Project 3 Exercise 1.4 Archival intervention

Project 3 Exercise 1.4 Archival intervention

Look through your own family archive and try to discover a series of portraits (four or five) that have existed within this archive, but have never been placed together before.

Archival Intervention (~ 800 words)

The child pictured in Figure 5 is now an adult. The oldest photograph in the group of five dates from about 1860 and shows the child’s great-great-great grandparents (see fig.1.); next (see fig.2.) are great-great grandparents (c. 1900) and then a great-great grandfather (on left in fig. 3.) in a rural work setting circa 1950. Finally there is a group portrait from the 1930s (see fig. 4.) of farmers gathered in the process of mutual support in making hay, a relative likely being among them. The photographs of great grandparents are from both the maternal and paternal side of the child’s parent’s families and none of the five photographs have ever been placed together before. The two photographs of a couple would have the status within the family archive of ‘precious object’ (Stokes, 1992: 193 – 205), the remaining three less than this but none will ever experience ‘an autumn leaf ephemerality’ (Stokes, 1992: 193 – 205).

Why have I chosen these particular photographs? The fact that the image of the child is in colour suggests correctly that this is the only photograph of a person who is now living. This abrupt discontinuity could have been prevented by the inclusion of photographs of grandfather/grandmother and father (myself) /mother, however, this discontinuity highlights photography’s ability to span time and space.

There is no other way for the now adult child to know these ancestors. In an appropriate analogy Barthes (1980) suggests that ‘a sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, tough impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed’ (Barthes, 1980: 81). It is a truism that ‘family album viewing can be intensely boring’ (Stokes, 1992: 193 – 205), however, these five images from the archive convey immediately and emotively the gulf between the living and the dead and their linking by the ‘umbilical’ of photography.

The paradox present in these photographs is that between photography as a recorder of ‘lives heading towards their own destruction’ (Sontag, 1977: 70) and ‘its capacity to signify life’ (Hirsch, 1997: 20). As Hirsch (1997) remarks:  ‘With the image of the umbilical cord, Barthes connects photography not just to life but to life-giving, to maternity’ (Hirsch, 1997: 20). Additionally, this paradox that photography can ‘bring the past back in the form of a ghostly revenant, emphasising, at the same time, its immutable and irreversible pastness and irretrievability’ (Hirsch, 1997:20) is compounded by the inclusion of the photograph of a living adult family member at the time when he was a child – this past and in a sense ‘dead’ childhood now stares back with the same ‘immutable and irreversible pastness and irretrievability’ as that of the dead ancestors. These five photographs therefore invite the second type of ‘punctum’ (other than the ‘detail’) identified by Barthes i.e. a ‘new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (“that has been”), its pure representation’ (Barthes, 1980: 96).

Another consequence of the abrupt discontinuity in the generations is that Barthes’ first type of ‘punctum’, that of ‘detail’ (Barthes 1980: 27), is less likely to ‘shoot out’, ‘to wound’ since, excepting the child, all are unknown to anyone living. This leaves Barthes second element, ‘studium’, to predominate: ‘… for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions’ (Bathes, 1980: 26).

It is worth noting that the single archival childhood image such as the one included here may yield to a deep reading, for example Nelson (2015) and Kuhn (2003), however, the invitation to such a reading is not the intention here, but rather to invite a cultural reading of the photographs from the perspective of the child/adult — the family album is recognised as ‘one of the more complicated arenas of photographic representation and organised cultural evidence’ (Stokes, 1992, 193 – 205). Nevertheless, how likely is it that the familial gaze directed at the images will be able to overcome the alienating forces that the passage of time has inevitably created? For example the photographs from circa 1860 and 1900 (see fig. 1. and fig. 2.) speak of a husband and wife, and depict a pairing whose definition was unquestioned yet which today exists as something that evades simple definition. Shown in Figure 1 is an image from the early days of photography which propagates an ideal of family that photography was to go on to both sustain and undermine – by mobilising the ‘flow of family life into a series of snapshots’ (Hirsch, 1997: 7) photography perpetuated familial myths ‘while seeming merely to record actual moments in family history’ (Hirsch, 1997: 7); equally the depiction of real families showed these myths to be impossible to uphold.

