Complicating the Punctum

“I am looking at the eyes that looked” at the man, the legend, my grandfather, Carl Gray (Barthes, 3).  I call him the “legend” because only the fondest memories now describe this man I will never know.  The language of these stories deceive me.  I want to know his story not the history of Carl Gray.  He vitalizes the referent of a childish memory of a man whose existence words cannot fully describe.  He epitomizes the “that has been.”  Somehow his existence within one moment (captured and stolen by the camera) verifies his life and his legacy, a family indebted to his memory and devoted to its timelessness.

Carl Gray never existed for me.  Looking at this photograph, I see “a subject who feels he is becoming an object”(Barthes, 14).  I believe in him through the image I have of the man my mother would love, the man she hoped my father would become, and the man my grandmother would never let go of.

My memory of Carl Gray, the grandfather I never met, rests in this one photograph of him standing on a porch.  I assume this porch belongs to my Great Grandmother, my Grandmother’s mother, Mama Dear, who died around the same time as my birth.  Yet, Carl Gray never returned to my grandmother, Maggie Lee’s hometown in Mobile, Alabama.  This memory of mine represents pure fantasy.  Why would Maggie Lee’s husband return to the home she abandoned to establish a life in New York?  I recall this fictional moment disregarding its improbable nature. How could I remember a man I never met?  I believe in Carl Gray through this image. I could never show nor explain this image to you or for anyone else.  No one can see this photograph as it exists only in my memory.

I reject Barthe’s portrayal of the punctum.  For, this photograph depicts the essence of a punctum in itself.  It is the memory “that has been” not a moment.  The image of my grandfather on a porch pricks me not because I recall his fierce eyes or his bold, stiff posture.  It pricks me because it does not exist, which is quite the opposite for Barthes.  In reference to a photograph of a man waiting to be hanged, Barthes comments, “By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future” (Barthes, 96).  (I know my grandfather must die 30 years after this photo, but the image of him on the porch shows me life in the future).  I know he must die, but I know this image will last forever in my memory in my own personal fiction.  Yet, for Barthes, he continues, “What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence.  In front of the photograph as my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, […], over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” (Barthes, 96).

For me, this photograph of the man waiting to be hanged appropriates the photograph of my grandfather getting his portrait taken, but this equivalent does not prick me.  This equivalent reminds me that my image of him on a porch does not exist.  I need not shudder “over a catastrophe which has already occurred” because the photograph confirms the existence of this false image of my memory.  Barthes argues, “every photograph is this catastrophe” (Barthes, 96).  What catastrophe?  The punctum for me epitomizes this image, which represents a whole photograph depicting a reoccurring miracle not a “catastrophe.”

It does not seem Barthes addresses all of the complications associated with the punctum.  How would Barthes respond to the punctum representing a whole image rather than “a detail”?  The spectrum of my image of Carl Gray on the porch is the photograph of his identity in what moment being stolen and captured by the lens of a camera as the camera commits the silent murder.  That spectrum provides an image others can see and try to comprehend of my memory of him in this photograph that does not exist.

“A photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see” (Barthes, 6).  I agree with Barthes that the spectrum describes how you see this photograph.  Yet, I cannot comprehend what you may see when you look at this photograph; for, the punctum, my memory of him in one photograph of pure fantasy disables me from seeing this photograph for in my eyes it is “always invisible.”  I see the legend of my deceased grandfather and my memory of him in one image on my Great Grandmother’s porch in Mobile, Alabama.  I close my eyes and see this punctum, an artificial memory of a manipulated image. It is not the photograph that I see.

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One thought on “Complicating the Punctum

  1. Pingback: My Ariadne | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

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