the ‘thingness’ of the photograph, leaving its own imprint upon it.

Digital cameras just seem a little but bland to me in comparison (I know there is a trend for the retro look right now, but somehow it’s not quite the same thing) so whilst we can make fabulous images, and undeniably they are hugely convenient, I just can’t get as excited about the medium when I am using them, as with a film camera. They’re just a bit too streamlined and whizzy all dials and buttons and a bit, well, invisible to me.

Now, here for your ocular stimulation is a choice selection from our vintage camera cupboard…

I also discovered a big box of various different unused rolls of film which I plan to start using up over the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to seeing the results as it’s probably all mostly out of date by now.

I can’t wait to use the Rollei again too. It’s so basic, but such a beautiful camera.

So, watch this space…

And please please share with me your vintage loves! I would love to hear about your film experiences and/or cameras you own!

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012


I am re-reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. What has struck me with much greater emphasis this time around is Barthes’ highly emotional response to the subject matter of photography. He realises early on that he will not be able to write on the subject in his usual objective, scholarly style, being unable to separate himself from his own personal, instinctive and of course highly subjective response. He wants, instead, to understand photography in a “primitive” way “without culture”(p.7)  and his language, accordingly, is visceral; at times violent in nature. He describes how individual photographs have the power to induce a range of intense emotions in him ranging from fear and grief to excitement and love (and then at times just plain indifference). The metaphor that strikes me with its force and agression is that of photography as a “wound”:

I wanted to explore [photography] not as a question (a theme), but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think. (p.21)

A wound is something painful and unpleasant, but more than that a wound is flesh which has been penetrated. His investigations are not just intrusive, they are brutal, primal, and inextricably linked with being.

So this project – to understand photography – is not just a scientific or scholarly one, it is an essential one; it is phenomenological, and it is ontological. These themes which underpin Camera Lucida are entirely human: life, death, pain, ecstasy. Indeed, Barthes writes of the experience of being photographed (he likens it to being “in parenthesis”) as akin to dying (p.14). This separation of himself from reality, this looking upon himself, or ‘othering’ is truly a morbid experience for him, turning him into a kind of sceptre, and throughout there is a sense of alternating between extremes of emotion on the subject of photography. He is attracted to it (he descrbes in erotic detail the excitement the mechanical ‘click’ of the shutter induces in him). But there is fear there, too. Not in the mechanics of the camera, which is satisfying and comforting, but in the eye of the photographer. The eye penetrates him, and it kills him. Just a little bit.

Barthes doesn’t know how to categorize photography, but he recognises it is somehow essential. In the end he is unable to separate his own self; his own emotions and desires, and his own essential being from photography.

So photography is a confusion of the subject-object relationship, in that we cannot separate it from ourselves. A photograph  “carries its referent with itself” (p.5) which induces this kind of unnerving or perhaps unheimlich experience Barthes has when he looks at some pictures. This carries us neatly back to themes of haunting and death. I have often thought of photographs as kind of shadows or ghosts; little replicas (“little simulacrum” (p.9) Barthes calls them) of moments in time; moments otherwise long forgotten, dead. A photograph occupies its own time-space, or creates it rather, and I think this is quite unnerving.

Anyhow, I digress (albeit it willingly) and need to pull myself back to Barthes and his concepts of studium and punctum, otherwise this blog entry will not make a whole lot of sense…. here we are back to the idea of photograph as wound. Whilst studium is described as a kind of general interest in the idea of a photograph (the way we might be interested in something when we ‘study’ it, so in quite a detached way); the punctum is the bit that disturbs all that and leaps out at you, excites you; the pin prick of surprise, the question mark – the bit that gets you in the gut. It is, in essence, the emotional response – the element of surprise. Of course he describes it so much more eloquently, so I shall refer you back to his wonderful words:

…the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element …. I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). (p. 27)

This photograph of a dress hanging outside a second-hand shop is my attempt to illustrate punctum. The street scene in itself is fairly ordinary; a quiet residential suburb of Berlin – a few cars, grey buildings, a beautiful sunny day the trees cast dappled shadows on the cobbled pavement below. The shop owner has decided to display her wares on the street. She has saved one special dress for prime position; hanging from the awning it catches the eye immediately (studium?). It is the dress of every little girl’s fairy-tales: romantic, swishy, twirly, frothy and flouncey. It makes you feel good just looking at this dress. And the way it dances there provocatively in the gentle breeze is so pleasing to the eye. The happy accident, or the punctum, for me is the perfect shadow that the full bloom of the dress casts below in the direct sunlight, drawing the eye to the fore of the picture and then back up to the dress again. Not so much an intentional detail, as I recall, it provides that extra little ‘oh’ of joy; that “sting” of surprise. The other thing I like about this capture is the way the dress juxtaposes with the banality of the street scene almost as if it has been superimposed upon it. The way it’s floaty ephemeral-ness sort of jarrs against the ordinariness of the row of parked cars. Maybe that is the punctum? Now that I close my eyes and look at it again, maybe that is the thing that works on me.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that I have succeeded in demonstrating Barthes’ theory with this image. Of course there are many photographs in the book which he uses to illustrate it much better. But I am working towards it… let’s call it an attempt. Let me know what you think…

Text: Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes, published by Vintage, 2000 and originally published in 1980

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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