Photography and Social Index: Documentation Obsession and Progressive Themes

Throughout the development of photography as art, and genres of photographic styles, there is an ever-changing remix of mediums, and a multitude of alternative methods for promoting ones work. Pierre Bourdieu was the first to claim photography fills the function of social index. Being such, over time, photography has blossomed into an art that has a variety of uses including those more geared towards marketing on social media, strictly artistic intentions, social/political statements, etc., or a combination of uses. The publication and material context are what frame the meaning in these variety of ways, cuing the entrance of realizations in the differences in photography over time. Today, many use photography as an obsession and norm of documentation as well as a marketing tool in every aspect of life.

Two examples of photographers from different historical contexts that used photography in different ways are Cindy Sherman and Ansel Adams. Adams, born in 1902, was renowned for created masterpieces of photos including nature and the natural world around him. However, Adams was part of a group of photographers, Group f/64, that truly believed that a photograph is crafted and designed by an artist rather than simply taken or recorded by a technological device. This argument was prominent in the 1930s around Adams’ and others’ work, recognizing the real “truth value” of a photograph: constructed image or just a “picture” taken with mechanical equipment? For Adams it was all about how the photo was shot which made the photographer an artist. Looking at his photography, he has a definite style of perspective, framing, focus, angle, clarity, and the creativity in between.

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Group f/64 wanted to expose a modern aesthetic by revealing natural forms and found objects. A “purist” approach that came to be known as ‘Straight Photography’ (which was the opposite of many pictorialist photographers). This vision became widely accepted, dominating the market in a way that no longer made it controversial as it was in the 1930s. Furthermore, this method is coming full circle in today’s society, due to the amount of edited photos and photography by the average individual that alters a photo’s straight, natural form. It is now seen to be of higher caliber among the millennial generation when a photograph has #nofilter or is #allnatural on various social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, something that would please Group f/64’s efforts.

(View more of Adams’ work, click here).

In later years, Cindy Sherman, born 1954, grew to become a photographer in an era that was based on the principle of sociological effect within a photo. Many of the images she created had a series of interconnectedness with themes such as stereotypes in high culture and entertainment. The images were reproducing was had already been reproduced within entertainment industries. For example, Hollywood scenarios, TV soaps, Harlequin romances, advertising, marketing, etc. She also made herself both the subject and object of her photography many instances. What Sherman represented, was a critical parody of the times, and the trends of mass culture as well as popular culture and entertainment.

Her imitation of what sociologically was represented in present day television and film was to showcase stereotypes in a certain light. She represents the objectification of women everywhere as well as stereotypes attributed to many within the time period. This was one of the emerging photographers who used their work to make statements about sociological effects, using the photo to do so. Mass advertising is another ideology accepted and widely used starting in the mid-late twentieth century. Advertisements are now spread across several medias (including but not limited to magazines, newspapers, television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.) and is not limited to products on the shelves. As individuals we all now have the privilege of being an “artist” through various forms of social interaction online. We are our own authors, photographers, marketing professionals, etc. It’s all about building your own brand, which Sherman very much did so herself.

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(For more of Sherman’s work, click here)

So is building your own brand and marketing yourself always a reality? Sherman’s work also touches upon the idea of Simulacral: the world of distinguishing reality and phantasm is denied. Many times, we as Americans take what’s in film, magazines, television, and media to be 100% truth. Maybe Sherman’s way of telling us differently is through her representation through art. What we watch and see via a variety of media is not the reality we may wish it to be, including ourselves.

We ritualize documenting where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, and also make it a habit of taking personal snapshots and portraits with smartphones and apps. There is social power within this representation of ourselves. But, Sherman’s photographic art still rings clear. Many of these “realities” aren’t so real. Is the girl in the photo really that pretty? Or are the filters and magnitudes of editing what make her facial structure the way she would like. Is the photo of the male model really that toned? Or did photoshop help him out around his love handles?

The quantity of ritualized documentation of every moment in our lives through photographs, as well as the sociotechnical marketing and mass production that can take place through various medias is what sometimes blurs the reality of “personal photography,” and marketing of oneself. However, throughout the arrival of modern and  post-modern photography, Bourdieu was right. Photography is filling the role of a social index, seeming imperative in the lives of many. The ideologies of creating ones own photo, societal representation, realism, and marketing/advertising still hold strong for professionals at work in the photographic art industry today.

“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” – Alfred Stieglitz



Works Cited

Douglas Crimp, “The Photographic Activity of Post-Modernism,” October 15, 1980.

Key Issues in Studying Photography: “Making a Photograph” vs. “Taking a Picture” (Irvine)

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Photography: From Optics and Photography to Post-Photography (presentation)

Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (1984), especially pp. 55-62.