The Traffic in Photographs

Allan Sekula, The Traffic in Photographs, pp. 15-25, in:
Art Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1, Photography and the Scholar/Critic (Spring, 1981)


The discourse that surrounds photography speaks paradoxically of discipline and freedom, vigorous truth and unleashed pleasures. Here then, at least by virtue of the need to contain the tensions inherent in this paradox, is the site of a certain shell game, a certain dance, even certain politics. In effect, we are invited to dance between photographic truth and photographic pleasures with very little awareness of the floorboards and muscles than make this seemingly effortless movement possible.

By discourse, then, I mean the forceful play of tacit beliefs and formal conventions that situates us, as social beings, in various responsive and responsible attitudes to the semiotic workings of photography.

Encoded in academic and “popular” texts, index, newspapers, magazines, in institutional and commercial displays, in the design of photographic equipment, in schooling, in everyday social rituals, and— through the workings of these context – within photographs themselves, this discourse exerts a force that is simultaneously material and symbolic, inextricably linking language and power.

Above all, in momentarily isolating this historically specific ideology and practice of representation we should forget that it gives concrete form two — thus lending both profound pleasure to— other discursively born ideologies: of “the family,” of “sexuality,” of “consumption” and “production,” of “government,” of “technology,” of “nature,”, of “communications,” of “history”, and so on.

Herein lies a major aspect of the affiliation of photography with power. And in all culture that grows from a system of oppressions, the difficulties that carry the greater force in everyday life are those that emanate from power, they give voice to an institutional authority.

For us, today, these affirmative and supervisory voices speak primarily for capital, and subordinately for the state.

Photography is haunted by two chattering ghosts: that are bourgeois science and that of bourgeois art. The first goes on about the truth of appearances, about the world reduced to positive ensemble of facts, to a constellation of knowable and possessable objects. The second specter has a historical mission of apologising for a redeeming the atrocities committed by the subservient – and more than spectral – hand of science. This second specter offers us reconstructed subject in the luminous person of the artist.

Thus, from 1839 onward, affirmative commentaries on photography have engaged in a comic, shuffling dance between technological determinism and auteurism, between faith in the objective powers of the machine and a belief in the subjective, imaginative capabilities of the artist.

In persistently arguing for the harmonious coexistence of optical truths and visual pleasures, in yoking a positivist scientism with a romantic metaphysics, photographic discourse has attempted to bridge the philosophical and institutional separation of scientific and artistic practices that have characterised bourgeois society since late 18th century.

Bourgeois culture has had to contend with the threat on the promise of the machine, which continues both to resist and to embrace. The fragmentary and mechanically derived photographic image is central to this attitude of crisis and ambivalence; embracing issue is the nature of working creativity under capitalism.


Above all else, the ideological force of photographic art in modern society may lie in the apparent reconciliation of human creative energies with a scientifically guided process of mechanisation, suggesting that despite the modern industrial division of labour, and specifically despite the industrialisation of cultural work, despite the historical obsolescence, marginalisation, and degradation of act is not a manual modes of representation, the category of the artist lives on in the exercise of a purely mental, imaginative command of the camera.


During the second half of the 19th century, a fundamental tension developed between uses of photography that fulfil bourgeois conception of the self and uses that seek to establish and delimit the terrain of the other.

[ref the contradictions of art and police archives, mug shots and “genius” portrait, landscape and army aerial views, erotic images and anatomy]

With the rise of the modern social sciences, a regularised flow of symbolic and material power is engineered between fully-human subjects and less-than-fully human objects along factors of race, sex, and class.

The social-scientistic appropriation of photography lead to a genre I would call instrumental realism, representational projects devoted to new techniques of social diagnosis and control, to the systematic naming, categorisation, and isolation of an otherness thought to be determined by biology and manifested through the “language” of the body itself.

