Photography runs in all directions, permeating diverse aspects of society. Indeed, it is difficult to find an area of modern life untouched by it. The critic John Tagg once suggested that there was no single characteristic, or practice, that represented the fundamental essence of the medium. Trying to account for photography as a whole, he suggested, was akin to attempting a history, or a museum, of writing: all that could be done was to trace the uses of photography (or writing) in the institutions in which it was put to work – the law courts, medicine, advertising, art, and so forth. Even if we reject a strict version of this argument attempting to write an introduction to this dispersed field feels like a vain task. The quite distinct versions of photography’s history unravel attempts to tell a coherent story. This is one of the things that can make thinking about photography so fascinating, and so challenging.
Outside the museum, we rarely encounter photographs in a pure, or self-contained, form. Invariably, in actual use photographic images are combined with language and some other technology.
Photographs often appear on the page (of a book, magazine, or newspaper), combined with text; they figure on billboards (again with words); in archives and filing cabinets; on personal identification documents; in family albums (or, their modern replacement, the reassigned shoe box); on computer systems; and so forth. Photography is a hybrid medium, and it is worth remembering that the way we encounter and use photographic images frequently involves some other system of communication and organization.
The question ‘Where is the photograph?’ presupposes that we have lost sight of photography or that photography is somehow lost; that it has lost a direction perhaps or that we do not find it where it should be; that it has been misplaced; that it remains somewhere, unclaimed, in some lost property office of culture.
In 1865, the photographer James Mudd presented a paper entitled ‘A Photographer’s Dream’ at the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (Photographic Section). Mudd tells the story of a photographer who falls asleep and wakes in the 29th century.
This fable represents a parody of, what Mudd saw as, the dire state of photography in the mid-19th century. His goal was to see photography valued as one of the fine arts (his particular passion was for picturesque landscapes), but photographers obsessed with chemical processes and optical devices undermined this ambition.
In his ‘dream’ he was conducted through a swanky new Manchester to the ‘Grand Focus Photographic Society’. But, whereas he had expected to find photography transformed into art, he encountered just more of the same. The participants in the Society came up with one mad scheme after another: a camera, called a pointer, wound up and sent in search of views; steam proposed to raise photography to new heights; and so on. Mudd was aghast to find that photography had not really changed in all this time; still no one seemed interested in art. In fact, it turned out that there had been little opportunity for progress; he learned that, in the intervening years, photography had been lost and had only recently been ‘discovered’. This simple tale proposes a period of more than 1,000 years of modern history without photographs. It is a remarkably interesting idea.
William Bornefeld’s science-fiction novel Time and Light is set in a post-apocalyptic society called Fullerton, where photographs are forbidden. In place of the seductions of images, the inhabitants of Fullerton have the ‘pill’ (half anti-depressant, half sexual stimulant).
But, during a scientific expedition to the (allegedly) irradiated world beyond the domed city, the central character, Dr Noreen, discovers 12 ancient photographs from the 20th century. Even during his medical training Dr Noreen’s contact with pictures had been restricted to a few diagrams. But when he encounters an ancient archival facility and takes a packet of images (oddly enough, all by well-known photographers; including one by the author) he becomes obsessed with these illicit pictures and flouts the iconophobic rule that predominates among the last surviving humans – which Bornefeld calls, in a bad photographic joke, ‘The Family of Man’ – spending hours absorbed in contemplating an image of peppers by Edward Weston, or Robert Capa’s picture of a Spanish Republican soldier depicted at the moment of his death.
Noreen is rash enough to show his images to two other citizens: gradually his promising career and social progress disintegrate around him. Ultimately, Noreen’s search for more photographs leads him to challenge the norms and protocols that govern Fullerton: the ruling bureaucrats respond with the ultimate iconophobic gesture and surgically destroy his vision.
It is difficult for us to imagine these imageless future times. The rapid spread of phone technology for making photographs has only exacerbated this situation: we all now live our lives in the presence of pictures. Dr Noreen’s world, in which photographs are prohibited, seems particularly odd because they do so much work inour society that it is hard to imagine the ruling powers voluntarily renouncing them. However, it seems helpful to begin with Mudd and Bornefeld, and to contemplate a world without photographs. So let’s leap forward into the imageless future.
In Mudd’s future, if not Bornefeld’s, drawings could substitute for camera-generated images, but drawing is a slow, and highly skilled, process. One key impetus behind the invention of photography in the 1830s was the desire to escape from the restrictions imposed by handcrafted images. What is more, in the absence of photographic reproduction techniques, if drawings are to be issued in significant numbers they will need to be hand engraved onto a metal plate or wooden block. Two key consequences result from this laborious technique: both would significantly limit the number of images in circulation.
Firstly, hand-drawn images are expensive to produce, because they require skill and time. When picture production involves the expenditure of effort, time, and money, images are likely to be restricted to the illustration of significant things. Photography, in contrast, excels at depicting everyday life and casual appearances.
Consequently, throughout its history, the hand-made image has been, invariably, reserved for prestigious projects: images of the powerful and the famous, world historical events, subjects deemed elevating or worthy of attention by official culture. Imagine, for instance, the magazines currently on display in any newsagent deprived of their photographs. Many of these publications depend for their appeal on their pictures, and a good percentage would, undoubtedly, cease to exist without them. Would gardening, DIY, or fashion magazines, or those weird lads’ mags, have half the appeal without their images? Would anyone go to the time and expense of reproducing this stuff in the absence of cameras? The people in Mudd’s future would find very few illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers available to them; even for those who could afford them, images of their family and friends would be limited to a few formal portraits. Secondly, whereas photography is more-or-less instantaneous, even the most rapid sketch requires time to execute. Moving subjects can only be reproduced as an artist’s impression. (It took photography to establish the way a running horse plants its feet.)
