Paris, Montparnasse and the Centrifugal Grid

Sol og sommerferie, dager som glir over i hverandre, og ikke minst herlig lesestoff: hva for eksempel med denne godbiten av en tekst? I Paris, Montparnasse and the Centrifugal Grid utforsker og utfordrer William Wessel Nore Barthes’ studium/punktum dualitat gjennom en betraktning av Andreas Gurskys Montpernasse, Paris. Teksten sto på trykk i #2 «Territorium». 

The photograph Paris, Montparnasse from 1993 by the German photographer Andreas Gursky is a chromogenic color print that depicts the suburbs of Paris. Through the lens of Roland Barthes’ seminal text on the ontology of photography, Camera Lucida, I will be examining Gursky’s photograph by inquiring how the advent of digital manipulation in photography challenges not only Barthes ontology of photography, but also his duality of studium and punctum. Lastly I will posit that the conjunction of a grid and photography work in opposition of Barthes’ idea that the photograph is invisible.

Gursky’s photograph is immense in its size, it measures 205×421 cm. The credit for this is in part due to the advent of computer manipulation in photography. The image is made up of several photographs vertically stitched together. This allows the image in pure size and angle to transgress the technical possibilities of a normal camera.[1] The manipulation and post processing of the photographs are therefore just as vital in the creation of a certain visual representation as the photograph is. The photograph’s perspective is exclusively rectilinearly towards the façade, which produces a gridded and flat surface. The grid as a visual strategy has long since been a stratagem to create a uniform, flat and ordered surface. In her seminal essay, «Grids», art historian Rosalind Krauss writes: «In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.»[2] Krauss sought to elucidate how grids have worked in conjunction with the modernist totalizing notion, which in its most extreme form becomes almost eschatological. The grid works to further the idea that it can be universal, a form that does not contradict itself. The grid therefore becomes emblematic of modernism’s highest ambition, the idea that there can be an end to history.

The grid we see in Paris, Montparnasse is as flat as any other heroic modernist grid, not due to its physical flatness, but by virtue of the camera’s ability to flatten 3D space. The manipulation of the photograph makes the structure that is represented seem infinite; this is partly due to the grids at the far ends of the photograph being cut off. This creates an illusion of what Krauss calls a centrifugal grid:[3] a grid that is not bound by form, but rather one that goes on infinitely. This we know not to be true as we recognize what is represented as a building, and we know that a building is not flat nor infinite. The grid functions in more ways than just the breaking down of space. The flatness forces our gaze to skim across the surface of the photograph, removing any natural focal point for the wandering gaze. Being refused a focal point the viewer is forced to examine the photograph at a closer distance. At this point the grid in its flat uniformity is broken up into individual sequences signifying personhood through curtains, lamps, and books in the windows. Gursky’s photograph is not a descriptive and aleatoric form that acts as merely a visual registrar of the world and its contingent events. The photograph is a work of creation, not one bound to documentation or description.

Roland Barthes in his seminal writing Camera Lucida seeks to uncover the ontology of photography. In his text he starts out by positing that photography evades our classification. This disorder of photography is the basis for his inquiry. Photography is a reconstitution of a moment that cannot be existentially repeated: It is an instrument that emulsifies and delimits time.[4] Barthes uses the word eidolon to describe it, namely that photography is the return of the dead and that death is evident in all photos.[5] The photograph is a product of pure contingency, always leading back to a reality. It always carries with it its referent and is never a photograph by itself. It is merely a reconstitution of the referent. The photograph therefore never asserts itself as an object, rather it works as a deictic finger always pointing towards a referent.[6] For Barthes this disorder renders the photograph invisible. This transparency is emblematic of photography’s resistance to language, seeing as how it is devoid of both marks and signs, rather it exists as is.[7] The photograph can be divided into three substrates each with a particular role: The operator that has the role of the photographer, the spectator that has the role of the detached viewer, and lastly the target, which has the role of the person being photographed.[8] Within each of these relations we approach photography differently, but also the process in which photography is conceived is different. The photograph for the spectator is based in the chemical process, or digital process, in which the subject matter is stored or emulsified in some kind of storing mechanism. For the operator, however, photography is based in the optical act of looking at a subject through the viewfinder or a screen, and the act of taking the picture.[9] His exegesis of photography and its ontology is one that is based on the position of the spectator.

