Punctum and Alice Belin

I came across the word “punctum” in a New Yorker article years ago to indicate the sense of an inaccessible past in faded, old black-and-white photographs.  The word also has an obscure physiological meaning, something in the structure of our tear ducts, but the definition as used in photography seems to have been made up. I cannot find it in any dictionary.

I like the word and use it myself because there is nothing else suitable, no synonym I could use instead.  I often edit old photos on Photoshop, restoring the contrast and colorizing them for just this reason, to remove the punctum.  I did it with our class photo at the top of this blog.  I want us to be seen inhabiting today’s world in living color as we once were.  We are still the same people and never did exist in black-and-white.

Purists say I have ruined the patina, as if I had refinished a valuable antique table.  But this is not the original photo, only a scanned, digital copy.  I also keep the pristine scan because sometimes we want to savor a time long past.  Both are useful depending on the context.

Alice Belin was Pierre du Pont’s wife who lived in the Peirce-du Pont mansion on the grounds of Longwood Gardens.  They married late when he was 45 and she was 43.  In most photos, she looks like a caricature of my grandmother dressed in her Sunday best with a fox stole around her neck, the stole with little feet and head still attached, little bitty glass eyes and a nasty spring mouth to clip it in place.  Alice—how shall I put it? was not the most beautiful woman.  She reminds many of Eleanor Roosevelt, not only disparagingly in looks but complimentary in capabilities.  When I speak to visitors, I want to present her at her best.  Alice was no shrinking violet satisfied with household duties.  She graduated from Bryn Mawr college where she was active in sports and clubs, and she remained active and involved in social causes all of her life.  She also had a much better married life with Pierre than Eleanor had with Franklin.

I finally found this photo of her, I am guessing in her 50s which would date the photo in the early 1920s.  She is dressed simply in understated elegance for her formal photograph.  She is certainly a handsome woman, and, with a little editing, fits easily into today’s world.

Alice with punctum

Alice with punctum

Alice without punctum

Alice without punctum


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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