Pierre Bourdieu – ‘Towards a Sociology of Photography’, Visual Anthropology Review, 7.1 Spring 1991,
p131 – 132
One might say of photography what Hegel said of philosophy: “No other art or science is subjected to this last degree of scorn, to the supposition that we are masters of it without ado” (Preface, Principles of the Philosophy of Right). Unlike more demanding cultural activities such as drawing, painting or playing a musical instrument, unlike even going to museums or concerts, photography presupposes neither academically communicated culture, nor the apprenticeships and the ‘profession’ which confer their value on the cultural consumptions and practices ordinarily held to be the most noble, by withholding them from the man in the street.
Nothing is more directly opposed to the ordinary image of artistic creation than the activity of the amateur photographer, who often demands that his camera should perform the greatest possible number of operations for him, identifying the degree of sophistication of the apparatus that he uses with its degree of automatism. However, even when the production of the picture is entirely delivered over to the automatism of the camera, the taking of the picture is still a choice involving aesthetic and ethical values: if, in the abstract, the nature and development of photographic technology tend to make every- thing objectively ‘photographable’, it is still true that, from among the theoretically infinite number of photographs which are technically possible, each group chooses a finite and well defined range of subjects, genres and compositions. In Nietzsche’s words, “The artist chooses his subjects. It is his way of praising”. Because it is a ‘choice that praises’, because it strives to capture, that is, to solemnize and to immortalize, photography can not be delivered over to the randomness of the individual imagination and, via the mediation of the ethos, the internalization of objective and common regularities, the group places this practice under its collective rule, so that the most trivial photograph expresses, apart from the explicit intentions of the photographer, the system of schemes of perception, thought and appreciation common to a whole group.
In other words, the range of that which suggests itself as really photographable for a given social class (that is, the range of ‘takeable’ photographs or photographs ‘to be taken’, as opposed to the universe of realities which are objectively photographable given the technical possibilities of the camera) is defined by implicit models which may be understood via photographic practice and its product, because they objectively determine the meaning which a group confers upon the photographic act as the ontological choice of an object which is perceived as worthy of being photographed, which is captured, stored, communicated, shown and admired. The norms which organize the photographic valuation of the world in terms of the opposition between that which is photographable and that which is not are indissociable from the implicit system of values maintained by a class, profession or artistic coterie, of which the photographic aesthetic must always be one aspect even if it desperately claims autonomy. Adequately understanding a photograph, whether it is taken by a Corsican peasant, a petit- bourgeois from Bologna or a Parisian professional, means not only recovering the meanings which it proclaims, that is, to a certain extent, the explicit intentions of the photographer, it also means deciphering the surplus of meaning which it betrays by being a part of the symbolism of an age, a class or an artistic group.
Unlike fully consecrated artistic activities, such as painting or music, photographic practice is considered accessible to everyone, from both the technical and the economic viewpoints, and those involved in it do not feel they are being measured against an explicit and codified system defining legitimate practice in terms of its objects, its occasions and its modalities; hence the analysis of the subjective or objective meaning that subjects confer on photography as a practice or as a cultural work appears as a privileged means of apprehending, in their most authentic expression, the aesthetics (and ethics) of different groups or classes and particularly the popular ‘aesthetic’ which can, exceptionally, be manifested in it.
In fact, while everything would lead one to expect that this activity, which has no traditions and makes no demands, would be delivered over to the anarchy of individual improvisation, it appears that there is nothing more regulated and conventional than photographic practice and amateur photographs: in the occasions which give rise to photography, such as the objects, places and people photographed or the very composition of the pictures, everything seems to obey implicit canons which are very generally imposed and which informed amateurs or aesthetes notice as such, but only to denounce them as examples of poor taste or technical clumsiness. If, in these stilted, posed, rigid, contrived photographs, taken in accordance with the rules of a social etiquette which produces photographs of family celebrations and holiday ‘souvenirs’, we have been unable to recognize the body of implicit or explicit rules which define these aesthetics, it is probably because we have not suspended an overly limited (and socially conditioned) definition of cultural legitimacy. The most banal tasks always include actions which owe nothing to the pure and simple quest for efficiency, and the actions most directly geared towards practical ends may elicit aesthetic judgements, inasmuch as the means of attaining the desired ends can always be the object of a specific valuation: there are beautiful ways of ploughing or trimming a hedge, just as there are beautiful mathematical solutions or beautiful rugby manoeuvres. Thus, most of society can be excluded from the universe of legitimate culture without being excluded from the universe of aesthetics.
