The Archaeology of Photography: Rereading Michel Foucault and the Archaeology of Knowledge

By Bate, David | Afterimage, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Photography: Rereading Michel Foucault and the Archaeology of Knowledge


Bate, David, Afterimage


The French historian of discourse, Michel Foucault, made a clear distinction between the "archive" and the method that he describes as archaeological. While this method does not require a trowel to dig through the earth, the metaphor of digging provides a valuable image of what the historical researcher needs to do. For Foucault, the historian must excavate an archive to reveal not merely what is in it, but the very conditions that have made that archive possible, what he calls its historical a priori. (1) This historical a priori is the "condition of reality for statements," the rules that characterize any discursive practice. Thus, the archive in Foucault's work is nothing so literal as rows of dusty shelves in a particular institution, but rather involves the whole system or apparatus that enables such artifacts to exist (including the actual institutional building itself). In this model, the "archive" is already a construct, a corpus that is the product of a discourse. One must dig to make sense of the systems behind what one sees.

In fact, Foucault's argument is based on the semiotic distinction between langue and parole in linguistics. The linguistic opposition langue and parole (grammar and speech) is used to demonstrate how any utterance is always a symptom of the system that allows it to exist. In this conception, any act of speech (parole) is a specific instance, an event, that gives evidence of the rules of grammar (langue), the abstract set of rules about language through which that event is allowed its form; a form, which of course, over time, can be reformed or changed. For Foucault then, any archive is an instance of parole, where one can deconstruct the rules of the "language" (langue) that underpins it. The use of this theory by Foucault to construct a model of thinking about the archaeology of knowledge has important consequences for the field of photography and the notion of the archive.

In the first instance, the idea of photography as a type of "archive" has been around since the early days of photography. Whether it was (or is) an institution that wants to categorize its objects through photographs (e.g., criminals by the police, military and colonial campaigns mapping land, a museum its artifacts, a family through its "album") or whether it is individual photographers who construct a taxonomy of objects through their photographs (e.g., John Thomson's Street Life of London, Eugene Atget's Paris photographs, August Sander's People of the Twentieth Century in Germany, Phillip-Lorca diCorcia's Heads, to name only a few), the aim is always the same: to provide a corpus of images that represent--and can be consulted about--a specific object. This means that photographs are almost always to be found within the conception of practice as an "archive."

Everywhere around us, it seems, there are new digital photographic archives being constructed: cctv control centres, the various types of people-based "democratic" Web sites like Flickr and YouTube, millions of cell phone camera memory cards, and personal computer hard disks--not to mention the many vast commercial and governmental computer data image files. All these new archives, with their taxonomic "tab" and keyword search finder systems, insinuate the archive as an expanded field of cultural activity whose horizons appear more infinite day by day. For all these reasons, the "archive" is a central concept in the arsenal of cultural knowledge.

So the idea of photography as an archive (an archival practice) is not so abstract or strange and not limited to the province of curators, academics, museum researchers, or picture agents. The archive is a crucial basic tool of "cultural intermediaries," picture researchers, editors, and agents, etc., where finding and naming something is an essential aspect of daily work, an everyday problematic. We might say the same applies to photographers as well, be they stock library photographers, art photographers, or even amateurs: the taxonomy of "objects, things, and people" that are photographed have the issue of the archive in common. …

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