Victor Burgin’s Thinking Photography is concerned with the technological nature of photography, its relationship to society and the effects that it has had on art and on various other social institutions. By combining the work of intellectual historians, philosophers and sociologists, the book aims to present a comprehensive view of the various influences that photography has had the world, together with the manner in which these influence have been understood and theorised. Importantly, however, the book, first published in 1982, is unable to account for several of the most recent changes in photographic technology.
Technology under discussion ranges from early bourgeois portrait photography to photographs technology as it was used in early criminal profiling and in identifying certain criminals and criminal types. In this sense, the book is primarily concerned with the dual criminological and aesthetic changes wrought by photography, and of the confluence of power relations and expressions of status through which such changes are traced. Most important to each of these aberrations is the capacity to construct specific meaning, either interns of aesthetics or in terms of power relations. One point demonstrated by almost all of the authors is that the both the political and aesthetic potential of photography depends on how such meaning is constructed and to what service it is put.
The aesthetic qualities of photography, especially its capacities to render something that was previously thought of as unaesthetic “beautiful” is highlighted by Walter Benjamin. However, rather than simply insisting that the function of photography is to render something beautiful, Benjamin insists that photography possesses a political capacity to “to renovate the world as it is from the inside” (24). As such, rather than focusing on a convention aesthetics of beauty, Benjamin insists that photography possesses emancipatory potential precisely because it can change what is considered beautiful. Such a capacity to effectively construct meaning necessarily changes how one views photography, and in particular individual photographs. As Allan Sekula notes, “if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image” (86). According to Sekula, this fact leads to a situation in which the photograph achieves currency both as a “fetish object” and as something that has documentary meaning. In this sense, photography represents something fundamentally new, in that the photograph is both revered as an aesthetic object and is revered as a direct representation of reality, albeit a reality that is constituted by various competing modes of social discourse.
Importantly, however, while the book provides a series of penetrating insights into the nature of analogue photography and the changes that it helped to bring about in both art and broader semantic contexts, it does not cover digital photography, and neither does it cover the relationship between photography and the subject that is established with the advent of social media. The vast proliferation of easily, high quality digital photography, brought about primarily by smart phones and the combination of this with the growth of websites such as facebook and instagram has served to make photography inseparable from the lived experience of the world, to the extent that the “fetish” quality that Seukula identifies has all but vanished, as photographs no longer stand in opposition to the world in which they exist. Rather they have become all but seamlessly integrated within it, meaning that, for many people, photography no longer directly constructs meaning, but that it is key tool in their own continuous construction of a life-narrative and corresponding sense of self. While this does not negate the theses put forward in Burgin’s book, it does suggest that they must intensified in order to effectively grasp the role of photography in modern life.
- Thinking Photography. Edited by Victor Burgin. London: MacMillan, 1982.