The Body and the Archive

Allan Sekula, ‘The Body and the Archive’, pp.3-64, in:
October, Vol. 39 (Winter, 1986). MIT Press.


The sheer range and volume of photographic practice offers ample evidence of the paradoxical status of photography within bourgeois culture. The simultaneous threat and promise of the new medium was recognized at a very early date, even before the daguerreotype process had proliferated.


Although photographic documentation of prisoners was not at all common until the 1860s, the potential for a new juridical photographic realism was widely recognized in the 1840s, in the general context to regulate the growing urban presence of the “dangerous classes,” of a chronically unemployed sub-proletariat.


This battle between the presumed denotative univocality of the legal image and the multiplicity and presumed duplicity of the criminal voice is played out during the remainder of the nineteenth century. In the course of this battle a new object is defined – the criminal body – and, as a result, more expensive “social body” is invented.

We are confronting, then, a double system: a system of representation capable of functioning both honorifically and repressively. This double operation is most evident in the workings of photographic portraiture.

On the one hand, the photographic portrait extends, exhilarate, popularisers, and degrades a traditional function. This function, which can be said to have taken its early modern form in the 17th century, is that of providing for the ceremonial presentation of the bourgeois self.

Photography subverted the privileges inherent in project, but without any more expensive levelling of social relationships, these privileges could be reconstructed on a new basis. That is, photography could be assigned proper proper role within a new hierarchy of taste. Honorific conventions were thus able to proliferate downward.


At the same time, photographic portraiture began to perform a role no painted portrait could have performed in the same thorough and rigorous fashion.


This role derived, not for any honourific portrait tradition, but from the imperatives of medical and anatomical illustrations. The photography came to establish and delimit the terrain of the other, to define both the generalised look – the typology – and the contingent instance of deviance and social pathology.

Michel Foucault has argued, quite crucially, that it is a mistake to describe the new regulatory sciences directed at the body in the early nineteenth century as exercises in a wholly negative, repressive power. Rather, social power operates by virtue of a positive therapeutic or reformative channelling of the body.

To the extent that bourgeois order depends upon the systematic defence of social relations based on private property, to the extent that the legal basis of the self lies

in the model of property rights, in what has been termed “possessive individualism,” every proper portrait has it’s lurking, objectifying inverse in the files of the police.


Many of the early promoters of photography struck up a Benthamite chorus, stressing the medium’s promise for a social calculus of pleasure and discipline. Here was a machine for providing small doses of happiness on a mass scale, for contributing to Jeremy Bentham’s famous goal: “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Thus the photographic portrait in particular was welcomed as socially ameliorative as well as the socially repressive instrument.

[Ref photographer Marcus Aurelius Root]

Not only was photography to serve as a means of cultural enlightenment for the working classes, that family photographs sustained sentimental ties in a nation of migrants.


Notwithstanding the standard liberal accounts of the history of photography, the new medium did not simply inherit and “democratise” the honorific functions of bourgeois literature. Nor did police photography simply function repressively, although it is foolish to argue that the immediate function of police photographs was somehow more ideological or positively instrumental than negatively instrumental. But in a more general, dispersed fashion, in serving to introduce the panoptic principle into daily life, photography welded the honorific and repressive functions together.

Every portrait implicitly take its place within a social and moral hierarchy.

We can speak then offer generalised, inclusive archive, a shadow archive that encompasses an entire terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain.

The general, all-inclusive archive necessarily contains both the traces of the visible bodies of heroes, leaders, moral exemplars, celebrities, and those of thepoor, the diseased, the insane, the criminal, the nonwhites, this female, and all other embodiments of the unworthy. The clearest indication of the essential unity of this archive of images of the body lies in the fact that by the mid-nineteenth century a single hermeneutic paradigm had gained widespread prestige.


This paradigms had two tightly intertwined branches, physiognomy and phrenology.


Both shared the belief that the surface of the body, and especially the face and head, bore the outward signs of inner character.


Since physiognomy and phrenology were comparative, taxonomic disciplines, they sought to encompass an entire range of human diversity. In this respect, these disciplines were instrumental in constructing the very archive they claimed to interpret.

In the almost exclusive emphasis on the head and face we can discover the idealist secret looking at the heart of these putatively materialist sciences. These were discourses of the head for the head. Whatever the tendency of physiognomic or phonological thought – whether fatalistic or therapeutic in relation to the inexorable logic of the body’s signs, whether uncompromisingly materialist in tone or vaguely spiritualist in relation to certain zones of the organic, whether republican or elitist in pedagogical stance—these disciplines would you serve to legitimate on organic grounds the dominion of intellectual over manual labour.