In its attempt to establish the free-floating metaphorical play, or equivalence, of signifiers, this symbolist-influenced photography was fundamentally reactive, the outcome of the desire to seize a small area of creative autonomy from the tainted, instrumentalised medium, a medium that demonstrated repeatedly its complicity with the forces of industrialism.

Perhaps the fundamental question to be asked is this: can traditional photographic representation, whether symbolist or realist in its dominant form of rhetoric, transcend the pervasive logic of the commodity form, the exchange abstraction that haunts the culture of capitalism.

No theory of photography can fail to deal with the hidden unity of these extremes of photographic practice without lapsing into mere cultural promotion, into the intellectual background music that welcomes photography into the shopping mall of a bureaucratically administered high culture that has, in the late capitalist period become increasingly indistinguishable from mass culture in a structural dependence on forms of publicity and stardom.

The goals of critical theory of photography art, ultimately, to involve the practical, tell point the way to a radical, reinvented cultural practice. Other more powerful challenges to the order of monopoly capitalism need to be discovered and invented, resistances that unite culture and politics.

It goes almost without saying the photography emerged and proliferated as a mode of communication within the larger context of developing capitalist world order. No previous economy constituted a the same sense. Inherently expansionist, capitalism seeks ultimately to unify the globe in a single economic system of commodity production and exchange.

What are we to make, then, of the oft-repeated claim that photography constitutes a “universal language?” Almost from 1839 to the present, this honourific has been expansively repetitively voiced by photographers, intellectuals, journalists, cultural impresarios, and advertising copywriters.

The very ubiquity of this cliché has lent a commonsensical armour that deflects serious critical questions. The “universal language” myth seems so central, so full of social implications, that I’d like to trace it as it surfaced and resurfaced at three different historical conjunctures.

The claim to semantic universality depends on a more fundamental conceit: the belief that photography constitutes a language in its own right. Photography, however, is not an independent autonomous language system, but depends on larger discursive conditions, invariably including those establishments system of verbal-written language.

Photographic meaning is always a hybrid construction, the outcome of an interplay of iconic, graphic, and narrative conventions. Despite a certain fugitive moment of semantic and formal autonomy – the holy grail of most modernist analytic criticism – the photograph is invariably accompanied by, and situated within, an overt or covert text.


[Ref an 1840 news story in Ohio and Arago’s 1839 report on photography for the French government – orientalist discourse and description of a universal language]


[Ref August Sander’s 1931 Radio Talk ‘Photography as a Universal Language’ and his body of work in relation to physiognomy science]


[Ref Steichen and Family of Man exhibition, commentaries on it and cold war liberalism]


Photography would seem to be a way of knowing the world directly – this is the scientistic aspect of our faith in the powers of the photographic image. But photography would also seem to be a way of feeling the world directly, with a kind of prelinguistic, affective openness of the visual sense – this is the aestheticist aspect of our faith in the medium.

As a symbolic practice, then, photography constitutes not a universal language but a paradoxical yoking of a primitivist, Rousseauian dream, the dream of romantic naturalism, with an unbounded faith in a technological imperative.

The worldliness of photography is the outcome, not of any immanent universality of meaning, but of a project of global domination. The language of the imperial centers is imposed, both forcefully and seductively, upon the peripheries.

Photography proliferated, becoming reproducible and accessible in the modern sense, during the late nineteenth-century period of transition from competitive capitalism to the financially and industrially consolidated monopoly form of capitalist organization.

By the turn of the century, then, photography stood ready to play a central role in the development of a culture centered on the mass marketing of mass-produced commodities.


But my argument here seeks to avoid simple deterministic conclusions: to suggest that the practice of photography is entirely and inseparably bound by capitalist social relations would be reductive and undialectical in the extreme.


As a social practice photography is no more a “reflection” of capitalist society than a particular photograph is a “reflection” of its referential object.

Conversely, photography is not a neutral semiotic technique, transparently open to both “reactionary” and “progressive” uses. The issue is much more complicated than either extreme would have us believe.