Family archives inhabit a space between public and family, (private) history. The five chosen images deliberately contain a stark contrast – the black-and-white images of past historical time and the single colour image of today make material the transitions from childhood to adult, from living to dead, from rural to urban, from family as dependent upon strong mono-cultural community to one experienced as ‘nuclear’ and thriving in diversity. The five images reflect the constant stream of personal, familial and social change which we all inhabit, most within the comfort or otherwise of a family.

Gallery one — Figures 1 and 2 (click to enlarge)

Gallery two — Figures 3 and 4 (click to enlarge)

Gallery three — Figure 5 (click to enlarge)


Barthes, Roland (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Fontana Paperbacks

Nelson, Andrea (2015) ‘In my work it is the text that has counted most. And yet, the image was the beginning of everything.’ In: The Memory of Time. Washington: National Gallery of Art. pp. 72

Hirsch, Marianne (1997) Family Frames. Photography, narrative and postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Kuhn, Annette (2003) ‘Remembrance. The child I never was.’ In: Wells (ed.) The Photography Reader. London: Routledge. pp. 395 – 401

Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin Books

Stokes, Philip (1992) ‘The Family Photographic Album’ In: Clarke (ed.) The Portrait in Photography. London: Reaktion Books. pp. 193 – 205

Project 3 Portraiture and the archive

Project 3 Portraiture and the archive

When writing about the George Rodger Archive a critic remarked that photographic archives ‘hold a fascination for photographers and those interested in the medium, not just for the images they preserve, but the background information that goes with them’ (Coomes, 2014). Rodger was one of the founders of Magnum Photos, and his pictures ‘taken during his extensive travels across Africa following World War Two are a record of that continent at a time of political and social change’ (Coomes, 2014).

Mary Panzer (2011) in discussing the twentieth century press archive reminds us to be wary of the photographic archive, showing for example that a distinction may be made between photographic archives depending upon the time in the history of the medium their content was generated:

Yet to celebrate the fact that the [Magnum Agency] archive has value because “significant world events” and “every celebrity and newsmaker” of the second half of the twentieth century were captured by Magnum photographers seems naïve. In fact, those events and celebrities were largely created by the media, and Magnum contributed to that process in important ways. Guy Debord, Pierre Bourdieu, and others have discussed the abstract ways in which our “Society of the Spectacle” consumes media versions of events and individuals (are celebrities individuals?) that cannot exist outside their photographic representation in still pictures. The archive preserves not the events themselves, but the matter from which those constructions were made (Panzer, 2011).

An interesting property of archives is that once accumulated they can be ‘interrogated’ by means of an intervention by an archivist thus revealing new information not anticipated by the original artist. An example is the Edward Chambré Hardman archive whose completeness allowed photographs of the same individuals photographed years apart to be located within the archive resulting in unique juxtapositions termed ‘chronotypes’ (see fig. 1. and 2.; Roberts, (s.d); Photographic Archival Intervention in the Edward Chambre-Hardman Collection (2016)).

In the 1910s and 20s the New Orleans commercial photographer Ernest J Bellocq photographed local prostitutes. The collection of 89 glass plate negatives — the Storyville Portraits – were serendipitously found after his death and eventually exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1970 thus allowing them to be viewed anew from a modern perspective:

Although the issue of “the male gaze” – the unpleasant way on which male artists have traditionally scrutinised woman’s bodies as they painted or sculpted or photographed them—had not yet been raised as such, the friendliness of Bellocq’s eye, the reciprocity that flowed between him and his subjects, could not but forcibly strike the viewer (Malcolm, 1997) [for example see fig. 3. and fig.4.]