Thus physiognomy and phrenology contributed to the ideological hegemony of 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.


Thus far I have described a number of early attempts, by turns comic, speculative, and practical, to bring the camera to bear upon the body of the criminal. I have also argued, following the general line of investigation charted in the later works of Foucault, that the position assigned the criminal body was a relative one, that the invention of the modern criminal cannot be dissociated from the construction of our law-abiding body – a body that was either a bourgeois or subject to the dominion of the bourgeoisie.


I am especially concerned that exaggerated claims not been made for the powers of optical realism, whether in a celebratory or critical vein. One danger lies in constructing an overly monolithic or unitary model of nineteenth-century realist discourse. Within the rather limited and usually ignored field of instrumental scientific and technical realism, we discover a house divided.

If we examine the manner in which photography was made useful by the late-nineteenth-century police, we find plentiful evidence of a crisis of faith in optical empiricism. In short, we need to describe the emergence of a truth apparatus that cannot be adequately reduced to the optical model provided by the camera. The camera is integrated into a larger ensemble: a bureaucratic-clerical-statistical system of “intelligence.” This system can be described as a sophisticated form of the archive. The central artefact of this system is not the camera but the filing cabinet.


In structural terms, the archive is both an abstract paradigmatic entity and our concrete institution. In both senses, the archive is a vast substitution set, providing for a relation of general equivalence between images.

The capacity of the archive to reduce all possible sites to a single code of equivalence was grounded in the metrical accuracy of the camera. Here was a medium from which exact mathematical data could be extracted, or as the physicist François arrival at it in 1839, a Medium “in which subjects preserve mathematically their forms.”

The nineteenth-century positivists, photography doubly fulfilled the Enlightenment dream of a universal language: the universal mimetic language of the camera yielded up a higher, more cerebral truth, a truth that could be uttered in a universal abstract language of mathematics.

Photography promised more than a wealth of detail; it promised to reduce nature to its geometrical essence. Presumably then, the archive could provide a standard fizzing ohmic gauge of the criminal, could assign each criminal body a relative and quantitative position within a larger ensemble.

This archival promise was restricted, however, both by the messy contingency of the photograph and by the sheer quantity of images.

Clearly, one way of “taming” photography is by means of this transformation of their circumstantial and in idiosyncratic into the typical and emblematic.


This is usually achieved by stylistic or interpretive fiat, or by a sampling of the archive’s offerings for a “representative” instance. Another way is to invent an machine, or rather our clerical apparatus, are filing system, which allows the operator/researcher/editor to retrieve the individual instance from the huge quantity of images contained within the archive.

These two semantic parts are so fundamental to the culture of photographic realism that their very existence is usually ignored.

Contrary to the commonplace understanding of the “Mug shot” As the very exemplar of a powerful, artless, and wholly demotivated visual empiricism, these early instrumental uses of photographic realism where systematised on the basis of an acute recognition of the inadequacies and limitations of ordinary visual empiricism. Thus two systems of description for the criminal body were deployed in the 1880s; both sought to ground photographic evidence in more abstract statistical methods.

This merger of optics and statistics what fundamental to a broader integration of the discourses of visual representation and those of the social sciences in the nineteenth century.

[Discussion of Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton]

The projects of Bertillon and Galton constitute to methodological calls of the positivist attempts to define and regulate social deviance.

Both men were committed to technologies of demographic regulation.

Both Bertillon’s and Galton’s projects were grounded in the emergence and codification of social statistics on the 1830s and 1840s.

[Discussion of statistician Adolphe Quetelet]


By the end of the 19th century, this essentially organismic model of a visible social field was in crisis. The terms of Quetelet’s honorific linkage of an emergent statistics to a venerable optical paradigm were explicitly reversed.

Here is the transition is made from the prestige of the visual and the organic to the prestige of institutionalised, bureaucratic abstraction.

[Ref sociologist Gabriel Tarde]


[Discussion of The Bertillon System of Identification]

Bertillon sought to break the professional criminal’s mastery of disguises, false identities, multiple biographies, and alibis. He did this by yoking anthropometrics, the optical precision of the camera, a refined economic vocabulary, and statistics.

For Bertillon, the criminal body expressed nothing. No characterological secrets were hidden beneath the surface of this body. Rather, the surface and the skeleton were indices of a more strictly material sort.