In a number of pioneering texts written during the 1920s and 1930s, the German critic Walter Benjamin argued that photography should be thought of as a technology of the ‘optical unconscious’. Benjamin’s analogy was with psychoanalysis, which allegedly brought the murky realms of the unconscious into view: he believed photography did something similar for the aspects of our world that eluded standard vision. He had in mind the ability of the camera to extend human observation beyond its normal parameters. All manner of instruments are regularly employed to enhance vision: eye-glasses, magnifying glasses, simple microscopes, and telescopes to name just a few. Some of these instruments are straightforward to use and we are readily familiar with their results. These optical devices are, though, designed to be used individually and communicating their findings can be difficult. What an observer sees in a simple microscope or telescope can be recorded in a drawing, but doing so requires a great deal of skill and patience: the objects of study often move or metamorphose, and the focus of attention has to be repeatedly shifted from the eyepiece to the paper. (There are plenty of examples in which what the observer recorded did not exist.)
The camera is particularly suited for combination with optical devices because the instrument can be substituted for the regular lens and rapid modern shutters and films allow for an almost instantaneous arrest of motion. In this way, images otherwise invisible to the eye can be revealed. Some complex instruments – scanning microscopes, ultrasound scanners, and so forth – require a photographic image (or video/computer screen) to manifest their results: there is nothing to see in the absence of photographic film or screen. Images from inaccessible places are also made available by photographers (not many of us are likely to explore the depths of the ocean). Satellite photographs of the Earth and its weather systems, or images of distant planets, are only possible from a point of view that is literally ‘out of this world’. The ability to make pictures at a fraction of a second (or in film to slow down motion and freeze frame) brings things that we could otherwise never observe into focus: we are able to discern whether the ball crossed the line or to capture a humming bird in flight. Infrared photography allows us to see in the dark, while telescopic photography enables observers to record dangerous events at a safe distance (or to spy and pry). If we add the microcameras that enable medics to see inside the body without the need for invasive surgery to this list, the stakes are raised once more. Much of our world would be invisible to those in the imageless future cities of Manchester and Fullerton.
It is difficult to grasp just how much would be lost to us under these circumstances. Most of all, I suspect, the inhabitants of the future would miss out on pictures of simple appearances: the look of a volcano erupting, or a close-up of a dragonfly’s wings; the pattern made by a drop of water, or the record of a daft outfit worn at a party. The world would seem much less knowable in the absence of these images: our familiarity with tropical islands and deserts, anacondas and aardvarks, stems, in the main, from lens-based imagery. (Perhaps zoological and botanical gardens would undergo a spectacular revival in the photo-less millennia.)
Much of our familiarity with our world comes through photographic visualization as a surrogate for first-hand experience of places, objects, creatures, and events. Photographs have made many things seem ordinary, bringing distant places or unusual things closer to us, but, at the same time, our reliance on them has been at the cost of making much of our experience seem secondhand. It is startling to think how much of our knowledge comes through the medium of photography: how many of us have actually seen a polar ice flow or a refugee camp? Yet we are able to describe the appearance of both. In this sense, we relate to our world through the ‘second nature’ of technology. Photography occupies a central role in that process. An iconophobic future might make some important gains by dispensing with the mediation of cameras, but the costs would be immense. Images associated with the optical unconscious have played a fundamental role in demystifying our world; without them enchantment would have a greater grip on our understanding.
As we have already observed, in Mudd’s future dependence on drawings would mean the everyday images of friends and relatives, pets and prized possessions, would be likely to disappear: there would be no envelopes stuffed with pictures from high days and holidays. These things are completely absent from Noreen’s Fullerton. In these imageless societies, it is likely that many people would leave no visual trace of their lives. This was the condition for most of the world’s inhabitants before photography (early photographers often dreamed of a photograph of Shakespeare), and after its loss, or eradication, most people would return to what the critic Siegfried Kracaeur called, in another context, ‘imageless oblivion’. However, this situation would, once again, allow the prestige of pictures to devolve to the rich and powerful. (For the poor and the powerless, the ability to avoid the official gaze has some definite advantages.)
The modern state employs photographs (and other related lens-based media) in myriad ways, and, at least, in Bornefeld’s full version of ‘imageless oblivion’ its operations would be considerably hampered by their absence. In addition to political ‘spin’ and promotion, images of this kind are used for disseminating public information; traffic control; recording forensic evidence and presenting that evidence in court; surveillance in banks, city streets, or on demonstrations; for staking out a criminal suspect and recording his or her contacts. Perhaps, most of all, photographs are employed to produce records of individuals. All manner of official documents demand portraits of their holders, including passports, driving licences, library cards, and so forth. In many parts of the world people are obliged to carry identity cards (British citizens may soon be required to join them). Imagine how much easier it would be to take on a different identity before – or after – photography. Charles Dickens gave a great description of the trouble it took to identify individuals in a period before their likenesses could be photographically produced. For example, jailers were required to scrutinize each prisoner and memorize his or her appearance. The police began using photography seriously in the 1870s. With the emergence of fingerprinting, and subsequently DNA testing, photography occupies a less central place in identification. But, while these other technologies allow identity to be confirmed, photographs make it much easier to spot an individual. In Noreen’s future, the police can keep tabs on everyone because there are so few remaining people; in contrast, Mudd’s millennia without photographs must offer lots of possibilities for becoming invisible, for moving city and starting over.