Yet, one of the many intriguing features of the Storyville Portraits is the fact that some were defaced and the manner in which it was done (see fig 5.). Many archives contain negatives that have been ‘killed’ in some way to render them useless e.g. the Farm Security Administration from the American depression era (Boothroyd and Roberts, 2015: 31). These defacements are testament to the fact that many collections were accumulated as working stock without the knowledge that one day they would be considered a valuable archive worthy of conservationAn example of such a portraiture archive is that of Mike Disfarmer (b. 1884):

a mildly psychotic Arkansas photographer who ditched his farmhand roots and amassed an utterly bizarre catalog of portraits that showed a detached yet intimate vision of Dust Bowl life. His work was uncovered in 1976, 14 years after his death (Grow, 2013)

In the case of the Farm Security Administration the defacement occurred simply as a method by which negatives were marked as not fit to use (Boothroyd and Roberts, 2015: 31). In the case of the Storyville Portraits, for reasons that are unclear, some of the portraits have the faces of the woman scratched out (see fig. 5.):

The scratching out of the woman’s face was an intentional and evidently violent act. It is hard to say what Bellocq intended by this gesture. Was it an awkward but tactful attempt to preserve his subject’s anonymity? (Angier, 2015: 23).

Referring to the photograph shown in Figure 5 a critic has remarked:

Much of the shock of the picture, the sense of violation and violence, comes from the contrast between the luminous whiteness of the sheets, the cushions, the gauzy curtains, and the bare flesh and the indelible blackness of the blotch. … Whatever the defacer meant by the act, he (or she) has inscribed a chilling metaphor for the brutality of the enterprise that offers bodies for sale – and, by extension, for all exercises of power against the powerless. We are here far away from modernist playfulness; this is an image of Goyaesque mordancy and urgency. This is the real thing. That history has drawn a blank on its origins has not diminished — has possibly only enhanced – its dreadful beauty (Malcolm, 1997).

The phrase in the extract above ‘the exercise of power against the powerless’ is a criticism made of some documentary practice (for example Solomon-Godeau (1991: 169 – 183) but also of the archival process. For example there are no photographs of the Great Irish Famine of 1845 – 1847:

The reason, we assume, must be because there were no photographers in Ireland … But our assumption is wrong. By 1847 there had been photographers in Ireland for eight years, professional photographic studios for six. And there were cameras which were mobile enough to take pictures outdoor, in the streets and fields where people were starving to death (O’Toole, 1989).

The point here is two fold: it was not in the interests of the people in possession of camera at that time to take photographs of people dying in the streets, and also such subjects was not considered suitable for photography. There is therefore a discontinuity in the Irish National Library’s photographic archive which comprises approximately 5.2 million photographs, the vast majority of which are Irish (NLI, s.d). There is a danger that events not in the photographic archive may slip from the notice of history, and allied to this, that the archive be subjected to manipulation by political forces to achieve the same end – and as a consequence the elimination of inconvenient truths.

It might be thought that the development of the World Wide Web and digitisation would help photographic archives in their mission and work. However, this is not necessarily the case, as it leaves archivists with a dilemma:

What then for the two paths: more open or more controlled [access to the photographic archive]? The material had to dictate. Open access is really only viable for that material which is in the public domain and which is not ethically sensitive, usually historical content. Certain material will always require more restriction due to data protection, copyright and other issues. Even for material where these legalities are not a problem the availability of high resolution files need to be controlled if institutions want to be able to generate income to pay for digitisation via licencing or merchandise. Museums and galleries operate in the market space of the web where photographs are commodities. Digital images, like lunches, are never really free (Galvin, 2013: 10 -13).


Angier, Roswell (2015) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. London: Bloomsbury

Boothroyd, Sharon and Roberts, Keith (2015) Photography 1 Identity and Place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

Coomes, Phil (2014) In Pictures: Exploring the George Rodger archive [online blog] In: At: (Accessed on 23.05.17)

Galvin, Nick (2013) ‘Free for All’ In: Source 76 pp. 10 -13

Grow, Krystal (2013) ‘Creating a Photo Market Afterlife’ In: The New York Times [online] At: (Accessed on 24.05.17)

Malcolm, Janet (1997) ‘The Real Thing’ In: The New York Review of Books [online] At: (Accessed on 23.05.17)

NLI (s.d) Introduction. At: (Accessed on 23.05.17)

O’Toole, Fintan (1989) ‘How the Camera Changed the World’ In: The Irish Times April 1 1989 p.21.

