Category Archives: Reading

All sorts of stuff relating to the archive

After attending the OCA Photography Hangout last night, which was discussing Allan Sekula’s essay, ‘Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital‘, I looked back at the notes I’d taken at Photo Oxford in September, and realised there was considerable cross-over. So this is a post about both Sekula’s work and the Photo Oxford seminar.

Sekula’s Reading an Archive

Sekula’s essay Reading the Archive can be found as Chapter 42 of Wells (2003) The Photography Reader. It is a densely argued piece, which considers the political aspects of photography in some detail. He argues that all photographs potentially have a political angle which is frequently not acknowledged or even denied either at the time of making, or by later viewers. For example, Leslie Sheddon’s archive of commercial photographs from Cape Breton in the mid 20th century shows different strata of the local society when viewed now, although it might not have been directly considered at the time.

Sekula also considers the Archive, that ‘collection of primary materials waiting for someone to make connections between different elements within it’ (my definition). It cannot ever be complete, because it is amorphous, and constantly open both to new materials, but also to new interpretations of the material. It can never be fully understood.

Archives  constitute a ‘territory of images‘, i.e. those sources which belong to the person or institution who owns them, and who may buy and sell parts of it. However, ownership has little to do with the meaning of the work, which is produced by the researcher who picks and chooses the elements s/he wasn’t to compare, with the aim of telling a particular story (authorship). It is important to note though that the story is entirely dependent on the interpretation imposed by the researcher, and that there are a multiplicity of potential stories, with many different possible meanings, which can be gleaned from the archive. (abstract visual equivalence) This means that the politics and experience of the researcher will inevitably affect the outcome of that research, but also the politics and experience of the final viewer. There is no objectivity here; everything is subjective.

Sekula goes on to discuss how history is often dependent on pictures made at the time (whether they be paintings or photographs), and that these are frequently imbued with an aura of ‘truthfulness’ which when unpacked proves to be illusory. For example, an image of an Edwardian country lady with her family and servants has several potential histories depending on whose point of view you are considering it. What is civilisation to one person is barbarism to the next, always.

Moving on to the discussion we had at the Hangout, the following points came up:

  • once an image is accepted into the Archive, it loses its original meaning
  • we considered how one might research the archive and where to start – chronological, thematic etc.
  • once it has become disconnected from its original home, an image becomes untethered, waiting for a meaning to be imposed upon it.
  • so many old family photos become meaningless when the people within them die, as nobody then knows the stories and whom they describe
  • the Archive is not ‘truth’
  • in theory, photography could be a ‘universal language’ but its context is always affected by cultural assumptions
  • use of photographs as spectacle – an interpretation of history. History is as interpretive as art or photography
  • Moving on to how one uses images after they have been released into the internet, perfectly innocent images can have meanings attached to them that were never originally intended, e.g. the H&M advert. There is  no control by the original maker
  • potential of typologies to be used for nefarious purposes, such as eugenics.

The more I learn about The Archive, the more interesting it becomes. It can be used and interpreted in so many different ways, with the connection to the original maker being very close or wildly different. My next post will look at some of the exhibits at Photo Oxford with this in mind.


Sekula, Allan (2003) ‘Reading an archive; Photography Between Labour and Capital’ In Wells, Liz (ed.) The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge. Also available at : (Accessed on 12.01.2018)


OCA hangout notes 2 November 2017

Seven of us met in an OCA Hangout last night. The subject of the hangout was Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, first published in 1967 in French. There are a number of translations into English, each of which gives a slightly different viewpoint of his theories. Debord was a Marxist philosopher who theorised that the fetishism of the commodity through the business of advertising has led to “The Spectacle” – which essentially means that our lives have become so mediated and informed by what we see and hear in the media that we have lost all touch with the underlying reality of being alive. Will Self, in this 2017 BBC Radio programme, identifies the Spectacle, as ‘both the result and the producer of the existing mode of production. It’s the heart of the unrealism of the real society, in all its forms. The Spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life’.

If I am honest, this circuity and lack of simple clarity is a major part of Debord’s theories. They are not easy to understand, even though they are presented as 212 very short pieces, which he calls theses, and which I would call unsupported statements. There is no research of background material in the book to validate his theories and his ideas seem, like those of Susan Sontag, to have been accepted  by the academic cohort of the time without any of the requirements of proof and logic of argument that we would feel necessary today.