There are some phenomena in our society that are, to a large extent, the products of photography and could not survive in these future worlds, or at least could not do so in their present form. Two examples will have to make the point. Celebrity is one of those phenomena that could hardly exist without the camera. Fame predates photography, but celebrity developed with the image technology of industrial capitalism. In the 1860s British dealers regularly ordered 10,000 photographs of prominent celebrities. The revival of the popularity of the British royal family dates from roughly the moment around the middle of the 19th century when they began to promote themselves as homely bourgeois citizens. Photography played an important role in this process. The first photograph of a member of the British royal family to be shown in public appeared in 1857; within a few days of its issue, in 1860, 60,000 sets of Mayall’s photographic Royal Album had been ordered. From the point at which image and text could be produced in mass editions (the late 19th century), a symbiosis took place between popular journalism and celebrity: the publicity-hungry could then keep themselves in the public eye, while the media traded on this visibility. The modern tabloid press feeds on celebrity pictures, even if these days they show considerably less reverence for their subjects. Increasingly, paparazzi work has become more prying and voyeuristic, but this logic is implicit in the celebrity image. To be famous in Fullerton, you actually have to produce something, or do something, even if only the bad poetry-cum-rock-and-roll of chief poet Kafahvey.
Advertising – unquestionably one of the central roles for photography in capitalist society – presents a different case, since commodities can be hyped with words or drawings. The rise of modern commodity culture, once again, though, seems to have developed in tandem with photographic reproducibility. In part, this is to do with the ability to disseminate images through the mass media. But the characteristic of the photographic image clearly has something to do with the power of advertising: the celebration of commodities seems to thrive on the kind of high-resolution, high-key, glossy image provided by photographs. With no celebrities staring from the tabloids and limited advertising, the imageless future has some things to recommend it! Noreen trained as a medical doctor with a few diagrams and the experience of the dissecting table, but modern medicine would be severely hampered without its images. Medical training combines dissection with study from photographs (or photographically reproduced illustrations). It can be easier to identify a particular pathological condition from an abstracted image than from the contingent forms it actually takes. Photographs make available an archive of diseases unfamiliar to the individual doctor or nurse. No doubt, in the absence of photographs, memory would find other ruses for recording these things, but picturing them is highly convenient. While the X-ray is not strictly a photographic technology, it becomes visible when recorded on photographic film, and all manner of surgical procedures now depend on introducing microcameras, endoscopes, and the like into the body.
If the restraints on commercial culture and surveillance might seem beneficial effects resulting from the restriction on photography, the consequences of the imageless society for medicine seem altogether less desirable. The inhabitants of this future would, no doubt, miss some types of photograph much more than others: some of these pictures seem indispensable, others burdensome. Overall, in their absence the world would seem less busy and probably more alien.
At this point, let’s put the time machine into reverse gear and travel back to the mid-19th century: the point at which photography was beginning to colonize the image culture of capitalist society. In 1864, Dr Hugh Diamond – editor of The Photographic Journal, and pioneer photographer of mental illness – wrote the report on the International Exhibition of 1862. In this assessment of the state of photography, he claimed there was ‘scarce a branch of art, of science, of economics, or indeed of human interest in its widest application, in which the applications of this art [photography] have not been made useful’. In medical science, he said, it was used in ‘morbid anatomy of malformation and disease generally’ as well s recording ‘the progress of cases and illustration of surgical treatment’. It was employed in ethnological science and natural history where ‘no other mode of delineation’ could compare with it, and it provided an essential service in ‘giving a permanent form to the enlarged images of the microscope’. ‘The archaeologist and antiquary, the virtuoso and historian’ all used photographs, while for ‘the architect and engineer it supersedes and far surpasses in many cases drawings made by hand’. Photography had an important place in law: reproducing documents and ‘pursuing the criminal’. For manufacturers, it ‘depicted designs, patterns or workmanship’. And lastly, Diamond claimed, ‘more ambitious still, as if the globe were too narrow a sphere for its resources, it travels into space, seeking and taking records of the phases of other worlds, and of that great body, the sun . . . .’. When he claimed that photography ventured into space, he meant this metaphorically by being attached to the lens of a telescope: now cameras are fixed to space probes and beam back startling images of Saturn’s rings.
Mid-19th-century photographers and their champions often wrote lists like this in a celebratory vein (in part, we suspect, because their professional status was not that secure), but they were not wrong in observing the rapid spread of their images through society. Since Diamond’s day, the uses of photography have only proliferated. As the critic and curator John Szarkowski noted in 1976, there are now more photographs than there are bricks. Each one of them, he said, was unique. Accounting for this number of images and their uses is not an easy task.
Documents and pictures
All of these terms are problematic, but the distinction is real and has generated much of the photography we routinely encounter. The photographic document, like other kinds of document, is typically perceived to be a neutral, style less, and objective record of information. The document is usually thought to be devoid of subjective intention, even of human will – it is frequently claimed that the camera produces images automatically, as if unaided by an operator. For instance, a French caricature from 1840 makes fun of a photographer dozing while his apparatus does all the work.
Photographic art, in contrast, lays claim to intention, subjective expression, spiritual uplift, and aesthetic effect. Rather than snooze, photographic artists must be alert.
