Observations on Photography
Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (1990) presents a distinctly Foucauldian notion of visuality. Refusing to take the intellectual history of sight and visual culture as biologically given or solitarily evolving over time, Crary instead argues for an approach to vision at the intersection between historically-determined epistemological imperatives and technological forms of bodily discipline. Formed through a “set of relations between the body on one hand and forms of institutional and discursive power on the other” (3) Crary argues that vision’s changing significance and fields of possibility may be best examined through different intellectual models and accompanying corporeal techniques rather than a narrow focus on the content and style of representation, as evinced in more traditional forms of art history. Crary’s model of breaks and ruptures in historically-constituted visualities is thus also a departure from the norms and objects of his discipline, creating a novel and highly productive approach to the study of sensory modalities within media and history. However, this innovative step towards new methods and analytic tools arrives neither without fault nor precedent. As suggested by a deeper examination of the implications of Crary’s claims, his ideological model of photography and its observer stands to contradict much of the force of his own argument. By returning to the earlier thought of Roland Barthes an important supplement can be found to expand and enrich Techniques of the Observer’s claims. Barthes provides to Crary’s work a model of individual photographic observation through which the process of subjectification and its exceptions can be better perceived.
Key to both author’s accounts of visuality is an insistence on the primary importance of the present possibilities for the viewer rather than a complete survey of the minutia of the viewed. In Crary’s work this takes the form of an analysis of the “observer”: a visual subject who is already an effect of discourse and is thus also “the field on which vision can be said to materialize” (5). Methodologically, this object of analysis is thus assumed in Crary’s text as the instigator and result of philosophic, scientific, and medical attempts to define the mechanisms and imperatives of vision, more precisely located through discursive analysis than journalistic or diaristic accounts of mass sensory practices or deviant cases. Crary’s observer, described somewhat abstractly in the language of ideal types, thus presents a rather hegemonic model of visuality, a limitation that Crary himself freely admits (7). What it allows the author in exchange, however, is the means to conduct a sweeping account of the changes within European visuality between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.
This historical scope is characterized in terms of two oppositional models for vision and subjectivity, with a rupture occurring in the first half of the nineteenth century that marks the switch. The first, or classical model of visuality is explored through the exemplary technology of the camera obscura, described by Crary as an assemblage of material techniques and enunciations through which philosophers and scientists explained both the optical mechanics of vision and the rational, interior model of the self (27-33). Crary parallels the body’s marginalization within the dark camera with the era’s larger “metaphysics of interiority” (39) by which thinkers such as Descartes described the transcendent rationality of the mind over the foibles of the exterior and embodied world (48). This model of the “individuated” self (39) expresses a heavily juridical orientation towards phenomena, whereby the observer, secure in his own reason and self-discipline, may pass judgment on the validity of perceptions as they appear within the mind’s camera, ascertaining truth on the basis of the security of his own interior fact (42-43).
This model of sight and subjectivity is to be contrasted in the latter half of Crary’s book by the emergence of new discourses that brought interiority and optical truth into question. Rather than a passive, disembodied process of sensory perception, the new observer of the nineteenth century found themself an inexorable and corporeal participant in the production of visual effects, eroding any claims to objectivity or self-discipline they might have previously enjoyed. Such qualities, if they were to be secured in the age of “uprooted” vision (113), were to be won through emerging technologies and techniques that worked on the observer’s body, rendering it docile in the Foucaldian sense (15). These discursive operations, wrought in part through the ascendancy of the science of physiology (81) and the emergence of perceptual toys (116), allowed for a greater scrutiny of both the senses and the self’s efficacy and embeddedness within material and technological structures (16). Such efforts coincided with and served the needs of an industrializing Europe, whose burgeoning productive requirements provide Crary with the epistemological engine to drive this discursive shift (85). “A more adaptable, autonomous, and productive observer was needed in both discourse and practice—to conform to new functions of the body and to a vast proliferation of indifferent and convertible signs and images” (149).
The stereoscope is Crary’s prime candidate as the nineteenth century’s equivalent to the camera obscura’s organizing metaphor. This new form of visual entertainment, with its demand for bodily participation, was isomorphic to developing philosophical and medical understandings of sight and self. By disciplining the disparate images of the stereoscope’s display, observers ordered their own bodies, regimentally focusing their gaze and postures through the device (129). “Correct” vision in this assemblage was achieved through the immanence of eyes and apparatus working jointly to compensate for each other’s deficiencies (129). Despite this arrangement’s apparent artifice to Crary’s present-day reader, to contemporaries of the stereoscope such as Hermann von Helmholtz its visuality was one of exemplary verisimilitude (124). This implies that at its ascendant moment, the experience of vision through the stereoscope may have been radically dissimilar from our own, suggesting the pervasive reach of discourse’s bodily and perceptual conditioning.
