photographic index

ba digital photography london south bank university

Alan Sekula: “The body and the archive”

Sekula, A. (1992) The body and the archive, in Bolton, R. (ed.) The contest of meaning: critical histories of photography, Cambridge: MIT Press.

The main discussion points are:
What is the relevance of Sekula’s text for photographers working with archives?
What is the importance of placing a photographer’s documentary realism within a compliance with the archival paradigm or as a challenge to it?

Photographic works to search for: Alphonse Bertillon, Francis Galton, August Sander, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Nancy Burson, Martha Rosler

In order to present his argument that there is a close connection between the archival paradigm and the operations of power that regulate “the deviant body” (and consequently, “the social body”), Sekula places the emergence of photography in the context of the development of police acts and technologies of surveillance; He goes back to the mid 19th century, to study the development of photography (Daguerre’s daguerreotype dating from 1839) to discuss the paradoxical status of photography, both as the promise of honorific portraiture made available to the lower classes but also as a tool capable of identifying them to the police.


A 19th century Phrenology chart

This is the context of two parallel emerging sciences- physiognomy (study of the facial characters as an insight into the person’s personality) and phrenology (study of the head’s regions as a clue to the person’s criminality) that aimed at helping the police identify the criminals. In the end of the essay, Sekula pushes his argument further to place current photographers practices within this tradition, distinguishing between photographers that embrace the archival paradigm and those that oppose it.

The archival paradigm is represented by the work of Alphonse Bertillon (French, 1853-1914) and Francis Galton (English, 1822-1911), two pioneers of early scientific policing that developed the concepts and tools that allowed the growth of the generalised practice of the bureaucratic handling of visual documents. Bertillon and Galton, represented two attempts to regulate social deviance by means of photography.


Bertillon: identity and physiognomy


Bertillon: filing system

Bertillon developed a nominalist system of identification, which included anthopometry,a system of recognition based on body measurements ( of 11 body areas), alongside photography (front and profile) and textual description (of distinguishink body marks); and to deal with the enormous amount of data thusobtained from the population , invented as well the first rigorous system of archival cataloguing and retrieval of photographs. He remained grounded in the indexical order of photography> the photo of the criminal remained the trace of its referent.


Galton’s composite portraiture

Galton on the other hand, develop the method of composite portraiture, which consisted in combine through repeated limited exposure (working with the negatives in a specially prepared apparatus) the faces of a number of individuals sharing similar characteristics (criminality, illness, race, etc), in order to arrive at the average type. In spite of his inability to identity a recognisable criminal type, Galton attempted to distance photography from its indexical relationship with the real, elevating it to the order of the symbolic, more than a trace of the individual to get to the generalised order of the abstraction.


August Sander, Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne, 1931

These two attitudes are identified by Sekula in documentary photographers, in their photographic relation to realism. Amongst the modernists, he mentions August Sanders (author of the 1925-27 book: People of the 20th Century), as an attempt to show universal social and professional classes ( its chapters include: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The Last People).


Eugene Atget, Ragpicker


Walker Evans, New York [Subway Passengers, New York], 1938

Others, that opposed the archival paradigm were Augene Atget (1857-1927), who photographed like the police (daily life crime scenes) but to show the squalid conditions people lived in, and Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975), that developed work in dialogue with police uses of photography (see the Subway photographs) but opposed the bureaucratic structure of the photo archive with a more poetic approach (see the 1938 American Photos)


Nancy Burson, Mankind (Oriental, Caucasian, and Black, weighted according to current population statistics), 1983–85


Martha Rosler, Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained, color videotape, 40 minutes.
(video clip at Video Data Bank

Amongst the contemporary photographers, Sekula contrast the approaches by two women photographers: representing the Galtonian heritage, he places Nancy Burson’s computer generated composites (of different typologies such Hollywood actresses, varied races, etc) as embracing the archival paradigm), while Martha Rosler, challenges the instrumental model of photography (an example is the video work The Vital statistics of a Citizen, a feminist attack on the normalising legacy of Galton.

For Sekula, the archival paradigm provides an instrumental realism to photography, that operates according to a specific repressive logic, of which the criminal identification photographs provide the clearest illustration, with their only purpose which is to facilitate the arrest of their referent. In opposition to this he sees a role in documentary realism of portraying the oppressed and exploited, if this is a way “to help prevent the cancellation of that testimony by more athoritative and official texts.”

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