2. The Body and the Archive (1986)

Allan Sekula “The Body and the Archive” (1986)


Allan Sekula  was an American photographer, writer, filmmaker and critic and I remember seeing his work at the Prix Pictet Exhibition (Theme of ‘Consumption’) at the V&A  in 2014. He  was short-listed  for his series Fish Story (1989-92)  which explored the fishing industry.

Given that he used his skills to critique contemporary late capitalism, I would, therefore,  expect him to concentrate on the repressive aspects of uses of photography in archives and classsifications in criminality. He links photography with policing early in the essay referring to the fact that Robert Peel, regarded as the father of the modern British police, was a major collector and trustee of the National Gallery (founded in 1824). Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force for London in 1829 and Sekula notes that during the 1820s and 30s there had been a ‘spate of governmental inquiries and legislation designed to professionalize and standardize police and penal procedures’. (1986:4) and the potential for a new juridical photographic realism was widely recognized in the 1840s.

Photography was seen as a ‘threat’ to Art in being able to provide an indexical truth ‘rather than textual inventory.  The photographic portrait had the facility to go beyond the traditional function of a portrait, “that of providing for the ceremonial presentation of the bourgeois self”, subverting its inherent privileges, and venture into deviance and social pathology, such as criminal identity photographs and typologies of criminals as well as providing a socially ameliorative effect through enabling poor people to have a likeness of an absent member in addition to seeing portraits of ‘moral exemplars’.  Sekula refers to Marcus Aurelius Root who, in the USA , applauded these functions and “……ends up with the photographic extension of that exemplary utilitarian social machine The Panopticon”(1986:10) as proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1787, so that every portrait takes its place within a social and moral hierarchy. In some respects it reminded me of the 1960s Monty Python Sketch as seen here .

Moving on from this, Sekula writes of a “generalized, inclusive archive, a shadow archive that encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain”  (ibid) providing a “single hermeneutic paradigm” that had two “tightly entwined branches physiognomy and phrenology” that had enormous prestige and popularity, particularly in the United States. There follows a summary of how these branches developed, with photographic archives becoming ‘central to a bewildering range of empirical disciplines, ranging from art history to military intelligence (1986:59).

The essay becomes most interesting to me from p. 58 when he begins to investigate ways in which photographic modernist practice began to, consciously or unconsciously, resist or subvert this model of the archive – an entity existing beyond individual control. Mentioning August Sander, Edward Stieglitz and Edward Weston he then looks in more detail at Walker Evans’s approach and his book sequences, particularly American Photographs (1938)  creating connections between individuals and social contexts and stressing the difference between his documentary style and that of a ‘literal document’. Below is an extract from a transcript of an interview with Paul Cummings in 1971, on the site “Archives of American Art”  : Evans is referring to his work having been in an Exhibition

WALKER EVANS: No, it wasn’t that so much. Although that is important to any artist. But this was particularly important because, as I say, more than I realized it established the documentary style as art in photography. For the first time it was influential, you see. The Museum is a very influential place.

PAUL CUMMINGS: Right. You refer to the “documentary style.” How do you define that?

WALKER EVANS: It’s a very important matter. I use the word “style” particularly because in talking about it many people say “documentary photograph.” Well, literally a documentary photograph is a police report of a dead body or an automobile accident or something like that. But the style of detachment and record is another matter. That applied to the world around us is what I do with the camera, what I want to see done with the camera.

The whole interview is very interesting, giving a real sense of Evan’s individual approach to photography and his determination to do whatever he wished to create the image he envisaged. There was obviously more than one interview in 1971 where Evans discussed his view as ASX reproduce another interview here  .

Sekula had earlier written about Galton’s composites. Francis Galton spent much time in combining photographs of different subjects to test if there was a recognizable criminal type, ‘sick’ type or ‘racial’ type. Later photographers had utilised this approach e.g. Nancy Burson who has produced many computerized composites . Sekula relates her work to that of Galton earlier in the Century and is highly critical, “For an artist or critic to resurrect the methods of bio-social typology without once acknowledging the historical context and consequences of these procedures is naive at best and cynical at worst” (1986:62). However, he is more positive on the political work of Martha Rosler  and the work she produced in the 1970s in film and video although I’m also thinking here of  The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

Further thoughts

Sekula certainly provides plentiful evidence to support his viewpoint on the repressive use of photography and I think this is an interesting standpoint, given that he wrote this essay 30 years ago.  I’m assuming that from his point of view the repressive aspects were worse than any positive effects and I’m minded here of drones.  When their uses in warfare became known I thought were pernicious machines whose mode of use made killing people seem almost a game, given that their controllers were so many miles away from any ‘action’. I’ve noticed recently though that publicity is also being given to positive uses in finding missing people, exploring difficult to reach terrain etc. The technique of creating digital composites has also been used to visualize the ageing of those who have gone missing, particularly children.


Sekula, A (1986) The Body and the Archive in October, vol 39 (Winter, 1986, pp3-64, MIT Press