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The Disciplinary Frame

Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning

2008
Author:

John Tagg

The Disciplinary Frame

How do photographs gain their meaning and power?

Photography can seem to capture reality like no other medium, wielding the power of proof. How can a piece of chemically discolored paper have such potency? How does the meaning of a photograph become fixed? In The Disciplinary Frame, John Tagg claims that, to answer these questions, we must look at the ways in which all that frames photography determines what counts as truth.

Any publication by John Tagg is an event, so important have his contributions been to the study of photography and its histories. Here, ruminating on everything from the illustrations found in W. G. Sebald’s novels to zoot-suit riots in Los Angeles, he uncovers what he calls ‘the violence of meaning,’ a phrase as likely to join the essential lexicon of our field as has an earlier book title, ‘the burden of representation.’ At a time when the documentary image seems to be making a comeback, John Tagg reminds us of what is at stake in the practices of surveillance and documentation, complicating their claims to provide truthful evidence and faithful records by locating them within particular regimes of power and coercion.

Geoffrey Batchen, author of Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance

Photography can seem to capture reality and the eye like no other medium, commanding belief and wielding the power of proof. In some cases, a photograph itself is attributed the force of the real. How can a piece of chemically discolored paper have such potency? How does the meaning of a photograph become fixed? In The Disciplinary Frame, John Tagg claims that, to answer these questions, we must look at the ways in which all that frames photography—the discourse that surrounds it and the institutions that circulate it—determines what counts as truth.

The meaning and power of photographs, Tagg asserts, are discursive effects of the regimens that produce them as official record, documentary image, historical evidence, or art. Teasing out the historical processes involved, he examines a series of revealing case studies from nineteenth-century European and American photographs to Depression-era works by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Margaret Bourke-White to the conceptualist photography of John Baldessari.

Central to this transformative work are questions of cultural strategy, the growth of the state, and broad issues of power and representation: how the discipline of the frame holds both photographic image and viewer in place, without erasing the possibility for evading, and even resisting, capture. Photographs, Tagg ultimately finds, are at once too big and too small for the frames in which they are enclosed—always saying more than is wanted and less than is desired.

The Disciplinary Frame

John Tagg, author of The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories and Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics, and the Discursive Field, has taught at universities in Britain and the United States and has directed programs in art history and critical theory for more than thirty years. He is professor of art history and comparative literature at Binghamton University and J. Clawson Mills Fellow in the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Disciplinary Frame

Any publication by John Tagg is an event, so important have his contributions been to the study of photography and its histories. Here, ruminating on everything from the illustrations found in W. G. Sebald’s novels to zoot-suit riots in Los Angeles, he uncovers what he calls ‘the violence of meaning,’ a phrase as likely to join the essential lexicon of our field as has an earlier book title, ‘the burden of representation.’ At a time when the documentary image seems to be making a comeback, John Tagg reminds us of what is at stake in the practices of surveillance and documentation, complicating their claims to provide truthful evidence and faithful records by locating them within particular regimes of power and coercion.

Geoffrey Batchen, author of Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance

Tagg illuminates the structural link between the documentary approach and the liberal democratic public sphere.

College Art Association Reviews

Tagg not only enriches the historical scholarship on American documentary photography in the first half of the twentieth century, but he also breaks new theoretical ground by positing a new way of looking at particular photographs that eludes ontological distinctions of the medium as a whole while also reveling in the ability of certain images to expose and exceed the discipline of the frame.

Disciplinary Criticism