Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Archives, Research, Practice

Alan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, “Reading an Archive”

George Baker, “Photography’s Expanded Field”

The readings for this week contained several points that could go way beyond a single blog entry. I thought it was interesting when Sekula stated that the history of social documentary photography was written without taking the police into account. In the 19th century the invention of photography allowed for the archiving of criminals. The archive was not just photographs, but the photograph was essential to criminal identification. Bertillon created a system of identification cards that had a photograph of the criminal along with his/her anthropometrics and physiognomy. The point of it was to isolate the individual and their characteristics for better identification. Then if the criminal had a rap sheet and was a repeat offender it was easier to incarcerate. This is the first time prior to fingerprinting that you have record of, what we mostly could agree upon, what is considered a true representation of an individual. This is just one of the many 19th century practices of using photography as an archive, and an early mode of surveillance. Sekula compares the photographic practices of the time to the panopticon, an architectural mode of surveillance. The panopticon is a building that is used for watching many people at once. There is a tower in the middle of a circular building, in which in regards to a prison, the guards would be stationed. The circular building would be exposed from the inside and the guards in the tower can keep an eye on all the prisoners at once. This architecture allowed for each offender to be sectioned off and isolated for control to be maintained. With the invention of photography the “guard tower” would be the general public along with the keen eyed detective. The circular building would be the public spaces plastered with photographs of criminals. Photography introduces “panoptic principles into everyday life.” The photograph though, as mentioned earlier, is not the archive alone but is a form of a truth apparatus that is part of a higher system of intelligence. Sekula states that the photograph is the part of the archive that belongs in the system of intelligence known as the filing cabinet.
Midway through the 19th century there was debate over photography’s role and impact on the culture. This could be taken as photography being a threat (socially repressive), or have promise (socially ameliorative) to the culture. Photography had indexical value to catalogue items for the wealthy. This is a testimony of ownership which obtains legal weight. Then the photograph is used for the portrait of the criminal. The portrait of the criminal is then “designed to facilitate in the arrest of its referent.” Foucault argues that it’s a mistake to use photography in a negative and repressive way. Social power should “operate by virtue of a positive therapeutic or reformative channeling of the body.” Sekula then states

bourgeois order depends on the systematic defense of social relations based on private property, to the extent that the legal basis of the self lies in the model of property rights, in what has been termed “possessive individualism”, every proper portrait has its lurking, objectifying inverse in the files of the police.

Portrait photographer Marcus Aurelius Root claims that photography had salutory effects. The role of photography on the working class migrant life was instrumental due to its power to connect the family with their ancestors, and its connection to the world for cultural enlightenment. He saw photography being used for pleasure, but also for discipline because he applauded the adoption of photography by the police.

In Sekulas article “Photography Between Labour and Captial” he describes how a photograph when placed in or out of and archive its meaning is given up. Meanings will become liberated when a photograph in an archive is viewed, or even placed into a different archive. He used the example of the stockholder with his gaze fixed upon a photograph of a mining machine. That gaze is an abstract representation of his wealth. Then you have a coal miner, or loved one, who has the emotional gaze fixated on a portrait of the worker. These looks of sentimentality and informational are incompatible, but in the form of an archive the meanings seem to get homogenized and obscured into “abstract visual equivalence.”

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