The archaeology of photography: rereading Michel Foucault and the archaeology of knowledge.

The French historian of discourse, Michel Foucault, made a clear distinction between the "archive" and the method that he describes as archaeological. While this method does not require a trowel to dig through the earth, the metaphor of digging provides a valuable image of what the historical researcher needs to do. For Foucault, the historian must excavate an archive to reveal not merely what is in it, but the very conditions that have made that archive possible, what he calls its historical a priori. (1) This historical a priori is the "condition of reality for statements," the rules that characterize any discursive practice. Thus, the archive in Foucault's work is nothing so literal as rows of dusty shelves in a particular institution, but rather involves the whole system or apparatus that enables such artifacts to exist (including the actual institutional building itself). In this model, the "archive" is already a construct, a corpus that is the product of a discourse. One must dig to make sense of the systems behind what one sees.

In fact, Foucault's argument is based on the semiotic distinction between langue and parole in linguistics. The linguistic opposition langue and parole (grammar and speech) is used to demonstrate how any utterance is always a symptom of the system that allows it to exist. In this conception, any act of speech (parole) is a specific instance, an event, that gives evidence of the rules of grammar (langue), the abstract set of rules about language through which that event is allowed its form; a form, which of course, over time, can be reformed or changed. For Foucault then, any archive is an instance of parole, where one can deconstruct the rules of the "language" (langue) that underpins it. The use of this theory by Foucault to construct a model of thinking about the archaeology of knowledge has important consequences for the field of photography and the notion of the archive.

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In the first instance, the idea of photography as a type of "archive" has been around since the early days of photography. Whether it was (or is) an institution that wants to categorize its objects through photographs (e.g., criminals by the police, military and colonial campaigns mapping land, a museum its artifacts, a family through its "album") or whether it is individual photographers who construct a taxonomy of objects through their photographs (e.g., John Thomson's Street Life of London, Eugene Atget's Paris photographs, August Sander's People of the Twentieth Century in Germany, Phillip-Lorca diCorcia's Heads, to name only a few), the aim is always the same: to provide a corpus of images that represent--and can be consulted about--a specific object. This means that photographs are almost always to be found within the conception of practice as an "archive."

Everywhere around us, it seems, there are new digital photographic archives being constructed: cctv control centres, the various types of people-based "democratic" Web sites like Flickr and YouTube, millions of cell phone camera memory cards, and personal computer hard disks--not to mention the many vast commercial and governmental computer data image files. All these new archives, with their taxonomic "tab" and keyword search finder systems, insinuate the archive as an expanded field of cultural activity whose horizons appear more infinite day by day. For all these reasons, the "archive" is a central concept in the arsenal of cultural knowledge.

So the idea of photography as an archive (an archival practice) is not so abstract or strange and not limited to the province of curators, academics, museum researchers, or picture agents. The archive is a crucial basic tool of "cultural intermediaries," picture researchers, editors, and agents, etc., where finding and naming something is an essential aspect of daily work, an everyday problematic. We might say the same applies to photographers as well, be they stock library photographers, art photographers, or even amateurs: the taxonomy of "objects, things, and people" that are photographed have the issue of the archive in common. It might be thought then that the problems encountered--if not the actual situations--are similar for gallery curators just as much as they are for a photographer setting out to make some "work." The production, filing, and storage of images in archives within categories as well as the occasional configuration (selection) from these archive materials into exhibitions thus demands an approach to how we use them and this is where Foucault's concept of archaeology might be useful.


Now, while it is typically the task of the historian (or even photographer) to use the archive to explain an object (past or present), Foucault challenges that practice. He argues first that archives are not necessarily coherent (historians often make it appear that way by the first choices--the process of decision-making--they make in their work); and, second, "interpreting" an archive is a project that already implicitly accepts the underlying terms of the system. The archive "reveals the rules of a practice." (2) Instead, Foucault, like an archaeologist, proposes that objects and documents can be examined for what they reveal about a discourse. To this end, he is not, unlike the antiquarian, concerned with the provenance of objects: who made what, how, and where. To Foucault, it is more important for the archaeologist to search for the regular features of objects in their appearance, "the regularity of statements," which in fact constitute the discourse of any discursive practice. (3) From all this emerges a very different attitude whereby one is more concerned with the raw materials (the archaeological evidence from which descriptions are constructed) than with the "accumulation of fact" (the repository of the past itself).

