10/17 readings

Reading an Archive

Allan Sekula was an American writer, photographer, filmmaker, theorist, and critic. This text was published in The Photography Reader, itself an archive of 20th century writings on photographic theory. Sekula was generally interested in writing about large economic systems and “the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world.” In this essay, Sekula tried to “understand something of the relationship between photographic culture and economic life.” He argues that archives are the property of the bourgeois who claim some objectivism yet perpetuate mystified ideas about photography as “high art” to exclude the people from its field. He says that to archive photography is to strip photos of their contexts, uses, and meaning. The liberates the photos to be used as the archiver wishes; they become “sovereign images.” The photos become more ambiguous, often purely aesthetic. As more ambiguous objects they are able to be propagated to a wider audience, serving a capitalistic function. Once stripped, they can be used for the archiver’s means. Common organizational themes of archives are historical presentations, purely aesthetic,

He argues also that photographs make claims to authority by claiming some objective historicism but are incorrectly read as a representation of the past rather than as an interpretation of the past.

He states “the institutional promotion of photography as a fine art serves to redeem technology by suggesting that subjectivity and the machine are easily compatible.” Are they? How do human subjectivities and machines interact? What do they produce?


Archive Fever (1995)

Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher particularly interested in analysis through destruction.  This text considers how Freud approaches his own archive of theory. Derrida argues that in approaching this archive for edit, Freud’s action is inherently self-destructive. He calls this action the death drive. The death drive works to edit and remove from an archive, working silently, leaving no trace, or archive of its own. He argues that archives remove things from the sphere of memory. He argues that archiving is inherently self destructive.

Is the process of editing self-destructive? Is it always self destructive?


Against the Camera, For the Photographic Archive (1994)

Margarita Tupitsyn is a Russian scholar and independent curator. She details Russia’s relatively distant relationship to photography. In the late 1920’s/early 1930’s documentary photography was most used in Russia because the quick reproduction of images lent itself to the proletariat’s “urgent political agenda.” She quotes “in the USSR, photography is one of the weapons of the class struggle and of socialist construction.” She states that photographs try to “reflect Soviet reality in the most instantaneous and truthful way.”

Compared to Sekula’s argument that photography is the tool of the bourgeois, Tupitsyn argues for a view of photography as more democratic, rooted more in the proletariat. Can photography be a tool of both peoples?


Historical a priori and the Archive (1969)

Foucault was a French philosopher primarily interested in the relationship between power and knowledge. I found this text very difficult to understand. He speaks of the historical a priori, meaning the order underlying a given culture at a given historical moment. He says these rules cannot be exhaustively described and are not all of the rules of the society. The archive is compared to this, both collective, and not a total collection. It allows both survival and regular modification. He states that we must be outside an archive to define it because archives are constructed via our historical a priori which are assumed and thus invisible to us.


Finally, I repeat Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s quoted text from the beginning of Reading an Archive:

“The invention of photography. For whom? Against whom?”

Who does this tool most serve and who does it most harm? Do cameras shoot people or do people shoot people?




Famous photo composition

The first photo I chose was “The Tetons and Snake River” by Ansel Adams:

The Tetons and the Snake River.png

In this photo, the eyes are first drawn to the river, which leads the viewer to the Teton mountains in the distance. Lastly we notice the details in the forest and the clouds.

The second photo is “Situation room” by Pete Souza:

the situation room.png

I’m not really sure what to make of the composition here. The main subject, Obama, is not in a central position nor do any of the lines in the photo lead to him. I think this one is impactful mostly because it captures the gravity of the scene in the people’s expressions.

The third is “Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém” by Eddie Adams:

vietname execution.png

In this photo, the eyes are first drawn to the face of Nguyễn Văn Lém with the gun pointed at his face. The viewers are then led to the facial expressions of the general and the soldier next to him. Finally we take in the mostly empty street and buildings behind the subjects.

a people’s history of art

Art history is often represented as a series of overlapping artists – E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art begins “There is no such thing and Art. There are only artists.” He means that Art as a concept is elusive and ever changing, impossible to pin down. All we can identify with confidence are the individuals who advanced and changed the way we construct and view visual images. And we can make sense of great works of art only by understanding the artist’s style, influences, motivations, and historical context.

What is unappealing about this approach is that it echoes of certain repudiated views of conventional history. Thomas Carlyle’s theory of history as “the biographies of great men” has been discarded for a more sociologically and economically concerned paradigm – a people’s history. But this shift cannot be made to the same extent in art history.

The history of art is intrinsically bound to artists in a way the history of empires is not bound to its leaders – or rather, it is disconnected from non-artists to an extent that political history is not severed from the common people. For although the masses influence artistic trends, and by extension artists, they are always once removed from the object of study itself. The masses may stage revolutions, but they don’t paint altarpieces.

However, the democratization of photography and the ease of reproduction of images seem to be dissolving some of this boundary. With the rise of citizen journalism, the most impactful images in contemporary society are taken by nobodies. And they are seen by and felt by and reacted to by everybody.