Given both the stereoscope’s potent sensory and explanatory power as well as the persistence of much the same economic pressures of modernization throughout the subsequent century, it is thus puzzling that this paradigmatic technology should suffer a decline. Consequently, the close of Crary’s title chapter is perhaps the most unsatisfactory of the book, for it faces the challenge of explaining how stereoscopy met its end and how photography was left holding this particular smoking gun. Rather than the epistemological force that drove technological and philosophical developments in all instances within Crary’s prior narrative, this blow appears to have been struck through guile; “photography defeated the stereoscope as a mode of visual consumption…because it recreated and perpetuated the fiction that the ‘free’ subject of the camera obscura was still viable” and “preserved the referential illusion” of the image’s signifier and signified (133). Crary’s account seems to imply that tired observers, overwhelmed by the visual and subjective challenges of modernity, longed for their own deception and successfully obtained it through the photograph’s chicanery.
The validity of this interpretation is suspect for numerous reasons. First and foremost is the tenuous independence of stereoscopy from photography. Writing in a field overwhelmingly populated by teleological histories of photography and cinema, Crary’s focus on the stereoscope is quite exceptional, and thus it follows that he would need to defend a claim that “its conceptual structure and the historical circumstances of its invention are thoroughly independent of photography” (118). Even if this is the case (and photography’s differing provenance is nowhere investigated in the book) the stereoscope’s use and forms cannot be easily extracted from that of photography since the former technology is inexorably a mediation of the latter, older form. Consequently, the chronology of Crary’s account is questionable and this reveals a significant downside to his retreat from visual content as a site of analysis. A thorough examination of stereoscopy’s photographs would be useful to this end.
Additionally, further questions can be raised by scrutinizing photography’s alliance with the same bodily forces manifest in the rise of stereoscopy’s nineteenth century observer. After all, daguerrotypes, with their luminous surfaces and monochromatic palettes, required their own perceptual techniques for observation as well as newly disciplined and durational modes of appearing before the camera. Photography, moreover, historically evinces a deep involvement with the history of physiology, both as a disciplinary prosthesis to human vision and as a tool for spanning greater stretches of time and space. From Muybridge’s serial photographs of motion to anthropological records of physiognomic samples, the technology powerfully worked on the discursive production and circulation of bodily types, often through a colonial logic of surveillance and productivity. In such cases, even as the visual apparatus for production effected a retreat from the perceptual fusion of the stereoscope’s techno-corporality, the photographic gaze was nevertheless felt in the reproduction of observer’s corporeal signs long after the fact. If, as Crary suggests, the photographic camera succeeded in inheriting the camera obscura’s relationship to mimetic indexicality, this was also accompanied by a metonymic function through which the image of any person could stand in relation to the observer. Composite photography, advertising imagery, and pedagogical aids are just a few examples of these invitations for visual extension and comparison.
Photography, by consequence, cannot be so easily excluded from the study of the nineteenth century observer, though its integration does present several mutations to Crary’s original framework. To this end, and in an effort to benefit from the fruits of methods excluded from Techniques of the Observer, Roland Barthes Camera Lucida (1980) provides an excellent supplementary account of being an observer of photography. While the philosopher’s modern and deeply subjective meditation on his own fascination with the medium lacks the historical richness of Crary’s analysis, the two books are not so dissimilar in their core ambitions. As Barthes writes, “I want a History of Looking” (12) and he provides an excellent case study to attach to Crary’s own.