In Foucault's "archaeology of knowledge," objects, documents, images, and representations are so many parts of what make up a discourse--not the other way around as is commonly conceived. A discourse is not the base for other knowledge. Rather, it is itself the site of how knowledge comes to be constituted. In other words, archives of photographs do not reflect historical reality; they are the material, always incomplete, which form the "already-said," the basic construction of its description. Foucault, with his concept of the archaeology of knowledge, specifically resituates the work of history (his book is about his own work, archaeology rather than history or the "history of ideas") as the work of discourse theory. Foucault argues four main aspects to this work: the emergence of a discourse; its sustainability despite certain contradictions; the comparison of different discursive practices; and the analysis of change and transformation in a discursive practice. From this rather abstract starting point in discourse theory, one can begin to define and determine how to conceptualize the archaeology of photography.

I want to indicate some of the implications of this idea for the field of photography in approaches to history and photographic practice. First, an archaeology of photography would be different from the history of photography. The history of photography, as it is most often practiced, relies on identifying originality, naming authors, and their works and themes that contribute something "new." Genius, influence, and the extraordinary are key themes selected to represent the development of photography in a general history of photography--where the subject matter of photographs is often subservient to those categories. Typical narratives in the history of photography, for example, include where to situate its invention: in either England or France, posing the question of identifying the true inventor: William Henry Fox Talbot or Louis Daguerre? (A question about as important as the one asking how many angels can gather on the head of a pin.) An archaeology of photography would be less preoccupied with the individual rivalry between such figures, or the specific personal wishes of specific individuals "to photograph" (a history through "psycho-biography," which denies social levels of analysis) than with the issue of where and why it emerged as it did, what the photography was used for, and what regular objects appear across the surfaces of all these photographs.


It is here that, for example, we would quickly regard the "surfaces of emergence" of photography in the nineteenth century as along a fault line between "art" and "science." Art and science were two conflicting categories during the social and political revolution of industrialization. Art and artisan methods of production and purpose were challenged by the innovation of industrial processes such as photography. Science, as a realm of rational knowledge, became inextricably linked with the sphere of the "entrepreneur," where discerning "amateurs" (like Daguerre or Fox Talbot) could begin to capitalize on their invention as an industry. And so it was that the industrial revolution, via capitalism, changed the whole society, including the social and cultural relations of producers of commodities (e.g., agriculture, clothing, food, the picture-making industries) and the relations between people within communities--how they lived and how they were literally perceived. Industrialism and the specialisms of the new industrial world demanded that the status of the artist/artisan and the scientist/entrepreneur overlap in new ways because of the skills that new technologies demanded. This "crisis" in each category, art and science, is still manifest today among those who find it is impossible, even now (among photographers as much as historians and critics), to finally "decide" whether photography is an art or science. The opposition (though not a distinction) between art and science was obsolete, in that "photography" in fact demanded a combination of both; it was media. Indeed, it might be said that one key failure of the history of photography has been its inability to recognize how far the emergent uses of photography were instrumental in the very mutation of the existing fields of art and science. Photography was, in this respect, crucial to the appearance of a whole new domain that, throughout the twentieth century, emerged and became unified as the new media institutions and agencies--where both art and science were implicated and acknowledged.

The archaeological approach brings a quite different perspective to the thinking, study, and practice of photography. An archaeology of photography would register the various and different "surfaces of emergence" of photography--from the complex of institutions across which photography emerged in the nineteenth century to the new twentieth-century developments (staff photographers and picture editors at newspapers); the development and growth of photo agencies (including the new, vast industry of stock photography); the rise of advertising agencies whose owners became rich and powerful by mediating between clients and photographers and dictating the images (art direction) and distribution. Then there are the uses of photography by state authorities (police, military, medical, legal), corporations (scientific, administrative, etc.), and individuals (family images, the sex industry, travel, and tourism). Across all these diverse discursive practices, the photographic image emerges as a media-driven "archive" whose statements must not be taken at face value but are to be read as symptomatic of culture and its language. In this respect, for example, we might think of the appearance of the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib (now an online "archive") as finally a public acknowledgement of a type of archive, hitherto kept private, one that had long been overdue for discussion: the discourse of the "war trophy" picture, a sort of perverted tourist photography. (A discussion that is difficult no doubt partly due to the obvious disturbance it causes to popular discourses of humanism--witness Susan Sontag's response. (4))