Most of these images are not extraordinary in their artistic composition or use of color or form; they are remarkable in their immanence. For these photographs do not reimagine and interpret events – they capture them as they unfold. Even when cleverly framed or opportunistically taken, a photograph shows something that happened, something that was undeniably there. And that means something.

Today’s most famous artists deal directly with contemporary issues. Globalization has made us more engaged with the world around us, not the least because that world can now be brought to us. This ease of making, reproducing, and sharing pictures and the resulting barrages of images this has created a certain visual numbness, to be sure. But it has also created a new class of artistic objects unbound to any group of specialized individuals working within defined tradition; a class of anonymously produced images whose significance is entirely determined by their social-political context and the will of the masses, images every bit as influential as masterpieces. Citizen journalism may have initiated a new chapter in the history of art, one that embodies the globalized and globally minded world we live in.

Learning lines and composition

I chose three images from Herbert List (1903 – 1975). He was a German photographer and a member of Magnum.

According to List’s Magnum biography “….List was a classically educated artist who combined a love of photography with a fascination for surrealism and classicism. List photographed still life and his friends, developing his own style. He has described his images as ‘composed visions where [my] arrangements try to capture the magical essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances’.”

Later “his work became more spontaneous and was influenced by his Magnum colleague Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Italian Neo-Realism film movement. List more or less gave up photography in the early 1960s. Despite his earlier fame throughout Europe, his particular style was no longer fashionable.”

After choosing the photographs I tried to find similar compositions in my apartment and from the neighborhood. I shot them with an iPhone.

line map

Readings 12/10

This week’s readings were mostly discussing the democratisation of photography, where the tools for taking photos are so readily available now that social media, where anyone can participate, becomes the new medium for news. Given the sheer volume of media generated during any significant event such as the Egyptian demonstrations in 2011, we now often have enough angles of an event such the the traditional thought that photography is subjective in its selection becomes less valid since viewers can view all sides. This ties into the recent popularisation of 360 degree cameras, which are often portable fisheye lenses mounted on a small sensor that takes 2-3 shots and stitches them for a “complete” picture that one can manipulate in a viewing software (Google sphere) or in VR. With future advances in resolution, will it be possible that we can crop these ultra-ultra wide angle views at a sufficient resolution to generate art in its own right?

“Software and Sovereignty”

“People begin to participate in power” as they “no longer allow themselves to be represented and depicted in pictures by others, but represent themselves through their own pictures” (Power to the People, 3)

I think this statement is interesting, but I would argue that perhaps the ‘people’ are also losing the power or control of their own images as they are distributed online, they can be transformed, they can be tagged to an individual that may not want to participate but can only unilaterally untag him or herself from images attributed to him/her. How these pictures are published is also a concern, because I believe that platforms are political, and our freedom to distribute images is not something we should take for granted.


“Perhaps the most unique and important implication of this mass self-communication is the ability to develop and engage in “autonomous projects” that are beyond the control of traditional power structures. The noosphere then serves as an information-based ecology that enables disparate individuals and groups to cut through other dominant systems to create communities undertaking autonomous projects based in collective engagement” (Occupying the Noosphere, 4)

I a bit skeptical of the claims made in the noosphere reading – though the internet can be a source of bottom-up, decentralized, organization and protest, it is at the same time extremely centralized. Facebook, itself is a corporation which allows and can disallow participation through its own internal and centralized judgement. I am skeptical of the “autonomy” of the projects that can be developed through collective engagement, though I agree that these projects are autonomous of the nation state traditional power structure. Facebook is not a traditional power structure, but it is also one that, as it allows communication across the world, it also has become a power structure that spans across the world. It does not have citizens but has users instead, the politics of these users and freedoms and restrictions of the “citizenship” to Facebook is one we are yet to discover.  Beyond these statements, I cannot disagree that the power of social media and Facebook has exposed a lot of problematic political situations and has allowed people to form communities to try to hold government accountable, to protest and to overthrow government. At the same time, I Facebook does not incite in me a feeling of freedom.

10/12 readings

This week’s readings discuss the role of the internet as a democratic tool for representation, community building, and organization of the people. The readings each accrued the internet with some degree of responsibility or enabling of the large scale social organization occurring. The noosphere has greatly expanded due to the internet, bringing more minds to the space for collective problem solving. I wonder, however, how much internet use is really the somewhat ideallic, decentralized and democratic use presented in some of the texts. Undoubtedly, the internet is a great tool and played a very important role in the Egyptian uprising and other social movements but also the internet use has now somewhat settled into non-revolutionary, less decentralized, ways. How, in the United States, do we move from democratized representation to more concrete action? This work is somewhat already occurring in the noosphere. However, because social media and the internet are so algorithmically sorted, the representation on the internet is not so much democratic as individualized. I wonder too what it means for the media to really show truth when any mediation is subjective and therefore not a universal truth. The Mubarak Egyptian government purposefully controlled media. Third Cinema arose amongst a protest against colonizer controlled media. In America, we seem to have the choice of media. I wonder if our media shows truth, to what extent we have choice, and what values the media is propagating.