For Barthes there is a duality in photography. His subjective analysis of a number of photographs leaves him at the conclusion that some specific photographs have certain properties in which we can observe the co-existence of two different elements, the punctum and the studium. The studium is a ubiquitous element of photography. It bases itself on a study of the photograph, its meaning and how it alludes to common cultural qualities visible to everyone. The studium speaks of a sequential readability in a photograph, one which we can decipher through a superficial analysis of the referential material. The studium does not evoke a deep emotive response from the viewer; its basis is the acknowledgement of the photographer’s intention. The studium might base itself on an inconsequential reading of trivialities. It most pertinently refers to how the eyes of the viewer meanders over the surface while never percolating through the surface, creating a membrane of detached interest.[10] The punctum, on the other hand, is the puncturing of that membrane, an accidental rupture stemming from an unconsidered detail in the photograph that topples the rigid and flat surface. It forces the spectator to acknowledge the photograph as a deeply subjective phenomena which escapes any commonality. The punctum is for Barthes a process that wounds the spectator, through its sting or prick, it is overwhelming for the viewer. It might be a minute detail that animates the inanimate or a destitute street that distresses us for no real reason. The punctum is not a palpable process, but a spasmodic response to elements in the photograph.[11]

The single frame of Paris, Montparnasse is not a single shot, rather it is a meticulously rendered panorama of multiple shots stitched together in a single frame. This is not the inescapable “pure deictic language” of photography that Barthes describes. Rather it is through the flat and rectilinear perspective we see a reality that is constructed, which seeks to escape the limits of deictic vision and create a new perception. This highly designed perception through its use of grids, creates a contradiction between Barthes’ studium and punctum. When our gaze meanders over the grid we suddenly become aware of the illusion of a congruous and flat surface. The studium in the work forces us to acknowledge the false perception of photography. Barthes’ anecdote at the start of Camera Lucida describes how when seeing a picture of Napoleon, he was in all actuality seeing it through eyes that had seen the emperor. Although the use of digital manipulation in Paris, Montparnasse is not an aesthetic sui generis, it is still utilized to avoid a distorted perspective. It therefore also creates a flattening of space emphasizing the gridded and linear space that seems to disintegrate on our retina.

We therefore see a very different form of studium, a studium that isn’t discontinuous with the punctum such as for Barthes. The punctum arises from and continuous through a studium of the work. Moving in closer as to reconstitute the space in the frame, we are confronted with the contradiction between the denatured uniformity of the grid and the deeply personal and almost voyeuristic aspect of looking through someone’s window, almost like a miniature viewfinder. Inflicting a sort of collective punctum it does not puncture the studium’s membrane, rather it perpetuates it. While we postulate the representations of reality in photography, an understanding that photography is not just “a dissociation of consciousness from identity”[12], photography is at the same time a dissociation of reality from perception. Not only is this punctum something that requires a studium, but is also a punctum that makes us aware of our own perception and the necessity of studium. Furthermore we see a photograph that is severable from its subject matter. Through its spatial abstraction and falsified perspective, we realize that we are not looking at a moment in time frozen into finitude. Rather we see a designed moment which has been curated and stitched together to evoke a sublime feeling. The photograph is not the laminated object proposed by Barthes, rather it is an instrument to help us perceive what we thought we could only conceive. The implied infinity of the centrifugal grid is perceived through the photograph as a subject rather than an object. The photograph functions counter to Barthes notion that it transforms subject to object.[13]



Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. 3-28 New York, NY: Hill and Wang. 1981

Ohlin, Alex. Andreas Gursky and the Contemporary Sublime. Art Journal, 61, no 4. (May 2014). 22-35

Krauss, Rosalind. Grids. October, 9. (Summer, 1979). 50-64

[1] Alex Ohlin, Andreas Gursky and the Contemporary Sublime. (Art Journal, 2014.), 24

[2] Rosalind Krauss, Grids. (October, 1979.), 50

[3] Krauss, Grids. 60

[4] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. (Hill and Wang. 1981.), 4

[5] ibid. 9

[6] ibid. 15

[7] ibid. 6

[8] ibid. 10

[9] ibid.10

[10] ibid. 25-26

[11] ibid. 26-27

[12] ibid. 12

[13] ibid. 13