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The Burden of Representation

Essays on Photographies and Histories

1993
Author:

John Tagg

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Tagg examines the history of the use of photographs as documentary images, in courtrooms, hospitals, and police work, on passports, permits, and licenses. Rejecting the idea of photography as a record of reality, Tagg traces a previously unexamined history that includes the meaning, status, and effects of photographs.

Tagg examines the history of the use of photographs as documentary images, in courtrooms, hospitals, and police work, on passports, permits, and licenses. Rejecting the idea of photography as a record of reality, Tagg traces a previously unexamined history that includes the meaning, status, and effects of photographs.

A probing, compassionate and lucid account of the institutionalization of the photographic process and its social and political consequences. Tagg’s is a fresh voice which rejuvenates art historical practices and politics.

Albert Boime, Professor of Art History, UCLA

Photographs are used as documents, evidence, and records every day in courtrooms, hospitals, and police work, on passports, permits, and licenses. But how did such usages come to be established and accepted, and when? What kinds of photographs were seen as purely instrumental and able to function in this way? What sorts of agencies and institutions had the power to give them this status? And more generally, what conception of photographic representation did this involve, and what were its consequences?

Drawing on semiotics, on debates in cultural theory, and on the work of Foucault and Althusser, John Tagg rejects the idea of photography as a record of reality and the notion of a documentary tradition, and traces a previously unexamined history that has profound implications not only for the history and theory of photography but also for understanding the role new means and modes of representation were to play in processes of modern social regulation. In response, these essays argue for a rigorous historical and institutional analysis of the meaning, status, and effects of photographs, rooted in a historical grasp of the growth and dispersal of the modern state.

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John Tagg is associate professor of art history at the State University of New York at Binghamton and the author of Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field (Minnesota, 1992).

Book Default Image

A probing, compassionate and lucid account of the institutionalization of the photographic process and its social and political consequences. Tagg’s is a fresh voice which rejuvenates art historical practices and politics.

Albert Boime, Professor of Art History, UCLA

John Tagg represents a new voice in American photo criticism. What distinguishes him from the prevailing, parochial discourse is his familiarity with the ideas of leading figures in the Marxist and Poststructuralist debate in Europe. The rapidly growing, though still just incipient discipline of photographic history has much to gain from applying these ideas.

Ulrich Keller, Professor of Art History, UC Santa Barbara

Tagg’s work has contributed to a reshaping of the parameters of cultural politics that has influenced a whole generation of critics. . . . One can recognize in these pages the emergence of a distinctive theory of photography’s relationship to power. It is this theory that is perhaps The Burden of Representation’s most challenging and provocative legacy for present and future historians of photograpy.

Afterimage

This book is an exemplary piece of counter-hegemonic history writing; in Foucauldian fashion, Tagg conceptualizes photographs as always already part of a discursive system. . . . Provides a framework of theoretical and methodological self-awareness and a thorough interrogation of the problem of realism.

Media, Culture, and Society

An important and impressive collection of essays. The common themes and arguments within them, along with his carefully considered introduction, provide a new knowledge of photography and of its varied institutional histories.

Art History