Having said all that, 70 years on, it is uncanny how correct Debord’s theories have proved to be. The ever-increasing drive to produce more (and more complex) products to feed a market that didn’t know they needed them until they appeared has become the ghastly reality. We are constantly bombarded with images telling us what our lives should be like and which has the dual effect of making us desire those objects and feel discontented with our current lot.  The banking crisis, which was based on extending credit (i.e. debt, in truth) facilities in more and more complex ways until nobody at all knew how the system worked was one very clear example.

More recently, social media exemplifies the ideas present in Chapter 2, that by specialising more and more and reducing the potential/need for face to face interactions between people, Debord’s theories of separation and alienation are becoming ever more obvious, with consequent effects on mental and physical health. Our lives which are now rich in complex technology have become poor in real interactions and face to face group activities. The internet has rendered the majority of them unnecessary. We are inevitably moving towards a scenario where each person sits alone in their home, constantly being fed a diet of social media, tv and advertising, over which big business has total control. It is a scary scenario to envisage, but we are well on our way towards it already.

So, if we are locked in this system, which has become self-perpetuating and circular in nature, what can we do to return to a proper sense of reality? Debord’s answer is that we can do nothing. Every effort to work in alternative ways or to return to a time when produce was necessary, beautiful and sturdy rather than mass-produced, cheap and poorly made will be ruthlessly knocked back by the mainstream, and escape is impossible, even if we know (and not many of us do know) that we are trapped inside the Matrix. The very best we can hope to do is gently subvert it with the long term aim of making slow changes. The worst scenario is much more likely to happen though, one where life gets more and more complex and mechanised at and every increasing rate, until catastrophe strikes and we swirl down the plughole, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy prospect, is it? The inevitable collapse of society, drowning in a sea of plastic rubbish and galloping climate change.

There are those who have since proposed alternative models, such as Naomi Klein, whose book This Changes Everything (2014) , (which I realise that I have read, but obviously not taken in) suggests a more collaborative, gentler model, but none of them have any chance of being put into practice without a seismic change in the way we run society. And try as I might, I can’t think of how that change could be initiated.

And who are the winners and losers in this model? Well, the workers are needed to make the products, but they also need to have enough money to consume them too. Without the finance to consume, it would not be profitable to make the products. These days, this simple circular economy has been altered by automation and so the workers can no longer earn their money by making things. Therefore the service economy for formed in order to give the workers jobs which will continue to allow them to consume. In the two chapters we read, Debord did not really elaborate on who is making these decisions, arguing instead that The Spectacle makes them, without human intervention, and that the continuance of capitalism makes them inevitable.

Bringing this down to photography and our student work, I have been wondering how to incorporate some of these ideas into what I make. Other students have made work which is relevant, most recently Matt Davenport’s commentary on social media, Contactless . I am going to see whether I can fit it into the work I am doing towards assignment 5, which will almost certainly be a continuance of my work on the Female Gaze.

Many thanks to Emma for organising the Hangout, and to all the other participants for their interesting viewpoints. This is definitely something that is worth doing again, not least because it forces me to read books that I would go out of m y way to avoid normally.








Smile, please!

p1490840Following up some of the discussion about my assignment at the Thames Valley Forum, I have been looking at the position of the Smile in current art photography. A question was put to me about why I had photographed my subjects smiling, and had not asked them to stand still and look blankly at the camera. My response was that I had wanted to capture the individuality and spontaneity of the subjects, but clearly this was considered by some to be incorrect, and they argued that the Smile is a mask which detracts from understanding a person. It was time to do some research and find out where the smile sits in current art photography.

Historically, painted portraits tended not to depict people smiling, and there appears to have been a practical reason for this. The teeth of most people were very poor because of lack of dental care and the majority tended to hide this by keeping their mouths shut for paintings. The advent of photography did not change this much, because for many years people needed to remain absolutely still for several seconds while the image was taken, and it is much easier to hold a straight face than to smile. Added to this, having a photographic portrait made was a serious (and initially an expensive) matter, and not something to be diminished by levity. Thus the serious portrait has traditionally been the preserve of the unsmiling. That is the easy bit; things get more complicated in recent times.