Some commentators have argued that a serious study of photography should abjure any consideration of art and focus on the instrumental forms and mass practices that are the mainstay of the medium. Photographic art, it is suggested, is an invented tradition, or ideology, and we would do better to look at the tasks photography performs in modern society. This is a strong argument; not least because the standard histories of photography have, all too often, focused on art at the expense of mass image forms: advertising, legal documents, pornography, anthropological images, topographic views, and so forth. However, there are two good reasons for continuing to study art-photography. Firstly, the early pioneers of photography drew many of their key terms from established conceptions of art: ‘photogenic drawing’, ‘picturesque views’, ‘prints’, and so on.
The language of art was available to photography’s first viewers; it shaped what could be imagined and what could be done. The effects of these initial musings have had long-term consequences for our understanding of photographs. Secondly – and this follows on from the previous point – the document and the art-photograph are locked together: these are mutually determining categories that draw a great deal of their meanings from their antithetical relation.
In the history of images, one category of representation has typically been set against the high-flown practices of art and cast in the role of lowly carrier of information. To take just a couple of random examples: during the 16th century, the art of northern Europe was seen as descriptive and realistic, in contrast to the learned painting practised in Italy; in the 18th century, the topographic view (supposedly a literal description of place) was cast against the sublime or picturesque landscape. In recent times, photography (truth or record) has been opposed to painting (emotion or expression). This distinction is reiterated within photography itself: documents are set against pictures. In all of these oppositions, the representational underling is viewed as descriptive and ‘matter-of-fact’.
Most of these oppositions have their roots in the distinction between the ‘liberal’ and the ‘mechanical arts’, which was enshrined during the Renaissance of the 15th century. Renaissance artists engaged in a protracted struggle to raise the status of their work and their social standing. That is to say, painters sought to distinguish themselves from wheelwrights, barrel-makers, and others with whom they were frequently classed. To do this they insisted that their work was a liberal art and not a lowly artisanal (or mechanical) trade. Artisanal labour was viewed by the elite as demeaning. Those who worked with their hands – displaying ‘mere’ skill, facility, or imitation – were said to be ‘servile’, because they followed a plan established by others rather than demonstrating their own ingenuity. In contrast to the artisan, the liberal gentleman, who wrote poetry or engaged in geometry, was thought to display learning and intellect and, as such, was said to be untouched by the stain of work. Artists responded to this argument by attempting to infuse their work with the explicit signs of mental effort: this involved appeals to classical learning, the creation of idealized figures that were not copies of imperfect nature, and characterizing line and drawing as more foundational than mere colouristic effects.
A decisive turning point in artists’ protracted struggle over status occurred with the establishment of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris in 1648, and then the Royal Academy in London in 1768. The painter-theorists who directed these institutions – Gerard Lebrun and Sir Joshua Reynolds, respectively – established Academic rules and precedents designed to assert the intellectual content of their work and raise the standing of art. Here is Reynolds: The value and rank of every art is in proportion to the mental labour employed in it, or the mental pleasure produced by it. As this principle is observed or neglected, our profession becomes either a liberal art, or a mechanical trade. In the hands of one man it makes the highest pretensions, as it is addressed to the noblest faculties: in those of another it is reduced to a mere matter of ornament; and the painter has but humble province of furnishing our apartments with elegance.
According to Academicians, any art based on copying endangered the practice by proximity to the characteristics associated with the artisan or ‘rude mechanic’. In this Academic tradition, the presence of detail, because it suggested copying, had to be avoided at all costs.
In contrast, Academic art stressed broad or general effects and idealized forms. Art was characterized by its distance from the contingent features of the actual world and in this way signified the presence of an active intelligence. In Reynolds’s argument, art and work stand as mutually determining terms: art is noble and elevated, while work is vulgar and base; the artist is a free subject in contrast to the subjected worker. During the 19th century, the Academic tradition was transformed – in Britain by the popularity of genre painting and ‘Naturalism’, in France by Realism and Impressionism. Nevertheless, many of the structuring oppositions from the Academic tradition remained in place. Copying or imitation continued to be viewed as mindless and mechanical, while invention and idealization were highly valued.
Photography took its place within the established cultural antimonies.
In an important essay written in 1857, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake suggested that what photography did best ‘was beneath the doing of a real artist’. Photography made exact copies of things: it saved artists’ effort, labour, and time, and it freed them to concentrate on imaginative or creative work. Those who wanted to dismiss this new image-form argued that it was just a mindless, automatic means of copying. But art-photographers also repeatedly echoed this distinction, arguing that it was necessary to wrench photography away from the automatic imprint of the apparatus, to imbue it with intellectual characteristics; to reject details, copies, and documents. Within photography itself, then, the same division evident in the Academic tradition was reiterated: documents were seen as objective, mechanical copies characterized by superabundance of detail and practical utility; art photography aspired to the status of invention and subjectivity.
This opposition generated some of the most significant functions of photography.
Photographic documents are central to our culture and we all have a sense of what they look like and what they do. We use pictures like this all the time. A great deal of our information about our world comes from these images, and all manner of specialist professions employ photographic documents in their work. Despite the evident importance of the document, however, there has been remarkably little critical attention paid to it. The exception is Molly Nesbit’s account of the photographs made by Eugène Atget at the turn of the 20th century.
Atget was not an artist, he made images of Paris for others to use, particularly some of those engaged in the skilled Parisian trades: theatrical designers, metal workers, illustrators, and those who worked off nostalgia for ‘old Paris’. He didn’t claim anything special for these images. When the Surrealists wanted to publish one of his pictures in their magazine, he declined any credit, adding ‘These are simply documents I make’. Nesbit describes Atget’s document as a ‘nonaesthetic’, workaday form, with two key features: firstly, it is a practical, utilitarian image; secondly, it is built on ‘openness’. The document is always defined by its viewer, who brings his or her specialist requirements to it. For those who employed Atget’s images, aesthetic significance was of little or no relevance.
