I first encountered the photograph taken by Pamela Littky of a woman sitting behind a desk in a cramped looking office corner more than four years ago. The photograph was part of the Gateway to Death Valley series which provided a portrait of two small towns located on either side of Death Valley in the United States: Baker, California and Beatty, Nevada.
Lorraine, Beatty Water and Sanitation, Beatty (Nevada) © Pamela Littky
I’m unsure whether it was the woman’s vacant stare or the large landscape paintings hanging on the walls in the background or the interplay between the two which caused me to linger. At the time I didn’t think much further on it, but the image wouldn’t go away—why was the question.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes articulates an interpretion of an image in terms of two key concepts: studium and punctum. The studium being the ostensible content of the image, it is to “encounter the photographer’s intention” (27). While a punctum is “that accident which pricks me….is poignant to me” (27).
Neither of these concepts felt helpful in identifying my interest in this photograph. I couldn’t identify the presence of a punctum for me. I didn’t feel bruised or wounded and felt that my response was more intellectual than it was emotional or from memory. It wasn’t the studium either. Littky’s project was not overtly environmental in its formulation and I knew that was I was reacting to information in the photograph that was environmental.
Barthes’s lesser used term of advenience seemed to fit better. Advenience is used by Barthes as a placeholder on his way to the studium and punctum. It describes an attraction to photographs for the adventure they exert (19). Advenience or adventure described my experience more closely—the photograph sparkled with information, it was an adventure to look at.
From the kitsch landscape paintings of idealised wilderness on the walls, my eyes drew down to the bottom left of the frame to see a partial branch of a small indoor plant: real nature, domesticated form. Then to the trees beyond the window of the small office, dark and claustrophobically covering the window: real nature, ominous form.
Inside to the birds on Lorraine’s t-shirt. Then to the clutter of paper, metal, and plastic: bottles, cups, scissors, ruler, calculator, sweet wrappers, filing tray, fluorescent strip lighting. A collection of all the things needed to enact the management of water and sanitation to which Lorraine had been entrusted.
The photograph’s effect, taken as a whole, was somehow encapsulating a diagnosis of our present ecological dilemma. The clarity of which was sharpened by its mundaneness.
The photograph contained both a love of nature and a complete obliviousness to its presence. This is not to suggest that people aren’t aware that paper is made from trees, but rather that this photograph captured multiple views of nature, multiple ways of using, seeing, and not seeing nature. And showed seeing/not-seeing in a context that is both deeply familiar and on which we (Western civilisation) are deeply dependent.
Lorraine’s vacant stare and frozen pose crystallised a problem that sits within many of us, to recognise that we are everyday surrounded by, saturated by, and dependent upon a nature we love. We just need to see it.