Punctum, the Unintentional, and Google Street View

In Camera Lucida, Barthes distinguishes between studium, the intellectual and cultural interest one might take in a photograph, and punctum, the more mysterious experience of being “pricked” or punctured by a detail in a photograph. To read a photo through the rubric of studium is, in a sense, to go along with the photographer’s goals; it “allows me to discover the Operator, to experience the intentions which establish and animate his practices,” explains Barthes. It is the docile, “polite,” educated way to encounter a photograph.

Punctum isn’t polite or educated. It’s a kind of ambush, and it has no regard for the photographer as artist. “Certain details may ‘prick’ me,” says Barthes, and “[i]f they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally.” The punctum is the accidental detail that escapes authorial intention and educated interpretation; in the face of it Barthes becomes no longer a philosopher or cultural theorist, but “a primitive, a child.”

I think Barthes would appreciate the project of Jon Rafman, who has selected photographs from Google Street View that accidentally capture touching details–girls jump-roping, a woman sitting in the middle of the street, a rider on horseback. I learned about Rafman’s collection through Avi Steinberg’s Paris Review essay, “The Grand Map.” Steinberg describes Rafman’s artistic project thus:

Rafman ends up being less interested in the detached mapmakers than in the individual who can explore the map for personal meanings and somehow reclaim the territory. Rafman accomplishes this himself by discovering accidental images marvelously embedded in the map. Wild horses running through a coastal cemetery. A nude woman standing by a rocky shore, contemplating the sea. A little boy hiding. These images are only more powerful for having Google’s imprimatur on them, for being captured at random and buried within the maze of images.

The Google Street View car might be the least intentional or clever of photographers. If Barthes were alive today, I think he might find in Rafman a kindred spirit, a fellow connoisseur of the accidental, a spectator open to the detail that pricks.

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