Information, content, detail, and use are what count in documents. According to Nesbit, ‘an architectural photograph would be called a document, as would a chronophotograph, a police i.d., or an X ray’. The document, then, had no absolute form: the same image might be used by different specialists, and so it had to be open to interpretation. At get was skilled in creating images that served several constituencies.
However, some key characteristics of the document had been established well before Atget. Historians of science have recently paid considerable attention to investigating the category of ‘objectivity’ – a key concept in the functioning of the photographic document and in other documentary media. Common sense suggests that objectivity is a self-evident part in the toolbox of science and other specialist forms of observation (the news media typically claim objectivity). However, historical scrutiny suggests that objectivity emerged as a component part of the new subjectivity for observers during the 18th and 19th centuries. We are all familiar with this conception of subjectivity from popular representations of the scientist: this is not the wild-eyed genius on a bad hair day, but the white-coated, emotionless, super-logical analyst.
The modern conception of objectivity began to take root as a response to the capitalist division of labour, which fragmented work and knowledge into increasingly specialized portions. Some intellectuals responded to the challenge of specialization by adopting the values of detachment, disinterestedness, and self-effacement, thereby asserting a stance seemingly outside particular interests. This conception of objectivity entails eradicating all traces of the observer, which are seen to interfere with the process of recording data. This point of view presents observation as an activity independent of actual observers and their personal investments.
The long-standing tussle between scientific investigators and their illustrators offers one clear example of this process. Before photography, documents were obtained for scientists (or natural philosophers as they were called) from artists, but the men of science often disagreed with draughts men about what could be seen and how it should be depicted. The men of science opposed, what they saw as, the personal vision and aesthetic preferences of artists.
When the French Interior Minister announced the invention of photography to the Chamber of Deputies in 1839, he noted that it would enable the traveller, archaeologist, and naturalist ‘to note what they see, without having recourse to the hand of another’; similarly, William Henry Fox Talbot – the English scientist credited with the discovery of photography – dreamed of an automatic apparatus that would do away with his dependence on artistic skill. Photography, and in particular the photographic document, slotted neatly into this new vision of objective observation. Throughout its history, the camera has repeatedly been seen as an objective machine that captures information without any interference from the artist. We have already heard the sleeping photographer joke; in the early years of photography this was an often repeated theme: it was assumed that the sun made the picture, or the camera did, or even that the object in question depicted itself (Talbot spoke of his country pile, Lacock Abbey, as the first building ‘that was ever yet known to have drawn its own picture’). In each variant, the image emerges without any conscious involvement by the photographer. In this story, the camera figures as a model worker who never tires or loses attention, doesn’t demand more wages or go on strike. The document is, in its essentials, an objective form, which is deemed truthful because it seems to be independent of the values of actual observers. In this light, photographs can seem neutral witnesses to events.
The document was plain and artless; it was designed to be transparent so the viewer could look through its surface and concentrate on the things depicted. In the production of documents the camera is usually located in a frontal, straight-on position, providing as much detail as possible; the subject frequently fills the frame. Honoré Daumier’s Parisian Sketch of 1853 presents an anatomy of this form.
Daumier depicts two different Parisians and the way they comport themselves for the camera. The ‘natural man’ faces squarely up and stares into the lens – the resulting image will be direct and unadorned. ‘Civilized man’, in contrast, adopts an artfully contorted position and gazes thoughtfully into space; his stance requires the support of the draped table. The image – all fancy pose and deep shadow – is designed to convey dreamy reflection and sensitivity. It is, of course, a good joke about Parisian types – the no-nonsense, brutish bourgeois and his affected, artistic cousin – but it is also an excellent rendering of the difference between documents and pictures. Once again, these images assume their characteristic meanings through their contrast. Photographic documents have been employed to do many things, but it is instructive to turn briefly to the second half of the 19th century, when they were increasingly put to work by a wide range of state institutions and private organizations. In each case, the photograph was thought to produce an objective record, rather than an interpretation, or presentation, of information. One reason that this focus is useful is that it draws out the extent to which photographs depend for their meanings on networks of authority.
The image supplies little in itself. What counts is its use and the power to fix a particular interpretation of the events, objects, or people depicted. Some people, and especially some institutions, have much more clout in this process than others do. As John Tagg and others have argued during the second half of the 19th century, through depicting ‘abnormal’ cases, or those viewed as deviant – criminals, the sick, working people, colonial subjects, and so on – photography contributed to the definition of those who society classed respectable and normal. In the new intellectual disciplines and practices that developed during this period – psychiatry, anthropology, and others – the photograph was employed to identify and define new objects of knowledge; to categorize new specimens. One recent author, preparing a study of photographs made in Africa between 1840 and 1918, observed that his search for images led him not into art museums, but to museums of science, the archives of governmental ministries, professional societies, and former colonial companies. This process of investigation was built on a hierarchical vision, because in each case the person with the camera had the social authority, or money, to arrange and pose others for scrutiny: the photographer John Thompson, for instance, noted in 1873 the ‘trifling sums’ that he paid to poor Chinese people for ‘the privilege of taking such subjects’. Some people were authorized to look; others were looked down upon. The pictures made of medical bodies, criminals, colonial subjects, and slum dwellers were never intended for the gaze of those who appeared in the photographs; they were designed to receive the attention of ‘specialists’. Typically, these photographs were made in one place – the place where people of this kind were to be found – but circulated in metropolitan centres, in government departments, law courts, or professional institutions. Under these conditions, to be seen and pictured is to be caught up in the definitions of others deemed more expert or authoritative. The archives of photographs produced at this time were, in the first instance, subject to this kind of specialist, authorized attention. The images of the sick body were studied by medical students and surgeons; those of prisoners by detectives.