For Bertillon, the mastery of the criminal body necessitated a massive campaign of inscription, a transformation of the body’s signs into a text, text that pared verbal description down to denotative shorthand, which was then linked to numerical series. Thus Bertillon arrested the criminal body, determined its identity as a body that had already been defined as criminal, by means that subordinated the image – which remained necessary but insufficient – to verbal text and numerical series. This was not merely as self-contained archival project. We can understand another, more global, imperative if we remember that one problem for the late-nineteenth-century police was the telegraphic transmission of information regarding suspects.


The anthropometric system faced competition from the fingerprint system, and more radically synecdochic procedure, invented in part by Francis Galton, who had interests in identification as well as typology. With the advent of fingerprinting, it became evident that the body did not have to be “circumscribed” in order to be identified. Rather, the key to identity could be found in the merest trace of the body’s tactile presence in the world.

Furthermore, fingerprinting was more promising in a Taylorist sense, since it could be properly executed by less-skilled clerks.


[Discussion of Galton and his ‘composites’]


[…] the eugenics movement Galton founded flourished in our historical context – similar in this respect to Third Republic France – of declining middle-class birthrates coupled with middle-class fears of a burgeoning residuum of degenerate urban poor.


Lewis Hine made a number of crude composite prints of girl mill-workers in 1913, in what was evidently an attempt to trace the general effects of factory working conditions on young bodies.

[…] with the general demise of the optical model of empiricism, Galton’s hybridisation of the camera and the statistical table approached extinction.


In retrospect, the Galtonian composite can be seen as the collapsed version of the archive. In this blurred configuration, the archive attempts to exist as a potent single image, and a single image attempts to achieve the authority of the archive, of the general, abstract proposition. Galton was certainly a vociferous ideologue to the extension and elaboration of archival methods. He actively promoted familial self-surveillance for hereditarian purposes, calling for his readers to “obtain photographs and ordinary measurements periodically of themselves and their children, making it a family custom to do so.”


[Ref Peirce]

Despite their differences, both Bertillon and Galton Report up in the attempt to preserve the value of an older, optical model of truth in a historical context in which abstract, statistical procedures seem to offer the high road to social truth and social control.


Photography was to be both an object and means of bibliographic rationalisation. The latter possibility emerged from the development of microfilm reproduction of documents. Just as photographs were to be incorporated into the realm of the text, so also the text could be incorporated into the realm of the photograph. Is photography retained its prestige as a universal language, it increasingly did so in conjunction with a textual paradigm that was housed within the library.


The protomodernism of the Photo Secessionists and its affiliated movements, extending roughly to 1916, can be seen as an attempt to resist the archival mode for a strategy of avoidance and denial based on craft production. The elegant few were opposed to the mechanised many, in terms both of images and authors.


[discussion of Walter Evans work]


This essay could end with this sketch of modernist responses to the prior institutionalisation of the instrumental realist archives. Social history would lead to art history, and we will arrive at a safe archival closure. Unfortunately, Bertillon and Galton are still with us.

“Bertillon” survives in the operations of the national-security state, in the condition of intensive and extensive surveillance that characterises both everyday life and the geopolitical sphere.

“Galton” lives in the renewed authority of biological determinism, founded in the increased hegemony of the political Right in the Western democracies.

Galton’s Spirit also survives in the neoeugenicist implications of some of the new biotechnologies.

These are political issues. As such, there resonance can be heard in the aesthetic sphere.

[Ref Martha Rosler, Howard Gray, Michael Alk, Pacific Street Film Collective]

These examples tend to be forgotten or overlooked in a contemporary art scene rife with a variety of what can be termed “neophsiognomic” concerned. The body has returned with a vengeance.

The heavily expressionist character of this return makes the scientistic and racialist underpinnings of physiognomy seem rather remote. In photography, however, this lineage is harder to repress.

I refer here to the computer generated composites of Nancy Burson, involved in a promotional discourse so appallingly stupid in its fetishistic belief in cybernetic truth and its desperate desire to remain grounded in the optical and organic that it would be dismissible worried not for its smug scientism. For an artist or critic to resurrect the methods of bile-social typology without ones acknowledging the historical context and consequences of these procedures is naive at best and cynical at worst.


[Discussion of Earnest Cole’s House of Bondage]


If we are to listen to, and act in solidarity with, the polyphonic testimony of the oppressed and exploited, we should recognise that some of this testimony, like Cole’s, will take the ambiguous form of visual documents, documents of the “microphysics” of barbarism. These documents can easily fall into the hands of the police or their intellectual apologists. Our problem, as artists and intellectuals living near but not at the centre of a global system of power, will be to help prevent the cancellation of that testimony by more authoritative and official texts.