Panzer, Mary (2011) ‘The Meaning of the Twentieth-Century Press Archive’ In: Aperture 202 pp. 46 – 51

Roberts, Keith W. (s.d) Photographic archival intervention within the Edward Chambré Hardman collection (1923 – 63). At: (Accessed on 23.05.17)

Photographic Archival Intervention in the Edward Chambre-Hardman Collection [online video] Pres. Roberts. Open College of the Arts (2016) 35 mins At: (Accessed on 23.05.17)

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail  (1991) ‘Who is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography’ In: Photography at the Dock. Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press pp. 169 – 183


Figure 1. Hardman, Edward Chambré (1923 – 1963) Gemmell John Esq At: (Accessed on 23.05.17)

Figure 2. Hardman, Edward Chambré (1923 – 1963) Gemmell John Lieutenant At: (Accessed on 23.05.17)

Figure 3. Bellocq, Ernest James (c 1912) Storyville Portrait [printing-out paper, gold toned, 10 x 8 inches (sheet)] At:×420.jpg (Accessed on 23.05.17)

Figure 4. Bellocq, Ernest James (c 1912) Storyville Portrait [printing-out paper, gold toned, 10 x 8 inches (sheet)] At:×420.jpg  (Accessed on 23.05.17)

Figure 5. Bellocq, Ernest James (c 1912) Storyville Portrait [printing-out paper, gold toned, 10 x 8 inches (sheet)] At:  (Accessed on 23.05.17)

Project 2 Exercise 1.3 Portraiture typology

Project 2 Exercise 1.3 Portraiture typology

In response to Sander’s work, try to create a photographic portraiture typology which attempts to bring together a collection of types.

Gallery 1 photographic portraiture typology – City Tourists (click to enlarge)


Ordering activities such as those of Sander and the Bechers (i.e. typological series) are ‘more often associated with science than the arts’ (Freidus, 1991: 10 – 25). A typology is:

a particular type of series. Like a series, the elements of a typology have equal weight and no fixed sequence – in a sense these pictures are modular. Compositional decisions are premediated and consistent from picture to picture (Freidus, 1991: 10 – 25).

For the typological series shown in Gallery 1 (above) I chose to photograph tourist visitors to a city. The compositional decision was that all would be photographed in portrait aspect ratio and no greater than a half-body shot. The backgrounds as far as possible contained tourist-like scenes or structures (for example a statue, a city tourist map), also the subject were photographed wearing or carrying tourist associated objects, for example camera, backpack (shoulder straps visible on front), sun glasses in sunshine. Twenty one portraits were obtained in this manner.

Any preparation for generating a photographic portraiture typology must consider the artist Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) who was a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher (others were Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky) and became ‘a leading member of the School of Dusseldorf’ (Badger, 2007: 191). In the late 1970s Ruff began:

photographing head-and-shoulder images of his friends, reminiscent of passport photograph, although considerably larger in format [see fig. 1 – 4]. His sitters chose form a range of plain coloured backdrops in front of which they would be photographed. Ruff asked his subjects to remain expressionless and look straight at the camera (Cotton, 2014: 106).

Ruff has remarked that: ‘I believe that photography can only reproduce the surface of things. The same applies to a portrait. I take photos of people the same way I would take photos of a plaster bust’ (Dorment, 2003). Such exclusive emphasis on the surface of things marks typologies apart from other types of photography, a broad distinction being between one that ‘accepts the fragmentary nature of photography’ (i.e. typology) and one that ‘emphasizes the detail’ (Freidus, 1991, 10 – 25):

It is important to distinguish an art which accepts the fragmentary nature of photography from one which emphasizes the detail. A photograph of a detail is necessarily cut from a whole and emphasises the arbitrary nature of photography and the authorial power of the photographer. In doing so it proclaims the photographer’s subjectivity and disguises the photograph’s method of production. The photographers in this exhibition [‘Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers’, The New Harbour Art Museum, 1991] disclose, by their use of repetitive formal structures, how their photographs are made. They have abandoned composition and the pursuit of the masterpiece. They present their subjects clearly and in the same manner from print to print. Like the narrow parameters of a scientific experiment, the elimination of formal variables directs the viewer’s attention elsewhere. Here attention is directed both toward the subject of each autonomous picture and toward the photographer’s cumulative method of working (Freidus, 1991, 10 – 25).