Nevertheless, these archives seeped into wider circulation. For instance, the images made by Dr Hugh Diamond of female inmates under his supervision at the Springfield asylum were issued as lithographic illustrations in John Conolly’s book The Physiognomy of Insanity in 1858.
Let me briefly examine a few examples from, what Tagg calls, these ‘archives of subjection’. Before the advent of photography police identification of suspects or repeat offenders relied upon eye-witness description and memory. Fingerprints emerged as a means of identification only during the late 19th century. When fingerprinting was combined with photographs, a powerful new technology of identification and surveillance came into being. (We tend not to pay much attention to the filing cabinet, but it played a significant role in this new system.)
Perhaps surprisingly, some time passed before photography was systematically employed by the police and prison network. Early photographic documents of British prisoners reveal lack of standardization: frequently men and women appear in their own clothes; there is neither regulated camera distance or position, nor any systematic pose; sometimes the images are presented in ornamental frames. Surprisingly from our perspective, initial prison photography was modeled on the middle-class portrait. When police photography really took off in the 1870s, it was much more regulated, with standard poses, camera positions, and so on. The documents produced were intended for comparison and differentiation.
However, there were two distinct tendencies involved at the time; the ‘police archive’ was torn between these rival models. On the one hand, was the idea of the ‘criminal type’, supposedly predetermined to offend against the law by his or her wicked nature. In this vision, the criminal was a kind of degenerate biological category. As Allan Sekula and others have shown proponents of this conception adhered to a ‘physiognomic’ model – the belief that interior mental states, or personality traits, are manifest in the characteristics of the body. Advocates of this pseudo-science attempted to produce images that would reveal innate criminal characteristics; photography was an obvious resource for this approach. In his book L’Uomo delinquente of 1876, Cesare Lombroso produced a range of portraits purportedly showing criminal types; more elaborately, during the 1880s, Francis Galton developed a technique of exposing multiple portrait negatives to form one image so that shared characteristics came through to give, what he claimed, was a physiognomic likeness of the inherent criminal type. At the opposite extreme to this generalizing trend was a particularizing vision, which sought to individuate criminals.
This approach, identified with Alphonse Bertillon, who directed the identification service of the Parisian Préfecture de Police from 1882, produced records of individuals that combined numerous photographic details of the body with careful measurements of the ears, the length and width of the nose, the distance between the eyes, and so forth. In both approaches, the photograph traces the marks of the body that would be used to identify and discipline those who offended against the existing norms of behaviour.
My other example of photography in the service of professional authority is drawn from the encounter between Western colonizers and the colonized peoples. The photographic document was one means through which the colonial powers envisaged their difference from their colonized subjects. These images originate from various sources: from the personnel attached to the colonial departments, missionaries, individuals working for colonial companies, and military officers. Anthropology, institutionalized during the 1840s, became increasingly concerned with photographic documentation during the 1870s. During this period, images of the colonial Other are overwhelmingly predicated on an idea of essential racial difference and a concomitant vision of racial superiority. Some observers were undoubtedly attracted to the way of life they recorded, which they imagined to be less repressed than Western society, but a basic hierarchy held.
Two different tendencies can also be discerned in the colonial archive. The first is based on a comparative method and follows some of the themes we saw in the police vision. This view, which was again physiognomic, saw the traces of racial difference on the body: cultural difference was here reduced to physical distinction (which was itself petrified and over-generalized). Photography played an important role in collecting images of different ‘races’, which could be anatomically compared and contrasted. In 1869, John Lamprey systematized this comparative approach by photographing the body against a gridded ground and establishing rules for camera distance, angle, and so on.
This method was designed to enhance comparison of the various specimens. Despite the seeming objectivity of this project, it was steeped in colonial ideology and illicit desire. The naked body of the colonized subject was scrutinized and displayed in a manner that would have been deemed entirely inappropriate for that of its colonialist counterpart. The images collected in this way were employed to sort and sift humanity – at the far end of this process lies ‘race theory’, genocide, and various forms of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
The second tendency involved projecting the fantasy of an ethnographic. Other thought to be outside of modern society, indeed outside of time. The culture of the colonized was thought to be locked in an eternal past and deemed incapable of change or dynamic transformation. There are plenty of examples of this kind of ethnographic photograph: African farmers posed for a hunt; people stripped of modern Western dress and arranged in traditional costume, and so on. Similarly, postcards circulating from colonial Algeria in the early 20th century purport to depict that which they could not possibly show: the closed space of the harem. In photographs of this second type, colonial fantasy mirrors itself –the image embodies the observer’s imaginary conceptions rather than any external conditions. Photography was employed from the later 19th century in a wide variety of archives, and each was subject to the authority of a new type of observer: a professional middleclass expert who lived by (usually) his claims to education, specialist knowledge, and trained, objective vision.