An archaeology takes the issue of photography beyond the boundaries of technological innovation (science) that still dominate the popular conception of photography as a "technology." Crucial here is the role of "art" as an institution, which remains a significant component of the discursive archipelago of photography. During the twentieth century, however, the dynamic between art and mass media culture has fundamentally changed. No longer is there such an explicit opposition as that defined by mid-twentieth-century critics like Clement Greenberg (famous for his 1939 essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"), arguing for the autonomy of art from mass culture, or the earlier vociferous critics from within photography like Alfred Stieglitz, who opposed "commercialism." Today, the commerce between art and media accommodates much more exchange, each tolerating a reciprocal "difference," while trading like suspicious frontier pioneers. Photography has been central in the mutation of that debate not least because it was involved in both art and mass media.

The archaeology of photography would not try to overcome or "resolve" those contradictions and conflicts between the differing functions of photography in art or in media institutions like advertising, photojournalism, or photography used by the state. (Nor would it seek to collapse them together as some postmodernist discourses claimed.) Instead, an archaeology would attempt to show what separates the discursive practices, or indeed, what they might even unexpectedly have in common. For example, if we take the theme of authorship, a key question in the history of photography, there are significantly different ideas about what an author is in different photographic discourses. In an art discourse, the name and biography of the author (photographic artist) serves a key function. Meanwhile, the same photographer within an advertising discourse would not normally be featured or named as the author of the campaign. The photographer is seen as a technician involved in the production of the basic photographic image; and the public authorship (credit) for the photograph is attributed to the advertiser, the client who paid for it, and not the advertising agency that most likely conceived and directed it. The "author" of the advertisement is thus an abstract corporation; consequently people speak about the advertisement, for example, as a "Coca-Cola advertisement" or a "Levi's Jeans advertisement." No doubt this promotes brand identity over any individual (the creatives, art director, photographer, or computer compositor) involved in its production. The credit given to the brand for its creativeness is what counts. (5)

While a photographer working in both situations may feel they are the same creative person (merely working within different institutional constraints), the way a photographer negotiates their position as a photographer in and across different institutional discourses would provide another aspect of archaeology: the discourse of the photographer. The perspective of the photographer, whether or not they experience these discursive differences (their parole) as contradictions, would provide a valuable contribution to the archaeology of photography. Yet the significance of the differences in these discursive uses of the "author-function" (a concept introduced by Foucault in his 1969 essay "What is an Author?" and somewhat overshadowed by Roland Barthes's 1967 essay "Death of the Author") can be seen to play a critical role in the discourses of advertising and art. The different use of authorship is part of what makes the difference between the discursive practices of art and advertising. One might even argue further that the negation of actual individual authorship in advertising helps to affirm the necessity of individuality of authorship in art (the artist). In a way this helps to understand the function of art, that the photographer is given recognition, whereas they are usually not in advertising and journalism. Furthermore, the abstract corporate authorship in advertisements that offers a brand identity to the consumer also leaves the space of individual authorship open so that the consumer may occupy it: they fulfill the empty space, the consumer becomes an artist expressing their "individuality" in the very act of brand consumption.


These speculations on an archaeological approach are somewhat provisional, but in this manner one might begin to totally re-construct thinking about photography (even as plural "photographies"), as a domain that is not totally homogeneous, but neither is it a completely separate or a disparate set of practices with no relation to one another. Photography might be constructed and conceived as a network of discursive practices, interlinked with contradictions, inconsistencies, and overlapping unities such that to map the points at which these multiple contradictions are constituted becomes itself the objective of research work.