Initially, Barthes book does give credence to Crary’s suspicion of the photographic camera’s continuities with older models of organizing the self and sensory experience. The camera obscura’s mimetic powers persist in the photograph’s strange capacity to confuse representational object and referent, and indeed it is this very quality that so appeals to Barthes and drives him to conduct his investigation (7). This referential power, however, proves also be a site of perpetual frustration for Barthes-as-observer, for his sense of interior subjectivity, “my (profound) ‘self,’” (12) fails to be satisfactorily captured through photographic means (12). The camera, in operating on the body and providing its subject the opportunity to gaze upon their own image, continuously erodes the security of an interior sense of self by objectifying and alienating those that it captures. Barthes’ description of his ontological transformation through the medium is rife with images of violence and death, allegorizing the workings of photography on his sense of subjectivity and the security of his body over time (14). This profound disturbance, to both the observer and to a larger history of visual practices, may be dulled through the photograph’s visual monopoly. “The… means of taming the Photograph is to generalize, to gregarize, banalize it until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself, assert is special character, its scandal, its madness. This is what is happening in our society, where the Photograph crushes all other images by its tyranny” (118). One thus arrives at a similar outcome as Crary’s Foucauldian path, though Barthes’ emphasis on ongoing mechanics of circulation and control would suggest that this visual discipline is not quite the fait accompli Crary ascribed to the nineteenth century. As an epistemological struggle, Barthes’ characterization of photography’s maddening effects on subjectivity attest to the fact that the metaphysics of interiority did not end as abruptly as Crary’s account might imply. Instead, photography can be seen to continually facilitate the subjectification of observers in tandem with modernity’s intensifying circulation of images.
Even when outside of the camera’s viewfinder, when merely taking stock of its products, the observer is still affected by the continuance of disciplined modes of looking. Reflecting on the many thousands of photographs he has seen, Barthes describes his observation as one of polite attention, a form of cultural participation that he calls studium (26). This observational mode is formed from as a result of both the medium’s ubiquity and its forms of practiced looking as he notes “what I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training” (26). Like Crary’s suggestion of the nineteenth century’s “rebuilding of an observer fitted for the tasks of ‘spectacular’ consumption” (19) Barthes describes the traces of his own visuality in terms of the ongoing outcome of a discursive discipline.
Yet, to both Bathes and earlier commentators on the regimentation of vision, the estrangement and dulling of the senses may still produce dissenting ambitions. Just as the twentieth century philosopher longs “to be a primitive, without culture” in his investigations into his own visuality (7), Crary notes how the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin quested after “a kind of primal opticality… a purified subjective vision, of an immediate and unfiltered access to the evidence of this privileged sense” (95). What Ruskin would partially uncover in greater visual abstraction, Barthes locates in his own immanent emotional response to certain photographs, in the experience of an unexpected poignancy in excess of his cultural training that he describes as punctum (27).
This mode of affective observation, occurring on a highly personal level by way of evocative details and their Proustian remembrance (45), brings the observer into renewed participation with the image. Rather than the kinesthetic and perceptual activity of Crary’s stereoscopic subjects (120), Barthes’s emotional and personal histories enliven the photograph (“it animates me, and I animate it”) (20). The resulting experience, curiously, appears to be in excess of the visual and all its cultural technologies; “once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is divined)” (57).
In addition to blindness, punctum is often described through the language of wounding and unmaking. To Barthes, the experience that of “an intense immobility” (49); “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (27). Given that Barthes’ first person, as extended from his reflections on the disorientation of being photographed, speaks from a fragile but ongoing assumption of interiority, one can assume that the subject that is violated by punctum, that is unmade through the affective intensity of memory, is this vestigial classical self. Punctum’s immanence and intensity of experience would thus foreshadow the same Deleuzian subjectivity that Crary will later return to in his book as a mode of thinking through the loss of sensory autonomy in the nineteenth century (66). Despite these initial similarities, however, Barthes’ punctum is more alive with possibilities outside of hegemonic discourse or an economic imperative than Crary’s disciplined masses. Photography, as a site of interpersonal meaning, mourning, and presence, cannot be wholly inscribed within a disciplinary rationale or even the specificity of sensory perception.
It can thus been seen that, through his attentive study of coexisting modes of regimentation and affect, Barthes’ highly subjective account of observation stands to further an understanding of both the hegemonic power Crary attributes to visuality in the nineteenth century and photography’s supposed independence from this trend. While a certain form of studium or subjectification conditions the visuality of a particular time and place, the individual experience of images abounds with multiplicities and exceptions. Barthes’ exploration of affect as an essential component to photography challenges the allegiance the medium supposedly holds to classical epistemological models, while also suggesting a space in which imperatives and deviations from the modern may arise. Barthes is thus correct to associate photography more with the camera lucida than the camera obscura, for despite all its hegemonic powers, in the minutia of individual consumption and experience it stands to frustrate the clear or constant delineations between interior and exterior, mind and body, or self and other in any secure permutation of sense and subjectivity.
Barthes, Roland. 2010. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang. Originally published 1980 by Éditions du Seuil.
Crary, Jonathan. 1990. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.
 Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography (1999) provides one such account from a similarly Foucauldian perspective that situates photography in much the same role as Crary’s stereoscopy: a historical effect of timely epistemological crisis.