Becker HS, ‘Photography and Sociology’, Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 1 1974.
… let us consider how a sociologist photographer might go about such a sequentially organized project. He could begin by shooting almost anything he sees in the situation (the community, organization, or group), trying to cover whatever seems in a common-sense way to be worth looking at. The result is likely to be incoherent, visually as well as cognitively. The investigator will be learning how to work in the spatial arrangements and light situations in which what he is studying occurs. He will also be learning what is occurring, who the people are, what they are doing, why they are doing it. He learns the first by intensive study of his contact sheets and work prints; he should make plenty of work prints, in order to have something to study and hypothesize about. He learns the second in part in the same way. He looks at his work prints in a careful, detailed way, asking who all those people are and what they are up to. (Photographers tend to be satisfied with quick answers to these questions, and I think sociologists who would otherwise know better are just as likely to do that when they start working with a camera.) He should pay careful attention to details that don’t make sense. For example, if people seem to be dressed in several distinctive ways, it pays to find out what status differences that marks, and then to ask in what other ways those groups differ. If people get into an argument which makes for a visually exciting image, it pays to find out why they are arguing. What is worth arguing about in that organization? What breach of expectations led to this argument? Do those circumstances occur frequently? If not, why not? Bourke White on photographing Ghandi, notes: “If you want to photograph a man spinning, give some thought to why he spins. Understanding is as important for a photographer as the equipment he uses. In the case of Ghandi, the spinning wheel is laden with meaning. For millions of Indians, it was the symbol of their fight for independence.”
The photographer, like the sociologist who builds more and more comprehensive models of what he is studying, will arrange the visual material into the patterns and sequences that are the visual analogue of propositions and causal statements. He will consider the problems of convincing other people that his understanding is not idiosyncratic but rather represents a believable likeness of that aspect of the world he has chosen to explore, a reasonable answer to the questions he has asked about it
Bourdieu P & Bourdieu M-C, ‘The peasant and photography’, Ethnography, 5.4 2004
Indeed, photography appears from the very outset as the required accompaniment of the great ceremonies of familial and collective life. If one accepts, with Durkheim (1995), that the function of festivals is to revivify the group, one understands why photography should be associated with them, since it provides the means of eternizing and solemnizing these climactic moments of social life wherein the group reasserts its unity. In the case of weddings, for example, the image that fixes for eternity the assembled group or, better, the assembling of two groups, takes its place in a necessary way in a ritual whose function is to consecrate, that is, to sanction and to sanctify, the union between two groups through the union between two individuals. It is no doubt no accident that the order in which photography has been introduced into the ritual of ceremonies corresponds to the social importance of each of them.
Popular photography eliminates the accidental or the aspect, which, as a fleeting image, dissolves the real by temporalizing it. The ‘snapshot’, the picture ‘taken from life’ – which is the expression of a worldview born in the Quattrocento with perspective – cuts out an instantaneous slice into the visible world and, petrifying human action, immobilizes a unique state of the reciprocal relationship between things, and arrests the gaze on an imperceptible moment in a never-completed trajectory. By contrast, the posed photograph, which only grasps and fixes figures who are settled, motion- less, in the immutability of the plane, loses its power of corrosion.
The photograph is the object of rule-governed exchanges; it enters into the circuit of mandatory gifts and counter-gifts to which weddings and some other ceremonies give rise.
Popular photography eliminates the accidental or the aspect, which, as a fleeting image, dissolves the real by temporalizing it. The ‘snapshot’, the picture ‘taken from life’ – which is the expression of a worldview born in the Quattrocento with perspective – cuts out an instantaneous slice into the visible world and, petrifying human action, immobilizes a unique state of the reciprocal relationship between things, and arrests the gaze on an imperceptible moment in a never-completed trajectory. By contrast, the posed photograph, which only grasps and fixes figures who are settled, motionless, in the immutability of the plane, loses its power of corrosion.