In the typological series above I attempted to abandon ‘composition and the pursuit of the masterpiece’ (above) in so far as circumstances would allow. I approached people at popular tourist sites and asked to take their photograph. I did not in any sense attempt to recruit the subjects for a project (to do so would have made the process too elaborate and lost most subjects) which meant that I could not reasonably ask that they spend time moving about which would have allowed me to harmonise the background and/or the lighting across all the photographs. Nevertheless the work shows the ‘cumulative method of working’ (above) essential to typologies.

The series below is a photographic portraiture typology but differs from for example Thomas Ruff’s ‘Portraits’ in the rigor of its methodology (above). The subjects in Ruff’s portraits, young German adults of the late twentieth century:

seem to have escaped the confines of history and race, as Norman Bryson has observed: ‘there is little evidence that the people in the Portraits have been touched or marked by anything difficult in their lives.’ Perhaps these portraits and those of bland post-war buildings taken by Ruff in the late 1980s are evidence of the abnegation of experience and memory in contemporary Germany, … (Dexter, 2003: 15 – 21).

Dexter (2003) gives as a counter example to Ruff’s ‘Portraits’ the portraiture by Fazal Sheikh (b. 1965) of refugees from the civil war in Somalia (Sheikh, 2002; see fig. 5.) saying his practice:

… acts in opposition to journalistic practice, where the subject seems only to exist in relation to the events that have enfolded them. The dignity and restraint of each portrait, combined with detailed naming and dating, make these portraits work in opposition to photography’s voyeuristic tendencies, or the desire to grossly ennoble the subject as a compensatory gesture [see fig. 6.] (Dexter, 2003: 15 – 21)

In portraiture there exists a ‘psychological relationship between artist and subject and between portrait and viewer’ (Brilliant, 1991: 72). Sheikh’s portraits invite the viewer to have an encounter with a real human being. The idea of such an encounter is explored in Sam Ivin’s series ‘Lingering Ghosts’ (Sritharan, 2016) which is a portraiture typology of people who are seeking political asylum – however, Ivin has degraded the images, scratching out the eyes of his subjects, deliberately making problematic the encounter between subject and viewer. Another overtly political use of the photographic portraiture typology is by the X-ile Project (X-ile Project, s.d).

The photographs shown in Gallery 1 combine to form a simple typology of city tourists. The term ‘simple’ applies in comparison to the enormous undertaking of for example August Sander who wanted to photograph representatives of every class and profession in Weimer Germany. Something equivalent for the study in Gallery 1 would be to categorise and group the tourists by for example nationality, age, gender, travelling alone or in pairs/groups and so on. My portraiture typology falls towards the Fazal Sheikh (above) end of the spectrum compared to Thomas Ruff’s ‘Portraits’ (above) in that the series does not attempt to lessen or reduce to a common low level the humanity or individuality of its subjects across the series.

When making the series I noticed that after agreeing that I could take their picture many of the subjects immediately posed as they would for a social media ‘selfie’ or group portrait; the image obtained was their projection of themselves, something well practiced and perfected. This lends some depersonalisation to the some of the individual portraits and, as with all typologies, so does the repetition involved in viewing the portraits in series.


Freidus, M. (1991) ‘Typologies’ In: Typologies: Nine Contemporary Photographers. Newport Beach, CA: Newport Harbor Art Museum. pp. 10 – 25

Brilliant, Richard (1991) Portraiture. London: Reaktion

Cotton, Charlotte (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Third Edition. London: Thames & Hudson

Dexter, Emma (2003) ‘Photography Itself’ In: Cruel and Tender. London: Tate Publishing. pp. 15 – 21

Dormont, Richard (2003) ‘The deadpan images created by Thomas Ruff – of nameless individuals and equally anonymous places – are masterpieces of austere neutrality’ [online] In: The Telegraph At: (Accessed on 20.05.17)

