The photographic image’s naturalistic effect was critiqued and analysed by several authors, such as Victor Burgin, Allan Sekula, John Tagg and Rosalind Krauss, who highlighted technical image as a historical, socially constructed product that tends to present itself as neutral due to the nature of its device.
To Victor Burgin, what matters in photography is not the fact that it represents something, rather than the fact that this representation serves a purpose: photography does not matter for what it represents, rather than for everything around it – its relation to other images, other discourses and politico-cultural strategies. Burgin’s starting point was his readings of Althusser and Marx, his admitted influences. He also included structuralist semiotics (Roland Barthes and Christian Metz), as well as Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis, in his analysis of the photographic practice, namely in his research on the unconscious mechanisms and social determinations that surround it. His viewpoint is, essentially, a move away from the formalist perspective, in the sense that he criticises the reduction of photography to its status as ‘art’, visible in museums and in artistic reception contexts. Burgin wrote in the chapter “Looking at Photographs” from his Thinking Photography: “It has previously been most usual (…) to view photography in the light of “art” — a source of illumination which consigns to shadow the greater part of our day-to-day experience of photographs. What has been most often described is a particular nuancing of “art history” brought about by the invention of the camera, a story cast within the confines of a succession of “masters”, “masterworks” and “movements” — a partial account which leaves the social fact of photography largely untouched.” (Burgin 1982: 142)
In this sense, and in a point that was extremely important in the fight against the dominance of formalism in the theory and history of photography, Burgin stresses the discreet way photography inhabits everyday life, which does not allow for any artistic reception of it, as, even though photographs are shown in museums and books, “most photographs are not seen by deliberate choice, they have no special space or time allotted to them, they are apparently (an important qualification) provided free of charge — photographs offer themselves gratuitously” (Burgin 1982: 143). Thus, whereas film and painting are always shown in spaces and mediums that allow us to draw our critical attention to them as objects, photographs mix with the environment.
John Tagg makes a similar point: he seeks the social and economic production modes that give rise to a photograph (Tagg 1988). Tagg relates photography to the field of what Marx called ideology, therefore relating it indirectly to the association Karl Marx made between ideology and camera obscura in “German Ideology”. Thus, “photography as such has no identity”: its status “as technology varies with the power relations that invest it” – in this sense, its function as a “mode of cultural production” “is tied to definite conditions of existence, and its products are meaningful and legible only within the particular currencies they have”. (Tagg 1988: 63)
According to Tagg, the ideological effectiveness of photography lies from the onset in its conception “as a direct, ‘natural’ copy of reality”, which, as he stresses, was already present in the discourse of pioneers. This aspect of the ‘hallucinated’ reality of photography as a result of its ‘natural’ status was precisely one of the focal points of the analyses made by André Bazin (Bazin 1945) and Roland Barthes (Barthes 1961), who had already drawn attention to the non-symbolic aspects of photography and its appearance of a “message without a code”.
Allan Sekula (Sekula 1982 and 1987), one of his generation’s most interesting theoreticians, also developed an intense work in this line of thought. Sekula incorporated Marxist legacy as well: he shares a vision of discourse as a biased exchange system, as messages are always manifestations of interest: in his view, of economical and social interests, i.e., questions of power. Hence, there is no such thing as an uninterested exchange of information. As an example of this relation between photographic image and a ‘matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability’, Sekula evokes the famous episode told by the anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who showed a bushwoman a photograph of her son. She did not recognise the boy in the picture as her son until certain details in the photograph were shown to her. According to Sekula, this episode shows a lack of a transformation experience from tridimensional reality into bidimensional representations – a lack of realistic culture. The moral of this story, to Sekula, questions the myth according to which the photographic medium is transparent – that photography is ‘an unmediated copy of nature’. The same can be said of his famous work on criminal identification archive criminal photography, in which he analyses the invention of this type of photography within institutional systems (Bertillon’s method) and the 19th-century epistemology that was its horizon of legitimacy (Gall’s theories). In his essay “The Body and the Archive” (Sekula 1987), Sekula evokes Michel Foucault and his idea, which he held in Discipline and Punish, that modern discipline does not end with repression, but is also an institutional productivity and functionality model. His aim was to show the way photography’s ‘realistic’, observational viewpoint supported the creation of criminal archives according to Bertillon’s system, allowing them to show not as much as the efficacy of photographic realism but more so the need to build an archive where photography might be framed by other elements (measurements, captions, drawings), whose main purpose was to ‘organise’ information and the possibility to order reality. Sekula stresses the fact that Bertillon’s ‘nominalist’ identification system and Galton’s ‘essentialist’ system of typology “constitute not only the two poles of positivist attempts to regulate social deviance by means of photography, but also the two poles of these attempts to regulate the semantic traffic in photographs.” (Sekula 1987: 55)
Rosalind Krauss may also be included in this critical movement of photographic naturalism, and the way it was used within certain ideological strategies by Art History. Comparing O’Sullivan’s topographical photographs to the series of sketches Clarence King made from them for her work “Systematic Geology”, she underscores the way the former stand within the ‘discursive space’ of aesthetics, whereas the latter, which value mainly the informational side of printing, stand within science’s ‘discursive space’. Krauss aims to contrast the way O’Sullivan’s works were received against a setting of aesthetic authorship, even though they were produced in an ‘archival’ state of mind – a survey of distant paths and use of the possibilities of photography as survey. In this sense, she asks: “But did O’Sullivan in…the 1860s and 1870s, construct his work for the aesthetic discourse and the space of exhibition? Or did he create it for the scientific/topographical discourse that it more or less efficiently serves?” Krauss reflects that important movement in postmodern criticism, which draws attention, on the one hand, to the non-artistic uses of photography, and, on the other hand, to the model underlying the integration of some authors in the history of photography instead of others.
The viewpoint of social constructionism in photography was instrumental in calling attention to the role of photographic naturalism in the mechanisms associated to power relations and in the foundation of the field of studies that came to be called Visual Culture. However, authors such as Geoffrey Batchen (Batchen 1997) have stressed the reductionist aspects that may occur in this effort to put photography into perspective merely «from the outside», from everything that is «external» to it, which would somehow mean a radical reversion of the formalist stances that were dominant up to the 1960s.
· Barthes, Roland (1961) ‘Le message photographique’, Communications, 1, 1961, 127–38.
· Batchen, G. (1997) Burning with desire. The Conception of Photography. London /Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
· Bazin, André  “Para uma Ontologia da Imagem Fotográfica”, in O que é o cinema, Lisboa: Livros Horizonte, 1993.
· Burgin,Victor (ed.) Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan Press, 1982.
· Tagg, John (1988) The Burden of representation/ Essays on Photographies and Histories. London: The Macmillan Press.