In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble At swing and sandpit Setting free their children. Behind them, at intervals, Stand husbands in skilled trades, An estateful of washing, And the albums, lettered Our Wedding, lying Near the television.
I want to compare Larkin’s views on photography to those of Roland Barthes. They make an interesting contrast. Barthes was a French 20th century cultural commentator, and in 1979 he wrote Camera Lucida: Reflection on Photography. Its breezy style make it a much more readable book than one would expect for French philosophic musings on photos. Because of that, it’s a book that gets assigned in a wide swath of college courses, from anthropology and visual studies to communications and English. The book is best known for two terms Barthes creates to describe the power and meaning of a photograph: “studium” and “punctum.” To enlist the aid of Wikipedia, Barthes “develops the twin concepts of studium and punctum: studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.” The studium describes the photo’s content. It is the objective description of the image, a description that people might share. The punctum is its subjective power, the element of the photo that pierces each of us individually, hitting us in the heart and not in the mind. Barthes adds “the studium is ultimately always coded, the punctum is not.“
More relevant to us here, however, is Barthes discussion of precisely why photos have a powerful emotional impact. He claims that photos wound not by recalling the past but by pointing to the future. Because everything photographed also dies and because we can see images portraying vanished worlds and emotions, photos remind us that we too will ultimately disappear. He explains that “In front of the only photograph in which I find my father and mother together, this couple who I know loved each other, I realize: it is love-as-treasure which is going to disappear forever; for once I am gone, no one will any longer be able to testify to this: nothing will remain but an indifferent Nature."
Both Larkin’s and Barthes’ description of photos share a fundamental trait: complete pessimism. However, they disagree over the root of that negativity. For Larkin, the pain of photographs is rooted in their ability to show us a past we can never inhabit, a time we can never redeem. They are the only relics of a vanished moment. For Barthes, seeing past lives and loves in photos wounds because it teaches us of ephemerality and, ultimately, our own ephemerality, our own death. They achieve this because they are such powerful evidence of the past. He writes that “the Photograph does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed.” Later he adds that “Photography is distinctly different than all earlier visual media “…for until this day no representation could assure me of the past of a thing except by intermediaries; but with the Photograph, my certainty is immediate: no one in the world can undeceive me.” For Larkin, photos show what was. For Barthes, they point to what will be. A subtle yet important difference.