Left like this, the document appears as an invidious image that serves powerful interests. But, as we saw earlier, documents are, by definition, open to diverse interpretations and uses. The ‘archives of subjection’ embody one kind of institutional use for documents. But other people and other institutions have cast them in other roles. We need to approach this subject with some sense of the contradictory possibilities in play, particularly as the document was transformed into documentary. The term ‘documentary’ was probably first used by John Grierson in 1926. Grierson wrote that Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic film Moana, ‘being a visual account of the events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth and his family, has documentary value’. (He was to become a central figure in organizing and promoting the film movement he described.) Documentary is an incredibly elastic category – perhaps even more so than ‘document’ – which is frequently used to describe war photography, photojournalism, forms of social investigation, and more open-ended projects of observation. It covers commissioned work (for newspapers, magazines, or books); pictures taken without direct commission, but that subsequently appear in some commercial format; and consciously planned books or exhibitions.
It is not uncommon to find a picture made in one context migrating to another: say, a photograph by We eyee made for a news story appearing in an exhibition, or a book representing his work as a photographer who has been awarded the status of auteur. It can seem very difficult to establish any common link connecting these disparate activities under the collective heading of ‘documentary’.
Nevertheless, we can detect some characteristic features that unite seemingly diverse documentary photographs. One approach to this problem and it has been a prominent one, claims that documentary, in all its forms, entails an objective, unmediated record of facts. Documentary is said to provide its viewers with direct access to truth. In his pioneering book on the subject, William Stott stated: ‘[t]he heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content’. As we have seen, this is an argument rooted in the idea of the mechanical arts and the related conception of a detached observer. Most often, this approach is predicated on a range of negative injunctions: no colour (black and white); no cropping; no retouching; no posing, staging, or introducing extraneous objects; no additional lighting or dramatic light effects. What is left unsaid in this account is that some institutions or powerful individuals have the resources and authority to decide what counts as true or objective. As Tagg noted, if a photograph of the Loch Ness monster is to count as evidence for its existence it matters whether it was made by a private enthusiast or by the military. The site of its circulation matters just as much. In practice, the truth content of images is always open to dispute and can be challenged by contending interests. To take only one well-known example: in 1936, the American photographer Arthur Rothstein moved a sun-bleached steer’s skull from a patch of grass to cracked and parched soil, thus creating an iconic image of the effect of draught on small farmers. When this shift of site emerged there was a conservative outcry. This was not an objective record, the critics said, but an image that had been tampered with or set up – it was not a documentary record, but ‘propaganda’. In this instance, the presence of the photographer was deemed to disqualify the ‘content’ of the image.
There is another approach to documentary, though, which seems more defensible and more interesting. The art-photographer Ansel Adams criticized what is probably the most famous documentary project, the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, which produced 270,000 photographs of American society between 1935 and 1943. Adams claimed that those working for the FSA (including, among others, Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans) where ‘not photographers’ but ‘a bunch of sociologists with cameras’. There is a point here: the two central subjects of documentary are war reportage and social investigation.
Evans himself outlined, for his boss at the FSA, an itinerary for a trip through the Southern States of America in 1935: Still photography, of general sociological nature. First objective, Pittsburgh and vicinity, one week; photography, documentary in style, of industrial subjects, emphasis on housing and home life of working-class people. Graphic records of a complete, complex, pictorially rich modern industrial center . . . .
It is important to grasp that Adams was committed to art photography as a form of self-expression: for him, significant photography involved the production of pictures, not mere records or documents. In one sense, Evans echoes this perception, referring to photography of a ‘sociological nature’, but there are other features from his itinerary that suggest another conception: ‘graphic records’ and, crucially, ‘documentary in style’. The latter idea represents an early articulation of a distinction that Evans returned to during the 1970s, when he stressed the difference between ‘documentary’ and what he termed ‘documentary style’.
Documentary, he said, was not a very clear idea because ‘an example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene’. What Evans, and those others we would label documentary photographers, did was work in a ‘documentary style’. Evans’s distinction is not quite as secure as he maintained, but it draws attention to an important point. Documentary photography is an aesthetic mode or a style. Often the champions of documentary deny this, claiming their work is style less, objective, and direct. Nevertheless, this work is always an approach to photography; a mode of representation predicated on the form of the document.
This style is characterized by two closely related factors: antisubjectivism and a gaze that looks outward to the world. (In his way, Adams registered this, but he was committed to the inward and the subjective.) Seen in this fashion, documentary seems more interesting and more defensible.
In an important sense, documentary as we know it only really emerged in the later 1920s and 1930s. When Roger Fenton produced his photographic record of the Crimean War in 1855, the images he made consisted of posed portraits or immobile scenes. There are no dead or wounded bodies among his images and no photographs of ‘action’. Fenton’s most famous photograph - The Valley of the Shadow of Death - depicts a rough track strewn with cannon balls, but no other signs of human presence. Ten years later, a lot more corpses are evident in the photographs from the American Civil War. But it was more than 50 years before photographers could really depict dynamic action. For instance, Robert Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War of 1936 puts the viewer right in the thick of events. His Death of a Loyalist Soldier apparently captures the instant of this man’s death and is taken a matter of yards from the event.
Capa’s most famous dictum was ‘[i]f your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’. The British authorities were concerned to ensure that Fenton did not record anything that would be bad for morale, but even had he wished, he could not in fact have made a photograph like Death of a Loyalist Soldier. Fenton worked with a heavy, large-format camera that required a tripod, resulting in a static point of view. What is more, the wet-collodion glass plates he used required rapid processing once exposed before they dried (he took a darkroom mounted on a horse-drawn wagon with him into the field). His technology almost guaranteed a fixed and formal image.
Some transformations in photographic technology occurred in the intervening period, but the key changes took place from the mid-1920s. From this period, small lightweight cameras with good lenses became available. At this point, many photographers began to use an Ermanox, a small-format plate camera, which could be held under certain conditions. Although its use did not become widespread until the 1940s, the key change came with the creation of the Leica camera, originally created to test exposure times for movie film. The Leica transformed possibilities in photojournalism.