Sheikh, Fazal (2002) Fazal Sheikh: A Camel for the Son. Mumbai: Volkart Foundation

Sritharan, Brennavan (2016) ‘Lingering Ghosts’ In: The British Journal of Photography 163 (7851) pp. 52 – 58

X-ile Project (s.d) X-ile Project. At: (Accessed on 21.05.17)


Figure 1. Ruff, Thomas (1999) Portrait (M. Roeser) [Chromogenic print, face-mounted to acrylic; 79 3/8 x 61 5/8 inches (201.6 x 156.5 cm)] At: (Accessed on 20.05.17)

Figure 2. Ruff, Thomas (1998) Portrait (A. Volkmann). At: (Accessed on 20.05.17)

Figure 3. Ruff, Thomas (1988) Portrait (J. Röing). At: (Accessed on 20.05.17)

Figure 4. Ruff, Thomas (1986) Portrait (Stoya) At: (Accessed on 21.05.17)

Figure 5. Sheikh, Fazal (s.d) At: (Accessed on 20.05.17)

Figure 6. Sheikh, Fazal (2000) Abshiro Aden Mohammed, Woman’s leader, Somali refugee camp, Dagahaley, Kenya. At: (Accessed on 20.05.17)

Project 2 Typologies (v) identity

Project 2 Typologies (v) identity

August Sander and other practitioners of classificatory portraits sought to drain the individuality from their subjects and see them as types. On the evidence of his work it is likely that Sander would have agreed with the proposition (popular in the inter-war period (Brückle, 2013)) that ’the social role, or the type represented, were the only basis for defining personhood’ (Brilliant, 1991: 12). Individual identity is not something Sander wishes to express, indeed the methodology seemed designed to supress it:

Sander’s method was confrontational and simple. He posed his subjects, standing erect or sitting, sharply focused and usually facing the camera directly. The background locations for these portraits (a city street, a bare countryside, an interior space) had a minimum of individuating details and were invariably out of focus. His subjects are often identified only by their occupation or social position (“Middle Class Couple”, “The Woman of the Soil”, “Bricklayer”, “Pastry Cook”). … At first glance, there appears to be nothing intimate about Sander’s portrait,. There is no display of emotion, no tell-tale signs of an inner life, no fugitive gestures. His subjects are defined exclusively by their roles (Angier, 2015:139).

Here photography is seen as purely an instrument of dispassionate description. It is this scientific aspect (or aspiration) to Sander’s work that places it in the same category with that of Bernd and Hilla Becher (and before them Eugene Atget) who conducted typographical photographic studies of industrial structures (for example see fig 1. and fig. 2.).

Walker Evans’s photograph ‘Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama, 1936’ (see fig.3.) can be used as a contrast to Sander’s portraits because this image is: ‘simultaneously a portrait of an individual and a social type – in this case a representative of the Depression-era tenant farmer community in the rural South’ [USA] ((Angier, 2015:142). Also relevant is that the name of the subject is included in the title of Evans’s photograph, something that Sander generally did not include thus lessening the sense of individual identity in the photographs.

However, as has been pointed out, personal identity, unlike names:

 is an ambiguous constant in human life … At the very least, the assertion of identity, by whatever means, is an affirmation of existence itself. If identity is a flexible concept, then defining the relationship between the original and his portrait is surely problematic (Brilliant, 1991, 59).

In writing the above Brilliant (1991) gave the example of the 1851 portrait by Southworth and Hawes of United States statesman Daniel Webster (see fig. 4.):

Given the length of exposure required by this photographic process, Daniel Webster had the time and the motive to reconstitute himself before the camera, to portray himself to the lens and to posterity, and in willing collaboration with the photographers Webster consented in the propagation of this self-defining image. He must have known the result in advance (Brilliant, 1991, 57).

