On the Invention of Photographic Meaning (1982) – Allan Sekula

© Lewis Hine (1909) 'Neil Gallagher, worked two years in a breaker, leg crushed between cars, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, November, 1909'

Allan Sekula starts his essay On the Invention of Photographic Meaning (1982) by defining the term ‘photographic discourse’. I found this quite strange, in that for me discourse had always meant another word for argument and was fairly obvious. However, Sekula expands upon this notion. A discourse is ‘an arena of information exchange, that is a system of relations between parties engaged in communicative activity.’ – (Sekula, 1982). Sekula also warns against creating academic discourse, for the reason that discourse is inevitably related to the real world. Therefore an anonymous authoritative view is not useful ‘and preclude the possibility of anything but affirmation’ – (Sekula, 1982).

When relating discourse to the photographic, Sekula describes the photograph as a kind of ‘utterance’ because it carries a message although an incomplete one. In other words the photograph is context-dependent. This comparison of the photograph to an ‘utterance’ reminds me of something I read by Geoffrey Batchen in Photography (2010: 13) by Stephen Bull. It was a rather long quote about the coexistence of modernism and postmodernism in a photograph: ‘Batchen, writing from what might be termed a ‘post-postmodernist’ perspective, argues that the opposition between the modernist focus on the aesthetic nature of the photograph and the anti-aesthetic postmodernist focus on culture can be resolved. Somewhere between the two positions lies the answer. He applies the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘différance’ to do this (Batchen 1997: 178–184). The aspect of différance that Batchen concentrates on is the idea that the identity of an object of study simultaneously contains potentially conflicting aspects; indeed the identity of that object actually emerges out of this combination. From such a viewpoint, the identity of photography derives from the nature of photographs themselves (what is fixed inside the frame – the modernist approach) and the changing cultural context in which photographs exist (what is outside the frame – the postmodernist approach).’ – (Batchen, 1997: 202). I could see a similarity between this ‘post-postmodernist’ perspective described by Batchen and the fact a photograph as an ‘utterance’ itself embodies a message while also requiring other context for it to function.

Sekula is adamant that the photograph cannot be separated from its connotative signs. The denotative function is in fact an inevitable precursor for the learned signs of a photograph. He is referring to Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image (1964) where there is claimed to be both the denotative and connotative signs of a photograph. I have to agree with Sekula that there is no such photograph as ‘a re-presentation of nature itself, as an unmediated copy of the real world.’ because ‘Any meaningful encounter with a photograph must necessarily occur at the level of connotation’ – (Sekula, 1982). While it is nice to think of the photograph as transparent, there is always something that ties it back to the real world. This something is a sign, a kind of message that the photographer invested in to send to its audience. This can range from tourist photos as signs that they’ve been to a place or a police mug shot signalling this is a criminal. This was interesting for me because before I had somewhat naively separated the photograph from its message and seen that as a kind of caption. In other words, a photograph can still exist without a caption but it cannot escape its connotative signs (cannot exist as a denotative function). The caption could be seen as a way of reading these signs more easily.

Sekula takes this theory further and proposes that ‘the image is appropriated as the object of a secondary artwork, a literary artwork with the illusory status of ‘criticism’.’ – (Sekula, 1982). Sekula’s remarks are backed up by Bate (2016: 30): ‘proof comes from seeing, which in fact is always mediated by way of other texts, language or documents.’ This is the photograph’s discourse which is open to interpretation and because the discourse is malleable and changes with time, according to Sekula (1982), the possible meaning the photograph signifies changes with it.

To demonstrate this, Sekula puts photographs against two distinct poles of photographic discourse: ‘Photographs achieve semantic status as fetish objects and as documents.’ – (Sekula, 1982). Photographs as fetish objects are spiritual and are imbued with a sense of magic like the photograph has touched the soul of the thing photographed and the person viewing it can resonate with that. Photographs as documents are seeded in realism and ‘stands for the object or event that is curtailed at its spatial or temporal boundaries’ – (Sekula, 1982). Photographs as fetish objects are regarded as one of a kind and personal, whereas the photograph as document are often integrated with the photograph’s property of reproducibility. However, both types of photograph can coexist as they are founded upon ’the mythical truth-value of the photograph’ – (Sekula, 1982). Crucially the distinction between the photograph as fetish object and document is that they are context-dependent. In other words, depending on which photographic discourse the photograph is attached to at that time, the possible meaning of the photograph can range from spiritual to informative.

What of the caption? The caption helps to reinforce the concept of report and validity although it could feasibly be used to mislead the viewer and subvert the possible meaning of the photograph. That’s because the caption isn’t fixed to the photograph but relies on the honesty of the photographer to depicting their subject faithfully. The photographer might not always choose the most ‘faithful’ caption for the subject, it might not subsequently fit in historically or the photographer could have not been in control of the caption. In an art context the photographer would be likely to have control over the caption and could playfully and deliberately subvert the possible meaning of the photograph by constructing a misleading caption.

© Lewis Hine (1909) 'Neil Gallagher, worked two years in a breaker, leg crushed between cars, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, November, 1909'
© Lewis Hine (1909) ‘Neil Gallagher, worked two years in a breaker, leg crushed between cars, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, November, 1909’

Sekula uses the example of a Hine photograph: Neil Gallagher, worked two years in a breaker, leg crushed between cars, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, November, 1909 (Hine, 1909) to show how a caption can be used to somewhat legitimise a photograph as report. Here, ‘The caption anchors the image, giving it an empirical validity, marking the abuse in its specificity.’ – (Sekula, 1982). Sekula also describes how there is another connotation to the photograph; Neil Gallagher (who Sekula mentions is named in the caption) stands proudly above his status as victim which could be described as ‘a level of ‘spiritual’ rhetoric’ – (Sekula, 1982). This again shows that two discourses (the empirical report and the spiritual) can operate at the same time around a photograph.

I found this essay (recommended to me by my Body of Work tutor) hard-going but ultimately very useful. In finding that there are two poles of photography which can’t be separated from a photograph, I dispelled my misunderstanding that the photograph could stand on its own as a transparent image. Rather, the image is always related back to the ‘real world’ through its discourse. The caption can be part of a photograph’s discourse although it isn’t tied to a photograph the same way its discourse is.


Barthes, R. (1964) Rhetoric of the Image. Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: A Reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 33-40.

Batchen, G. (1997) Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Bate, D. (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts. (2nd ed) London: Bloomsbury Academic

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 13.

Hine, L. (1909) Neil Gallagher, worked two years in a breaker, Ieg crushed between cars, Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, November, 1909 [Photograph] At: http://archives.evergreen.edu/webpages/curricular/2006-2007/summerwork/images/Hine,%20Lewis/index.html (Accessed 19.08.2019)

Sekula A. (1982) On the Invention of Photographic Meaning. In: Burgin V. (eds) Thinking Photography. Communications and Culture. Palgrave, London

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