Something about Photography Theory

Victor Burgin, ‘Something about Photography Theory’, pp.61-66, in:

Screen, Jan/Feb 84, 25:1


We’re here to talk about theory. Many people are against it. Theory gets in the way of spontaneity. Theory is a realm of bloodless abstractions which have nothing to do with the cut-and-thrust of practice. For us, however, there is no state of Edenic innocence outside of theories.

If you can understand what I’m saying then your views of the world, whatever they may be, rest on a foundation of mainly tacit, unspoken, assumptions which make up the interlocking complex of theories we know as ‘common sense’.

All discourses rest on assumptions which imply theories about the way things are.

Theory sets out to question the underlying assumptions of common sense in order to replace them, where necessary, with better-founded, or more comprehensive, explanations. In this it distinguishes itself from criticism. Criticism, as most commonly practiced, is concerned not with explanations but with value-judgements.


A second discursive regime overlaps and interweaves with criticism: this is ‘history’.

In fact, criticism and the history of photography are in a symbiotic relationship – the one could not survive without the other. The discourse of criticism throws up its subjects and objects of value, ‘great’ photographers and photographs, which it is then the business of history to arrange into meaningful narrative sequence.

From a sociological point of view, it is the function of history to legitimate careers and commodities – history-writing as underwriting.

A third discursive regime, in the art and photography educational institution, most often found playing gooseberry to the love-affair between criticism and history, is what has alternatively been called ‘liberal’ or ‘complementary’ studies.

It is here that there occured [sic] the first stirrings of theory in the art and photography education syllabus, and it is here that the question arises, ‘What theory is complementary to photography?’

Basically, theories may be distinguished one from another according to either their method or their object. I’ll leave the question of method on one side for the moment; I’ll come to it later. Most immediately, I think we would all be inclined to say, photography theory has its own specific object.

But there is a complication, theories don’t simply find their object, sitting waiting for them in the world, theories also constitute that object.

It seems reasonable to assume that the object of photography theory is, at base, the photograph. But what is a photograph”?

When photography first emerged into the context of nineteenth-century aesthetics, it was initially taken to be an automatic record of a reality, then it was quickly contested that it was the expression of an individual, and then a consensus was arrived at which perhaps has the strongest support today: a photograph is a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility.

This is certainly where complementary studies overwhelmingly located theory-in theories of vision: the philosophy, psychology, and physiology of perception. We learned from these theories that a photograph does not replicate our act of perception, nor does our act of perception replicate the world ‘as it is’ (although what was meant here was never quite clear; I’ll come back to this).

There are two main objections to conceiving of the theory of photography as a branch of cognitive psychology, either in this brute sense or in a more mediated sense-for example, by analogy with the psychologically informed theory of art put forward by Ernst Gombrich in Art and Illusion.

In the first place, such theories of perception have nothing to say about the social world from which and into which photographs are produced.

Secondly, the spectator – photographer, or member of the audience for photographs – the spectator assumed by such theories is itself an entity outside of society and history. Essentially, the spectating subject of such theories is a disembodied eye, albeit an eye connected to complex neurological/psychological circuits. The subject of such theories is without gender, race, class, age, or affectional preferences.


One response to the ubiquitous tendency within the ‘Fine Art’ tradition to bracket out considerations of history and ideology in order to create a pure category, ‘Art’, which somehow gives birth to itself ‘apart from’, ‘in spite of, ‘above’ lived social relations, has been to turn to sociological theories, particularly those based in the Marxist tradition. Marxist history and sociology seeks to restore the missing accounts of such things as the social and historical context of the images in question; the conditions of work, economic dependencies, and ideological affiliations of those who produce and consume such images.

The spectating subject is now no longer simply an eye, the eye now belongs to a labouring body. This has been, and will continue to be, necessary work; however, when it claims to be both necessary and sufficient it is seriously disadvantaged by the legacy of an inadequate theory of ideology.

Perception theories posit a simply given entity, the world of appearances, the realm of ‘the visual’, which is then inflected and nuanced in its passage through the image. A certain predominant form of Marxist analysis posits a simply given entity, the world of economic productive relations, the realm of ‘the social’, which is then inflected and nuanced – in a famous formulation, ‘inverted’ – in its passage through ideology.

The abstract model in the otherwise incompatible approaches is the same: there is something concrete ‘out there’ which precedes representations, and against which the representations may be tested for their degree of correspondence to, or deviation from, the real.

At its most reductive, this has allowed a certain type of Marxist sociologism to assign images to a bipartisan form of classification in terms of their affiliation either to capital or labour, fostering that illusion of ‘left’ photographers that there is such a thing as a ‘political’ photograph – ‘socialism in one image’.

In rejecting, here, a certain simplistic form of Marxist theory I do no more than repeat arguments which have emerged over recent years from within Marxist cultural studies: the only world we can know is a world which is always already represented.

One of the most influential achievements of the women’s movement, in the field of cultural theory, has been its insistence on the extent to which the collusion of women in their own oppression has been exacted through representations.

Feminist theorists argued that the predominant visual and verbal representations of women in circulation in our male-dominated society do not reflect, represent, a biologically given ‘feminine nature’, natural and therefore unchangeable. They argued that what women have to adapt to as their femininity, particularly in the process of growing up, is itself a product of representations. The question to be asked, therefore, in looking at, say, an advertising image of a woman – or, of course, a man – the question should not be, ‘Is this a true representation of a woman, or of a man?’, but rather, ‘What are the effects of this image likely to be?’

