Photography and Social Discipline: Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula’s text The Body and the Archive is his most influential text he has written. It discusses 19th century developments in photography and raises issues in creating people’s identities (stereotyping) which is still a part of our society today. The book is relatively complex.

The main themes in the book:


  • Story of visual culture
  • Photography announced, middle class embraced medium portraying themselves how then wanted to be seen.
  • Threatened high culture, portraits available to wealthy (oil paintings) photography was cheap and available to ‘lower class’ and was seen as a threat to social order.
  • Painters felt vulnerable, the abstract movement a result of photography.

Carte de Visite (calling card)

  • Was popular with the middle class (business card)
  • Posed for portraits, wanted to look smart.
  • People collected the ones of important people.

Sekula talks of how photography is ambitious, had different uses. One use was a way of disciplining society.
Henry Fox Talbot began the first attempts of documenting property; his objective was to be able to use the images as photographic evidence in court.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Articles of China, from The Pencil of Nature, 1844.

The two functions of photographic portraiture

 Honorific (pushing up the social ladder) and Repressive (pushing down the social ladder)

Photography used to regulate social society – problematic primitive types.
Sekula – photography acts as biological social engineering (put people where they belong); categories wouldn’t be there without it. Photography has been a part of bigger ideas (bourgeoisie). Created the middle classes view of ideal social order, a fixed set view of what’s desirable and undesirable.

The two branches of pseudoscience

 Physiognomy: Field of study of the inner character. Nature is visible on the surface. Looking specifically at the face.

Charles Le Brun, Physiognomic comparisons between men and animals, ca. 1670.

Phrenology: Assumption that the brain is the only organ that shows human phycology. The surface area of the brain shows different traits such as honest and cowardice. The certain part of the brain would be smaller or bigger depending on the trait. It was also believed that the skull would adapt to the shape of the brain. Francis Joseph Gall was one of the founders of this.

Both pseudoscience’s would produce large quantities of data.

“[P]hysiognomy and phrenology contributed to the ideological hegemony of a capitalism that increasingly relied upon a hierarchical division of labour, a capitalism that applauded its own progress as the outcome of individual cleverness and cunning.”

White middle class were pumping up their social position to be higher than everyone else and photography was a way to do this.
(Sekula) We failed to understand what photography was doing in 19th century, coincides with pseudoscience. Became a statistical normality, if you’re too short or too tall you weren’t ‘normal’, this became the standard of beauty and desirability.

Realism vs. nominalism:

 Are general types something real, something existent?

Realists: yes, they are.

Nominalists: no they are not. They are mere names.

The distinction between realism and nominalism is given an expression in the work of Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton.

Alphonse Bertillon:

  • Nominalist
  • Work involved photographing individual offenders as a way of identifying criminals.
  • Wanted to use photography as a way to stop people repeating crimes.
  • Photograph them so they can be identified, have them on file, could also be used to find people as well.
  • Created the mug shot.
  • Body dimensions and body shapes used as identification.
  • Locating photographs – classification methods.
  • Was interested in ears, all look unique.

“[…] even the nominalist Bertillon was forced to recognize the higher reality of the ‘average man.’ The individual could be identified only by invoking the powers of this genie.”

  • People could pull faces whilst their photograph was taken to distort their face, or may not cooperate when it’s being taken.
  • Skulls do not change, started to measure them.

Francis Galton:

  • Realist practice
  • Charles Darwin’s cousin
  • Interested in genetics, hereditary intelligence. Intelligent parents = intelligent children
  • Believed in eugenics – superiority, can improve human race.
  • How to use photography to portray desirable and undesirable:

Composite portrait

  • Several portraits on one piece of paper
  • Specimen of ten who have stolen something to give the generic look of a thief.
  • Was also done with health/disease/criminality.
  • Realist in philosophical terms; depends on how we look.

picture4Galton wasn’t the only photographer that was using composite portraiture, but others did as well to get a generic image of a particular type of person.

Eugenics is a philosophy and way of thinking which lead to the holocaust and to slavery. Hitler was a firm believer in it and sterilization.

Thomas Huxley

In Thomas Huxley’s work women were treated as specimen and not human beings.
He didn’t like realism and didn’t trust it.

Aboriginal woman, aged 22, photographed according to Thomas Huxley’s photometric instructions, c.1870

Ernest Cole


Ernest Cole, Mugging of a white Man, 1960
South African photographer, took pictures of young black men committing crimes.
He took his pictures not for evidence, but the police wanted to use them in order to prosecute offenders.Cole managed to get away from the police and they didn’t get used.

Sekula- not all realisms are oppressive.







Nancy Burson


Nancy Burson, Warhead I, 1982

In Sekula’s writing speaks of Burson’s work as ‘stupid’ and that he can’t think about it. This is very contradicting to what he has previously spoken about, her work is so separate from the others discussed.

Burson was one of the first portrait photographers to use digital technologies to age the face.

The image shown from Warhead is a composite portrait of five world leaders, which have each been proportionally represented by the number of nuclear warheads deployable by the nation they led.

Nancy Burson, cover design for Time magazine, 1993.












Essential reading: Allan Sekula, The Archive and the Body 


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