Comparing photography with other discursive practices of visual representation would help to distinguish more clearly the specificities of photography and identify its common relations with other media. A usual historical chronology of media technology would situate photography as the inheritor of the condition of painting. Photography is then seen as the precursor to and the precondition for cinema, which gives way to television, video, and the Internet (while we wait for the next installment). Of course, all these media continue to co-exist. Yet, in such chronologies of media, the particularity of photography as a plurality of practices is missed, ignored--as it is in the other media too. The thing is that these media pervade one another just as the photographic still image saturates these other media: cinema is nothing but a sequence of still images, which projected at (the right) speed, fools the eye into believing it sees "movement." Yet cinema can be related to the traditions of the theatre, the novel and even the mise-en-scene of painting. The photographic image is now completely central to all these technological devices, even if the material substrates have changed. Even the Internet uses relations between images and texts in ways that repeat older practices ("illuminated manuscripts"), but in new forms (the "photoblog" or where the still image serves even as a "button" to trigger MPEG-animated movement).

Across these differences and similarities, an archaeological discourse would, instead of chronologies of media, seek to show, for example, how "reality" is specifically constructed across such forms in what Foucault would call an interdiscursive configuration. (6) In such comparisons can be found the "interpositivity" between discourses without reducing them to either a single unity or complete difference. So, for instance, with the theme of realism there is a network of relationships, an "interdiscursive configuration" of practices that work across writing, photography, film, television, Web pages and so on, that constitute, lay claim to portray, social "reality." It would thus be possible to delineate the features of this reality (the reality of "terror," conditions of the family, etc.) across these forms, yet maintain the diversity of their description--despite any difficulties encountered in doing this. Thus, as a discursive practice, the archaeology of photography would look quite different to the imagined unity produced by a "history of photography." What implicit propositions do the various practices of photographic images share in common about the world, about what is ordinary and shocking or "everyday"? In an archaeology of photography we would be free to draw together such "diverse" practices as the photographs of Andreas Gursky and a reality television show like "Big Brother," which in many ways mirror each other in providing contrasting aspects of actuality: the former concerned with the articulation of the public sphere and social space, the latter concerned with the social dimension of private relations. How might an "amateur" bloggers negotiate those same public/private relations? An archaeology of such apparently diverse practices would construct a quite different understanding of the strategies of visual representation and the objects signified within them. We might learn something new from it.


These questions I have tried to introduce (and others) are somewhat provisional, but based in an archaeological approach that might liberate the study of photography from the straightjacket of institutionally bound versions of its history. An archaeological approach might thus release photography from those methods applied to it derived from media (painting, cinema, media studies) that were not designed for the study of such a polymorphous and ever-present phenomenon across culture: the photographic image. It demands a form of study that would develop methods beyond the iconographic approach that Ernest Gombrich tried to develop as a "general history" of images in his book The Uses of Images. (7)

Foucault shows a way: doing history--an archaeology of knowledge--as a practice that recognizes complexity and even contradiction without reducing it to some hidden or spurious unity. As Rosalind Krauss once hinted, this is a problem that needs to be dealt with. She concluded her 1982 essay, "Photography's Discursive Spaces" by saying of scholarship on nineteenth-century photography:

  Everywhere at present there is an attempt to dismantle the
  photographic archive--the set of practices, institutions, and
  relationships to which nineteenth century photography originally
  belonged--and to reassemble it within the categories previously
  constituted by art and its history. It is not hard to conceive of what
  the inducements for doing so are, but it is more difficult to
  understand the tolerance for the kind of incoherence it produces. (8)

Today, the same criticism can be levied at the incoherent categories applied to twentieth-century photography, their reduction from complex histories to a discourse of photography as art. This may even be one of the key issues confronting recent photographic practice, too. With the massive accumulation of photographs that are currently appearing, perhaps even the contemporary photographer must become more of an archaeologist. To rephrase Walter Benjamin's famous quote, "perhaps the ignorant photographer of the future will be the one who cannot read the archaeology of their own photographs."

DAVID BATE is a photographer and course leader of the Master of Arts in Photographic Studies program at the University of Westminster in London, United Kingdom.