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The art of noise

A black and white interior of an empty church via a door frame. The door itself is fully open, the camera is facing its narrow edge. Inside, a few deserted benches in front of large, bright, overexposed window. In the forefront tiles of the hallway and walls that could use a coat of paint. This black and white print is mounted in the middle of a now yellowed piece of carton with some embossed decoration framing the photographic print.
Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Réka Szentirmay. (front)

According to Roland Barthes, “[s]ociety […] mistrusts pure meaning”. Notwithstanding, this almost-compulsory meaning is also “to be surrounded by noise”. [1]

Probably this is why the image above is so puzzling. Why would anyone take a picture of a church interior via a door frame, also carefully composing quite a bit of the hallway into the photograph? I do see a meaning: a peek into a church, probably archiving a stage of renovations. But where, oh where is the noise?

I wonder: could this print be the archetype of “what we might call the unary photograph[2] (emphasis in original), the ideal banal? But then again, does the ideal banal exist at all? There must be humans that find some sort of a punctum in this very picture.[3] I have, apparently. Why else would I have made it part of my very own collection and give it a number that will identify it till someone (anyone) cares enough to cherish my curation for one reason or another?

Is the overexposed rectangle in the back simply (and literally) a window to the outer world—or is this image a meticulously orchestrated encapsulation of a vision? Maybe illustrating the perpetual presence of a supernatural force in our lives, some sort of a deity waiting for us at the end of the road. A page from a bible that primarily targets architects, quite possibly; maybe the cover itself.

What is certain: one doesn’t mount a meaningless picture on cardboard. Especially not one so precisely composed. If I could use only one single phrase to describe this print I would go for painstaking.

The punctum must be some sort of optional, ambiguous noise then, one might say. Our fantasy getting a kick start and roaming wild, triggered by a seemingly uninteresting slice of past, something that-had-been. It is undeniably arguable whether the studium[4], our own studium, and its invisible dialogue with the given rectangle is part of the piece. It is tempting to say it is. Or, at least, it is a testimony to being human and quite a reasonable explanation for our relationship with art—and our insatiable hunger for imagery.

Or, could this very imperceptible rambling/thought-process of mine be the noise?

A noiseless photograph is consumed “aesthetically, not politically”, says Barthes.[5] It’s quiet, its message might be pure beauty. Something subjective thus, based on taste, prone to be influenced by the studium to a great extent—regardless of its aesthetics.

While a noiseless picture might exist, one’s noiselessness could very well be a cacophony for another. Or else, a muted piece could easily become something loud after a while, building on the viewer’s experiences and knowledge collected over time.

But then again, doesn’t the word “noise” have a negative connotation? Is it indeed noise that we need to talk about?

What is the correct phrase then? Benjamin’s aura is considered to be lost to mechanical (and digital) reproduction.[6] How shall we call the volatile soul of a photograph that has much less to do with the image itself than its admirers? Ambience? Radiance? Air?

However we dub it, it is the spectator that makes the art. In a certain sense, an ignored piece simply does not exist. It’s just a shell that’s condemned to vanish, together with what-had-been.


[1] Barthes, Roland. Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. Vintage, 2000. 36

[2] Barthes, 40

[3] Somewhat rephrasing Barthes, the punctum is what, looking at a photograph, punches one in the face. It is the (rather emotional) trigger that makes one find an image outstanding/memorable/outrageous/etc. The punctum is something especially personal and most photographs just don’t have it in them—while one’s favourite prints of all time definitely do.

[4] As opposed to the punctum, Barthes’ studium does not have much to do with emotions. It is our lexical knowledge of the world (history, literature, etc.) that places a photograph into context, giving it new dimensions of meaning.

[5] Barthes, 36

[6] Whether we agree or not, might come up in future posts.

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