An Eternal Esthetics of Laborious Gestures

Allan Sekula, “An Eternal Esthetics of Laborious Gestures,” Grey Room 55 (Spring 2014): 16–27. (doi:10.1162/GREYa00142) []


The art of photography has been persistently haunted by the image of human labor.

In short, the very being of photography turns on a vexing puzzle of labor and value.

[citing Gérard Fontallard’s 1839 cartoon Talent through Sleep]

Pictured here s the most austere and debased – and lazy and thus clever – form of the photographer’s existence a proletarian of creation . The contemporary French legal throrist Bernard Edelman invented this apt term to describe the condition of the mid-nineteenth century photographer as producer of images who enjoyed no property rights – no author’s right – to the photograph because it merely duplicated the visible features of objects that were already the property of others.


There is, then, something poignant and unwittingly reflexive about photography’s long-standing obsession with the image of the working body. It is as if photography as an institution were compelled to compensate for a primal lack, to answer a nagging doubt about its own claims t  creative authenticity, and sought both disavowal and solace in the image of work.

[regarding Moholy-Nagy’s photograms of hands]

The hand here os the locus of a nostalgic organicism predicated on the ritual banishment of the camera from the productive process: a ghost hand, as dumbly inert as Fontallard’s sleeping photographer.


[Barthes, commenting on The Family of Man, 1956]

“[…] because of the very differences in its inevitability: we know very well that work is “natural” just as long as it is “profitable,” and that in modifying the inevitability of the profit we shall perhaps one day modify the inevitability of labour. It is this entirely historified work which we should be told about, instead of an eternal aesthetics of laborious gestures.” [Barthes, Mythologies, 1972]


[Sekula describes a spread from the book of The Family of Man, in which workers hands are displayed]


Who today still speaks, even coyly, about “modifying the inevitability of profit”?

[Sekula cites Mulvey in an essay that calls for a new approach to the theory of fetishism in late capitalism]

Nonetheless, Mulvey’s economic argument constitutes a surrender to fetishized categories […]

[Sekule cites Lipietz and his claim that the ‘exoteric economy’ conceals an underlying ‘esoteric economy’.]


If the Barthes/Lipietz idea of a linkage between the inevitability of profit and that of labor is correct, then something substantial is contested in the representation of work. If Mulvey is correct, our attention might as well fall elsewhere, somewhere outside.


[Sekula discusses irony of celebrating the birthdays of technologies]


If, following Marx, we argue that the human use of tools and machines – the working of resistant matter – produces a second nature, what is the second nature produced by photography?

Isn’t photography’s affiliation with technical progress most clearly announced when it abandons first nature altogether and generate images of an already manufactured second nature, as in the many photographs of machines made for industrialists during the mid-nineteenth century?

But the key to the invention of photography as a transformative fine art turns on the iconography of the human body, as I’ve already suggested with the image of the hand. The represented body, within the frame, conjures up a recognition of the presence of two other bodies, that of the photographer and that of the spectator.


[Sekula describes the two images used by Life Magazine in 1988 to illustrate the birth of photography. One is Niepce’s heliograph of 1826 (rooftops) and the other is Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple, c.1838.]


If this is capitalist space, then the bootblack melts into the invisible crowd, into the bastract flux of buyers and sellers of labor power. But if this is, however briefly, a precaptialist, courtly encounter, he must be named a servant, according to the customs of an earlier epoch that, in the words of Agnes Heller, “did not distingush reified and non-reified forms of objectification”.

In restarting the history of photography with the stopping of a bourgeois body in the act of consumption, Life both adumbrates and obscures its own vitalist myth, its commitment to the capturing of life on the run. What is celebrated? The static moment of consumption, the fashionable pose. What is obscured, denied, disavowed? The productive moment, the energetic blur of that other body, unacknowledged, the working body, the invisible shoeblack. A silhouette and a blur. The former is enough to give us a fictitious identity, replete with style. The latter gives us only this: an instance of average labor, eminently replaceable, eminently forgettable, vaporizing in the flux of the moving throng.

This refiguration of a specifically bourgeois subjectivity at the origins of photography occurred at the end of a decade of unbridled upper-class consumerism in the United States, a decade in which the exoteric economy indeed seemed to create money out of money. The gentleman, “frozen in history,” having his boots polished to a highly reflective shine, is really a historicist prefiguration of a specifically postmodern urban-bourgeois subjectivity, an enlightened shopper. And the vaporized shoeblack is the complementary, negative prefiguration of the contemporary transnational elite’s geo-economic restlessness in scouring the globe for newer, cheaper, post-Fordist labor markets.

This may seem like an exaggerated and crude economic allegory, but I think it appropriate for the upscale sensibility addressed by the new Life magazine. Janis’s bracketed Pre-Raphaelite refusal of modernity is, of course, entirely compatible with the consumerist side of this sensibility, with Ralph Lauren, for example.

Paternalist reveries of a smaller and simpler world of dandies and lackeys do nothing to challenge, and are not incompatible with, a neo-Malthusian brutalism, a brutalism that blames the poor for the mud on the boots of the rich.