Although I want to argue here that photography is fundamentally related in its normative way of depicting the world to an epistemology and an aesthetics that are intrinsic to a system of commodity exchange, as I’ve suggested before, photography also needs to be understood as a simultaneous threat and promise in its relation to the prevailing cultural ambitions of a triumphant but wary western bourgeoisie of the mid nineteenth century.

[Oliver Wendell-] Holmes’s essay [1859] ”The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” was one of many optimistic early attempts to both philosophize and prognosticate about photography.

Significantly, English and American physicians seem to have been prominent in voicing unqualified enthusiasm for the powers of the camera. Holmes, however, goes to hyperbolic extremes.

Arguing, as was common at the time, that photographs are products of the sun’s artistry, he coins the phrase “mirror with the memory”, thereby implying that the camera is the wholly passive, reflective, technical apparatus.

Thus, while Holmes casually prefaces his discussion of photography with a mention of the railroad, the telegraph, and chloroform, it would seem that photography constitutes a uniquely privileged technical invention in its refusal or inability to dominate or transform the realm of nature.

So far, there is nothing in Holmes’s argument that is not relatively common in what is by now, the thoroughly institutionalised discourse of photographic realism.

But the essay takes a rather bizarre turn as Holmes ventures to speculate about the future of photography in a conclusion that seems rather prototypical of science fiction, even if entirely deadpan in its apocalyptic humor: “Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it.”

[…] Holmes is discussing the stereograph apparatus, the most effective of nineteenth-century illusionistic machineries in its ability to reconstruct binocular vision and thus offer a potent sensation of three-dimensional depth.

Despite the slight discomfort caused by the weight of the machine, the experience was on of disembodied vision, vision lacking the illusion shattering boundary of a frame. Thus the stereo process was particularly liable to give rise to a belief in dematerialised form.

The dominant metaphor in Holmes’s discussion is that of bourgeois political economy; just as use value is eclipsed by exchange value, so the photographic sign comes to eclipse its referent. For Holmes, quite explicitly, the photograph is akin to money.

Holmes’s vision of an expanded system of photographic advertising least to a direct appeal for an expanded economy of images […]

Note that Holmes, true to the logic of commodity capitalism, find the origin of his moneylike aspect of the photograph, not in human labor, but in a direct “miraculous” agency of Nature.

[cites Marx on the commodity fetish]

[“The commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.” –Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (Penguin Classics: 1990), p. 165.]


For Holmes, photographs stand as the “universal equivalent,” capable of denoting the quantitative exchangeability of all sights. Just as money is the universal gauge of exchange value, uniting all the world goods in a single system of transactions, so photographs are imagined to reduce all sights to relations of formal equivalence.

Here, I think, lies one major aspect of the origins of the pervasive formalism that haunts the visual arts of the bourgeois epoch. Formalism collects all the world’s images in a single aesthetic emporium, tearing them from all contingencies of origin, meaning, and use. Holmes is dreaming of this transcendental aesthetic closure, while also entertaining a pragmatic faith in the photograph as a transparent gauge of the real.

Like money, the photograph is both a fetishized end in itself and a calibrated signifier of a value that resides elsewhere, both autonomous and bound to its referential function […]

The ideological custodians of photography are forced periodically to switch hats, to move from positivist to metaphysician with the turn of a phrase. It is the metaphysician who respiritualises the rationalised  project of photographic representation.

All of this is evidence of the society in which economic relations appear, as Mark put it, “as material relations between persons and social relations between things.”

“Philologically, therefore, the word Kodak is as meaningless as a child’s first ‘goo’. Terse, abrupt to the point of rudeness, literally bitten off by firm unyielding consonants at both ends, it snaps like a camera shutter in your face. What more could one ask?”

And so we are introduced to “language” that is primitive, infantile, aggressive– the imaginary discourse of the machine. The crucial question remains to be asked: can photography be anything else?