This portrait then is of a ‘type’ but a type that by definition required personal identity to be present. As Brilliant (1991) remarks, even for someone unfamiliar with American history or the title of the daguerreotype: ‘this is a portrait of a “somebody” who once bore a distinguished name’ (Brilliant, 1991: 58) i.e. the antithesis of Sander. The Southworth and Hawes’ image:

corresponds to his [Webster] reputation and, being a photograph, we imagine it to be true. Here is a character likeness: the stocky torso of a middle-aged man, forthright, erect, dressed in contemporary, formal costume, and nobly bald. But here also is an elaborate portrait iconography: the large cranium, indicative of the great mind within; the powerful and proper stance of a mid-nineteenth-century gentleman; the grim, serious expression, reminiscent of Roman Republican portraits, … ; … the light from on high as a sign of divine revelation … In sum, this ‘honest’, surely neutral photography offers up a composite portrait of the public Daniel Webster as ‘a virtuous statesman, a defender of the Republic, a great Senator … himself (Brilliant, 1991, 57).


Angier, Roswell (2015) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. London: Bloomsbury

Brilliant, Richard (1991) Portraiture. London: Reaktion

Brückle, Wolfgang (2013) ‘Face-Off in Weimar Culture: The Physiognomic Paradigm, Competing Portrait Anthologies, and August Sander’s Face of Our Time’. In: Tate Papers (19) [online] At: (Accessed on 18.05.17)


Figure 1. Becher, Bernd & Becher, Hilla  (1972–2009) Water Towers. At: (Accessed on 17.05.17)

Figure 2. Becher, Bernd & Becher, Hilla  (1965–2009) Gas Tanks. At:  (Accessed on 17.05.17)

Figure 3. Evans, Walker (1936) Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of a Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama. At: (Accessed on 17.05.17)

Figure 4. Southworth, Albert Sands and Hawes, Josiah Johnson (1851) Daniel Webster [Daguerreotype, Dimensions: 21.5 x 16.6 cm] At: (Accessed on 17.05.17)

Project 2 Typologies (iv) Douglas Huebler (1924 – 1997) ‘Variable Piece #101’

Project 2 Typologies (iv) Douglas Huebler (1924 – 1997) ‘Variable Piece #101’

Huebler’s work ‘Variable Piece #101’ (see fig.1.) comprises of ten portraits of the same person, each frame showing the person attempting to make an expression appropriate to particular human type or stereotype. The subject was the artist Bernd Becher (1931 – 2007) and the written statement accompanying the work explains how the different poses came about: Becher was was asked to pose, in the following order, as: “a priest, a criminal, a lover, an old man, a policeman, an artist, Bernd Becher, a philosopher, a spy, and a nice guy”. This appears straightforward, however:

After two months Huebler reordered the original sequence of photographs and sent them to Becher, asking him to “make the ‘correct’ associations with the given verbal terms.” Becher s reordered list of character types is listed on the statement as: ” i. Bernd Becher; 2. Nice Guy; 3. Spy; 4. Old man; 5. Artist; 6. Policeman; 7. Priest; 8 Philosopher; 9. Criminal; 10. Lover.” The written statement explains all this. But more than a simple explanation, the statement is also constitutive of the work: “Ten photographs and this statement join together to constitute the final form of this piece.” (Hughes, 2007: 52 – 69)

On first viewing it might be thought that Heubler wished to critique the idea of the psychological portrait – the idea that a photograph can tell us something of the interior life of its subject. This idea though present in the mid-nineteenth century came to the fore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when technological advances meant that:

some photographers began experimenting with pathognomic portraits—photographs that were meant to capture an individual’s particular expressions, with the implication that emotional expression might better convey the character, personality, or essence of a subject (McKeon, 2016).

However, Heubler’s main interest is not the portraits themselves but:

As with the majority of Huebler’s work, Variable Piece #101 couples the laconic, bureaucratic voice of a written Statement with the absurd humour of the photographs. Writing serves as the straight man to Huebler’s photographic portraits as Becher ‘s face contorts to fit its impersonations: priest glowers, nice guy laughs, artist throws his head back despondently, criminal eyes bulge, philosopher brow furrows. Or is it the police man who glowers and the artist who furrows his brow; the lover who laughs while the spy’s eyes bug out? Is this the piercing stare of priestly disapproval or of criminal cunning? Is it metaphysics or mania that provokes this grimace? How do we, along with Becher, “make the ‘correct’ associations with the given verbal terms”? (Hughes, 2007: 52-69)