“A successful mod photographer in London whose world is bounded by fashion, pop music, marijuana, and easy sex, feels his life is boring and despairing. Then he meets a mysterious beauty, and also notices something frightfully suspicious on one of his photographs of her taken in a park… “- IMDb Summary


I thought this movie had a very interesting take on photography. A large portion of the film is allocated to scenes of the main character, Thomas (David Hemmings), taking photographs of models and developing them in his studio/darkroom. However, the main plot is driven by a photo that Thomas takes in a park of a mystery woman. This plot unfolds as Thomas “Blow[s]-Up” the photo and realizes that there is a lot more to the scene than he initially thought. To envelope this idea of there being more to a photo than meets the eye, the movie starts and ends with a group of rebellious mimes, which seem to hint at another plot entirely.

I think this film does a great job of juxtaposing glamorous fashion photography with the often exciting and always experimental casual photography. Thomas seems almost bored with his ostentatious lifestyle throughout the film and is more intrigued about the story behind his mystery photo. I appreciated this viewpoint because I’ve found some of my most interesting photos are taken when I just wander until I find an image.

Battle of Algiers

Watching The Battle of Algiers was a pretty powerful experience. The film, set in Algeria, as it rose against the French colonial authority, is shot in a vein of Italian neorealism, where the camera is part of the action. Figures drift in and out of focus and while the framing is tightly controlled compositionally, the mechanical eye seems to follow the natural flow of events and thus often seems to break free of the leash. The use of location shooting and non-professional actors are other strategies through which the filmmaker hoped to imbibe a feeling of newsreel ‘objectivity’ in the work. This is particularly relevant as the film follows in such a short interval after action that location, as found, is deeply politically meaningful. Similarly, it is rumored that some of the ‘actors’ were previously involved in the action as well. This blurs the boundary between reality and representation, thus using the trope of objectivity from Italian realism in a way that engenders belief and identification in a constructed artifice. Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay, The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, suggests that the use of minimum distance from person and location is a trend enabled by the nature of film. This is because the film actor, unlike the theatre actor, is performing for the mechanical eye of the camera in a series of separate performances that are later stitched together by editing. Thus, the artifice is not primarily the construction of a character as was the case for a stage actor but the construction of a parallel world through the movement of the camera.

The blurring of reality and representation is continued in a confusion of their originary sequencing: does the former beget the latter or vice-versa? An example of this can be gleaned from the fact that when a contesting faction of the FLN lead by Houari Boumédiène seized power with a coup, the public imagined that some scenes from the Battle of Algiers was being filmed. Similarly, the extent of the film’s influence on public imagination and socio political reality can also be gleaned from the fact that the Pentagon screened it before the invasion of Iraq for its officers and experts.

The film, although partisan, offers a nuanced take on issues of armed struggle, violence, and the moral relativism involved in adapting ideological positions. The French seem to think that they’ve permanently won moral high ground after their role in the World War while the insurgents seem to think that loss of life is necessary for a greater noble cause. It is also an insightful examination of the conditions, stimuli and actions required for the building of sustainable collectivities.

Sontag’s flawed humanism

Sontag first leads us through Walt Whitman’s intent of dissolving the binary between beauty and ugliness, and then contends that since Whitman, this project has ‘gone sour’.

‘In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty & beauty. You get dwarfs.’, reads her damning proclamation as if picturing a drawf is enough to rob the photograph of its social and aesthetic value. Sontag uses the example of Diane Arbus’s work and contrasts it with earlier attempts at finding a human core in tragedy, banality and difference. Particularly, she cites the Family of Man exhibit organized in 1955 by Edward Steichen. She asserts that the latter was affirmative and humanistic but Arbus’s work, on the other hand only serves up a world that is ugly and divisive. I disagree with this claim firstly because the saccharine sentimentality through which the Family of Man functions is apolitical and ahistoric. The ‘humanizing’ project presupposes a need for itself and confers this burden squarely on the shoulders of a Western white man. It tells us that humanity is a quality administered through this instrument and that it must come at the cost of burying genuine political difference. Moreover, it is notable that the exhibit was funded by the United States Information Agency as a form of diplomacy, thus exporting, in Allan Sekula’s words, ‘a benign view of an American world order stabilized by the rule of international law.’

Sontag claims that Arbus’s work is apolitical as well because it seems to conjure a different kind of universality where everyone is alienated. I disagree with this claim as well. Arbus uses an aesthetic lens to call attention to the politics of representation. Sontag’s offense is an unwitting illustration of the idea that she assumes only certain kinds of subjects are worthy of a photographic frame. If the subject so deviates then they must act out ‘dignity’ and must engender empathy and identification in a non-deviant viewer. Thus, the affective labor through which a deviant body may become meaningful is necessarily performed by this body and the photographer. Humanity has to be worn on a sleeve because otherwise, the disembodied and abstract eye of viewer may not be able to see so. This expectation rests on the idea that some bodies are closer to the photographic figure than others and thus more neutral than other because it is only in moments of divergence that more dignity and more empathy must be evoked.



Sekula, Allan. “The Traffic in Photographs.” Art Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 1981, pp. 15–25. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/776511.