The various forms of photographic practice contribute to the production, reproduction, dissemination, of the everyday meanings within the framework of which we act. I believe this fact is fundamental; we should not lose sight of it when we attend to other aspects of photograph – the photograph as a picture, or as a token in a system of economic exchange, or whatever. The idea of photography as something used to engender meanings has of course been with us as long as the notion, particularly prevalent during the heyday of the picture-magazine, that photography is a language.


It was argued that there is rather a heterogeneous collection of codes upon which photography may draw, but very few of which can be said to be unique to photography. For example, all photographers know that the way they light a face for portraiture can ‘say’ something – ruggedness, spirituality, weirdness, or whatever – but such lighting codes can be seen at work in painting, or in the theatre, long before they are used in photography. The type of analysis I’m talking about, conducted from the standpoint of linguistics, is of course the type we know as semiology.

Semiology came under theoretical attack, how- ever, on this issue of the spectating subject implied by the theory. In semiology the subject is little other than an encoding/decoding machine: we still have a problem using the theory to connect the photograph to those factors like class, race, age, sex, which are so important to us all.

The question then became, ‘how is our subjectivity involved in producing meaning when we’re confronted with a text?’

By the early 1970s semiology had undergone a radical transformation from within, in the course of which the linguistic model became displaced within a broader complex of mythologies-most notably those of Freudian and Lacanian psycho-analysis. In this second revolution in theory, all the more surprising in itself, emphasis was shift- ed, as the title of one of Barthes’ essays from this period puts it, ‘From Work to Text’.

In structuralist semiology the particular object of analysis (novel, photograph, or whatever) was conceived of as a self-contained entity, a ‘work’, whose capacity to mean was nevertheless dependent upon underlying formal ‘structures’ common to all such works-the task of theory was to uncover and describe these structures. This approach provided what we might call an ‘anatomy’ of meaning production; however, as an ‘anatomical’ science, it was unable to say anything about the constantly changing ‘flesh’ of meaning.

Text, as conceived of by Barthes (with the prompting of, most notably, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva), is seen not as an ‘object’ but rather as a ‘space’ between the object and the reader/viewer – a space made up of endlessly proliferating meanings which have no stable point of origin, nor of closure. In the concept of ‘text’ the boundaries which enclosed the ‘work’ are dissolved; the text opens continually into other texts, the space of intertextuality.


These intertextual fields are themselves, of course, in constant process of change, they are historically specific.


he psychic processes by which any single image can spark an explosion of associations-visual and verbal images-are those of the unconscious, what Freud called the ‘primary processes’. The particular trajectories launched through the ever- shifting intertextual fields skip, stepping-stone fashion, and ‘dissolve’, along the traces of the spectator’s phantasies/histories.

A consequence of this theory, informed by psychoanalysis, has been to further add to the theoretical model of the spectator: the body not only labours, it also desires.

One result of ‘post-structuralist’ theory therefore has been to demonstrate the futility of any theology of origins, of meanings such as is present in the subject/object epistomology, the base/superstructure metaphor, and to which structuralism tended to revert in the idea of structure itself. Furthermore, and this has important consequences for photography theory, the concept of the intertextual generation of all meaning entails that we cannot theorise the production of meaning in photography without taking into account all other sites of meaning production within a given culture at a given moment in history.

In talking about theoretical approaches to photography I’ve so far mentioned cognitive psychology, sociology, semiology, and psycho- analysis. Clearly, photography theory has no methodology peculiarly its own. Equally clearly, the wide range of types of photographic practices across a variety of disparate institutions—advertising, amateur art, journalism, etc-means that photography theory has an object of its own only in the very minimal sense that it is concerned with signifying practices in which still images are used by an instrumentality more automatic than had been previous ways of producing images.

This instrumentality, the camera and film, is itself in the process of changing, a change accelerating rapidly with the advent of the microchip. Photography theory therefore is not, nor is it ever destined to be, an autonomous discipline. It is rather an emphasis within a general history and theory of representations.

In this almost infinitely extensive field pf possible theoretical approaches there is no direction of work, in the name of photography theory, which is simply given to us in advance. The method(s) we select will depend on our goals – what do we want to do with this theory?

Since Foucault we can be in no doubt that the production of meaning is inseparable from the production of power. Photography inserts itself into the networks of what Foucault calls the ‘capilliary action’ of power through its contribution to the nexus of desire and representation, which includes, for example, the question of who and/or what is represented and how.

Photography theory can seek to reveal and account for the processes by which this contribution is made.

Photography theory is itself engaged in this process through being now caught up in the apparatus of the educational institution. Caught up internally, where it is a matter of such things as competing discourses within the academic institutions, and the accreditation of future ‘experts’. And caught up externally, where it is a matter of the relation of the educational institution to the State and other ruling interests.

Here, we might remember the observation of that occasional, but influential, writer on photography, Walter Benjamin: even work with a radical content may nevertheless serve an apparatus which can do no other than perpetuate the status quo. We should be wary of the capacity of theory within the educational institution to reproduce the authority structures of patriarchy in general.

I’m thinking of that prevailing anti-intellectualism which presents itself as liberalism but which in fact is the masquerade of a petrified conservatism. I do not know, under the present circumstances, what the alternatives can be. I am sure however that, as a teacher, I must be judged for my progress on this front, as well as for the elegance of my presentations and the comprehensiveness of my bibliographies.