Firstly, it utilized 35-millimetre movie film in small metal canisters; this considerably reduced camera size and meant that the photographer could carry and expose a large number of frames with minimal time elapsing between them. (Some photographers working today expose 300 or 400 frames a day.) Secondly, the small format enabled photographers to work in a mobile, fluid way with the camera held at eye level (itself an innovation – prior to this time most cameras were positioned lower). At the end of the 1920s, flashbulbs were introduced, allowing work in poor light conditions (flash photography had previously involved combustible magnesium powder in a dish - a flash in the pan - resulting in an intense burst of light and dense smoke). Photographers could now photograph events from the inside and often went unobserved.
The number of frames possible also meant that a premium was no longer placed on getting everything right in advance, since the best image could be selected later from among the numerous exposures.
Fenton’s images provided the basis for engravings in the press. This was a laborious process, taking one or more engravers days to produce a plate from the original image. The images also appeared in limited deluxe folio editions after his return from the war. His material was neither rapidly nor widely disseminated. Capa’s photographs, in contrast, soon appeared in magazines and papers across the world. Another technical transformation had made this possible. Before the 1880s, it was not commercially feasible to reproduce photographs and type on the same page. Photo-printing systems were available a decade earlier, but the half-tone screen, developed during the 1880s in Europe and the USA, came to dominate newspaper and magazine reproduction until the introduction of digital technology a century later. Half-tone screens are made by interposing a sheet of glass marked with a grid between a photographic negative and a zinc plate rendered sensitive to light.
In this process, a photograph is transformed into an image composed of numerous dots in various sizes, which can then be printed in ink, allowing it to be combined with type. This system created the conditions for photography’s emergence as a massimage form. It was, however, slow to catch on, partially, at least, because hand-engraved images continued to signify quality. The press employed photographs on a regular basis only from the beginning of the 20th century. The first paper that was illustrated throughout with photographs, The Daily Mirror, appeared in 1904. When photomechanical printing did become widespread, it reinforced the seemingly agentless ‘objectivity’ of the press.
It was during the later 1920s and 1930s that the important mass photo-magazines predicated on a new educated, urban audience appeared. These were publications structured around photographic stories that covered topical news events and everyday life. In 1935, it became possible to send photographs by telegraph, images taken a great distance away could then be sent to the home publication and printed more-or-less simultaneously with the events they depicted.
These magazines became one of the most important cultural forms of the 20th century. Many of the central innovations in the photomagazines arose in Germany. By 1928, the Berliner Illustierte Zietung sold 2.2 million copies. The Nazi takeover of the country in 1933 had the effect of dispersing key editors, photographers, and layout specialists throughout the world. In 1936, the American publication Life appeared, selling nearly half a million copies. At the end of 1938, Picture Post was launched in Britain (with refugees from Hitler prominent among the staff ). The French photo magazine VU commenced publication in 1928, and Paris-Match was launched in 1949. USSR in Construction (in three languages), published from the late 1920s, embodied a Stalinist vision of socialism in one country, while employing iconic images and a dynamic layout. Arbeiter Illustierte Zeitung, a picture magazine allied to the German Communist Party, which regularly featured photomontages by John Heartfield, along with investigative photojournalism, reached a circulation of half a million. After Hitler came to power it was published outside Germany and clandestinely smuggled into the country. In 1951, Drum appeared in South Africa: this was an important magazine that employed black writers and photographers and which was extensively read by a black urban audience. It is said that, after the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro declared he wanted something similar to Life, and Revolución was born.
The documenting photography that appeared in these magazines was frequently infused with a sheer sense of visual wonder. The editorial in the first issue of Life declared that its aim was to enable its audience:
[t]o see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things . . . to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.
In an important sense, despite the differences in the ideology of the photo-magazines, this editorial provides a programmatic statement for the new documentary work that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. Documentary photographers put the new technologies to work in recording things that had not previously been depicted.
This tendency was particularly evident in the early picture magazines’ fascination with the first published image of this or that. Picture Post, for example, might feature ‘the first full picture story of an operation’, or ‘the only photograph ever taken inside the high court’.
Much documentary photography, especially between the world wars, was conceived as a poetic form. (Grierson saw documentary in this way: the film Night Mail, which he produced in 1936, had a score by Benjamin Britten and a commentary by the poet W. H. Auden.) Many key documentary photographers – including Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Humphrey Spender, Brassaı ¨, and André Kertész – thought of their work as a new kind of poetry.
In this manner, much documentary photography combined a campaigning vision with an aesthetic of the everyday. In part, at least, this conception stems from the emergence of documentary photography alongside Surrealism. Documentary photographers were interested in finding the extraordinary in ordinary life. Rather than high-flown subjects, the vision focused on the way shadows fall on empty coffee cups, life on the streets of the modern city, or the oddities associated with popular leisure. Themes from everyday life played a particularly central role in the documentary vision before the mass commercialization of popular culture, which really took hold, if unevenly, after World War II.
For the best part of 50 years, these magazines, and many others like them, were a feature of the cultural landscape, providing outlets for investigative photojournalism and documentary. Some have suggested that television killed the photo-magazine. However, what seems to have been more particularly responsible for their demise was the spread of commercial television, which stripped them of advertising revenue. By the 1970s (France seems to have been an exception), these magazines had been replaced by the Sunday supplements, more or less entirely geared for advertisements.