The idea of smiling for the camera only seems to have appeared in the early 20th century, and Dean (2011) has traced it back to public school photographs. From the start it was perceived as being deceitful and untrustworthy; the smile was seen as being a mask which hid the true nature of a subject. By opening their mouths and crinkling their eyes, subjects could pretend that everything was just fine, even when it wasn’t. Morris (2002) argues that the smile has evolved from pre-language appeasement gestures, and that it is now one of the most complex facial gestures that humans make, with a multiplicity of meanings, ranging from happiness to nervousness, friendliness to superciliousness. Correctly interpreting the meaning of a smile can make the difference between a successful and a disasterous encounter with a new acquaintance.Furthermore, the smile is easily open to misinterpretation, and often used as a sign indicating lack of mental faculty .


© Roger Ballen

From early on, art photographers have shied away from the smile, and my understanding is that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the smile has connotations of snapshots rather than serious photographs, people laughing on holiday for their friends back home, even if they were having a miserable time. Equally, the smile is ubiquitous in advertising, and is often associated with sentimentality, forced bonhomie and superficiality, so for photographers trying to differentiate themselves from this type of photography, a more serious demeanour in their subjects is helpful. I can understand this concern, but have a niggling feeling that there is a similarity between these ideas and the snobbery about colour and digital photography which was eventually overcome, and which allowed a significant expansion in creativity as a result.

The second reason is more complex. Diane Arbus talked about how her photography attempted to capture the gap between what the sitter hoped they would look like and what the photographer observed. Similarly, Joyce Tennison opined “we hide our bodies [with clothes] but our faces are naked and exposed.” Roland Barthes talked about how he became different when in front of the camera, and felt himself starting to ‘pose’, without consciously thinking about it. This makes for a very complex transaction between the photographer and the subject, with as Angier argues, the expert photographer trying to capture the individuality of the subject in an off-guard moment. Trying to sneak a peek behind the mask, as it were. He suggests as an exercise that we find a willing sitter, who should sit facing the camera and just look at it for an hour, while the photographer waits to press the shutter at the exact moment when the mask slips and their true nature is revealed. As an idea, this sounds potentially interesting, but also horribly dull for both participants. There is a feeling , articulated by Dijkstra, that this moment when the mask slips is about purity, something essential about human beings. Her images exude personality so she maybe has a point.


© Rineke Dijkstra

Moving forward, Thomas Ruff is the acknowledged grandfather of the current trend for a blank, expressionless stare. Ruff did his photography training under the Bechers, and consequently his portraits are minimalist and straightforward, in the manner of a passport photograph. This was a quite deliberate harking back to typology and the New Topographic movement, although Ruff has admitted that the images are heavily posed and his subjects prepped about how they should stand and what they should wear, so the concept of them being truly honest portraits is difficult to accept. Ruff argued that the blank expression is the ‘normal’ expression that people wear when they are not under scrutiny, and therefore it is a truer representation of them than any other expression or pose.


Thomas Ruff’s portraits


We now seem to have got to a stage where any sign of subjectivity or emotion has been erased from the portrait. The blank stare is understood to limit any possible subjectivity of feeling on the part of the photographer, and to allow the viewer to make his/her own assumptions about the sitter, based on his/her own experiences of life and any background context that the photographer provides, i.e. identification and projection. Everyone is beginning to look the same and individuality/personality is being minimised in what appears to be an attempt to achieve authenticity, purity and the unmasking the ‘real’ human persona, the essence if you like. (Dean, 2011) However, it is difficult to square this with Bate’s (2009)  observations that the portrait is a transaction between the photographer and the sitter, with each trying to gain supremacy over the other, but with the ball weighted towards the photographer. The whole process is inherently personal and individualistic, and two photographers photographing the same individual are highly unlikely to produce identical work, as each inevitably imbues it with his/her own context and personality.

I have some issues with this view of the world. The first is that a portrait is supposed to be about the sitter, and if all traces of the individuality of the sitter are removed, is it a portrait any longer, or a piece of constructed photography? Secondly, we as humans are innately emotional. To remove any visual traces of emotion from a portrait not only makes it less interesting to view, but also reduces us all to typologies which only have value when seen as part of a set. Finally, can it not be argued that the blank stare is as much of a mask as the smile? Both are covering up the real feelings of the sitter. The smile though, is more mysterious and begs for interpretation, while the stare gives nothing away.

There have been a small number of recent attempts to reinstate the smile in art photography, notably Dean’s work Smile: a polemic on fine art portraiture (2011) and Amanda Smith’s 2012 attempt to curate an exhibition in Texas on the subject of the Smile. Neither was very successful, and Dean seems to have given up photography work altogether. It seems that the art world is not yet ready to shift its perspective on the idea of the smile as a kitsch, superficial hook which is only acceptable in the advertising world. I have just looked through the latest edition (issues 7852)  of the British Journal of Photography, which is devoted to portraiture, and it seems that emotional expression is slowly beginning to permeate art photography again, and in my opinion that can only be a good thing.


Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. AVA Publishing.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: the key concepts. Bloomsbury.

Morris, D. (1977) People watching. London: Vintage.


Three books

Three photo books have been delivered by the postie in the last week. (thank you, AbeBooks and the Book Depository. They are all on portraits but are very different and each is inspiring in its own way.

The first is Gregory Heisler’s 50 portraits: stories and techniques from a photographer’s photographer. This is a sumptuous hardback, which looks at how he made fifty images of famous people. The styles of the images vary hugely and for each one, he has described the back ground to the shoot and the process of how he decided on the technique for the final image. It is a fascinating read and will be on my bedside table for the next few weeks.

Heisler 50 portraits

The second is Dan Winters’ Road to Seeing. It is quite similar in subject to Heisler’s and describes how he went about choosing subjects, locations and settings for his images. The book is a joy to hold – beautifully bound and a solid 2″ thick. Both of these will be useful source books for ideas on portraits for this module.

Dan Winters

Finally, I managed to get a copy of Nobuyoshi Araki’s Self : Life : Death. Araki is a prolific Japanese photographer who mostly produces his images from the his local environment. He is known for his sexual images, which often feature young girls in bondage situations, but his oeuvre  is in fact much wider and covers family and macro photography too. His work is a wonderful (and slightly deranged) mishmash of different genres, and the book is inspirational in a bizarre, almost psychedelic way. What particularly appeals to me are his colour images, which have a delicacy, despite their often difficult subject matter. As a general rule, I am not keen to support anything promoting female bondage, but his subjects don’t appear to be suffering in any way, and tend to have a remote, uninterested look on their faces. The colours are what attracts me most – they are deep and vibrant and have a tonality that we do not normally use in the West.

Araki 3

All three of these are full of different ways of taking portraits, and I am looking forward to thumbing through them to see how I can apply some of their ideas to my own work.


A few notes on follow up research

A fellow student, Stephanie referred me recently to a paper on the archive which was an interesting overview of the questions I had been considering at the end of Context & Narrative. It is a surprisingly fascinating read, and the link is attached below.

 Some scholars have argued that the archive functions for the humanities and social science disciplines as the laboratory functions for the sciences. Both the archive and the laboratory are sites of knowledge production.(27) Pushing this analogy further, sociologist Thomas Osborne proposes that we think of the archive as a “centre of interpretation,” similar to “courts of law, psychotherapeutic encounters and departments of the humanities.”(28)

As Hayden White has forcefully argued, transforming archival data into historical narrative is a subjective act.(43) The writing of history always requires the intervention of a human interpreter. Moreover, according to Michael Lynch, “the archive is never ‘raw’ or ‘primary,’” because it is always assembled so as to lead later investigators in a particular direction.(44) Because there is never sufficient archival material, Carolyn Steedman goes so far as to declare that the historian’s craft involves the ability to “conjure a social system from a nutmeg grater.”(45) For these reasons, Steadman contends that “historians read for what is not there: the silences and the absences of the documents always speak to us.”(46)  (Manoff, 2004)

Secondly, I watched Rachel Smith’s lecture on The Materiality of Images, from the recent OCA Photography Symposium, held in Doncaster. It was a highly academic deconstruction of whether and how analogue images differ from physical photos, and what these differences might be. Given that I am currently interested in the concept of the physical photograph and how it can be altered to add meaning, this lecture is of great interest to me. Smith’s work is very much at the academic end of photographic study, and a look at her web page shows that her work is cross-media. She is interested in the idea of materiality in all sorts of arts media. I will keep this lecture in mind to inform my own work, which is more at the creative end of the spectrum.


Manoff, Marlene. (2004) ‘Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines.’ In: Libraries and the Academy,  4 (1), pp. 9–25. [online] At: (accessed on 26 May 2016)