The catalogues that have accompanied the exhibitions of Heubler’s work (e.g. the 1995-96 catalogue to the exhibition ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art’ at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and the 1992-93 catalogue to Huebler’s retrospective exhibition in Limoges, France) are ambiguous as to which poses correspond to which portrait. As Hughes points out this ambiguity regarding the portraits is in contrast to the unchanging consistency of the accompanying statement:

But then it [the statement] needs to be [consistent] in order to satisfy the requirements of the work: “Ten photographs and this statement join together to constitute the final form of this piece.” The statement demands consistency — it has to be “this statement” — but there is no mention of which ten photographs need accompany it; the ten from either the Limoges or MoCA catalogue serve equally well. What is stated explicitly, however, is that once ten photographs are coupled with the statement, the piece is constituted in its “final form.” Yet this categorical statement of finality is patently contravened in the disparity between the Limoges and MoCA catalogues. The discrepant photographs clearly refuse to cooperate with demands of the text, creating a disjunction that is exactly opposite the ordinarily supportive role of caption to photograph (Hughes, 2007: 52-69).

Roland Barthes in his essay ‘The Photographic Message’ (Barthes, 1977: 15 – 31) makes three points about the text that accompanies images. The first of these is that text may constitutes a ‘parasitic message designed to connote the image’ (Barthes, 1977: 15 – 31) i.e. it is not the image that supports any narrative of the text, but the reverse; the second is that this connotation can differ depending on the manner in which the text is presented e.g. a caption or newspaper headline; lastly that the text may amplify any message present in the image. Heubler’s image ‘Variable Piece #101’ questions such reciprocity between text and image.

As Hughes (2007) remarks:

While the reciprocal schism of photograph to text is certainly a primary concern for Huebler, there is ultimately more at stake here than the competing demands of visual and linguistic information. For in the fight for “final form” between the photographs and the statement — a fight the statement clearly loses — Huebler signals exactly that which his photographic portraits undermine with exacting precision: the attempt to fix the work, and the person depicted therein, onto a static and invariable ground. It is not just the “final form” of Variable Piece #101 that is simultaneously asserted and denied, in other words: it is also the “final form” of Bernd Becher (Hughes, 2007: 52-69).

However, this exploration of the relationship between image and text is but one of the conventions under critique by Huebler in this work. As Hughes (2007) explains:

it is in Variable Piece #101 that Huebler announces most explicitly his critique of two very different forms of photographic practice: the systems-based work of photographers such as Bernd and Hilla Becher [see fig. 2.], Edward Ruscha [b. 1937; see fig. 3.], Jan Dibbets [b. 1941; see fig 4.], Michael Snow [b. 1929], and John Hilliard [b. 1945; see fig. 5.] on the one hand, and the hyperexpressivity of New York School photographers such as Diane Arbus [1923 – 1971], William Klein  [b. 1928; see fig. 6.], Richard Avedon [1923 – 2004], and Bruce Davidson [1933] on the other. Accordingly, Huebler presents us with the images of Becher, organized in a grid, as the representative figure and form of a rational, systematic approach to photography. Created with Bernd Becher’s collaborator (and wife) Hilla Becher, the archivally oriented work of the Bechers exemplifies a structural, antiexpressive, systems-based approach to photography that Huebler targets in his undoing of systems. At the same time, and in direct opposition to this, Huebler also presents us with a series of distorted faces, acted out by Becher as the personification of different identities and subjectivities. These grimaces signal a form of photography that is the polar opposite of the Bechers’ – they evoke, that is, the overly expressive, near-histrionic emotionalism of New York School photography a la Arbus, Avedon, et alia. Both of these approaches – the cool rationalism of systems-based photography as represented by Becher and the excessive emotionalism of New York School photography as represented by Becher s faces — are voided in Huebler’s photographic portraits (Hughes, 2007: 52-69).


Barthes, Roland (1977) ‘The Photographic Message’. In: Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press. pp. 15 – 31

Hughes, Gordon (2007) ‘Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture’ In: Art Journal 66 (4) pp. 52 – 69

McKeon, Lucy (2016) ‘Photographing the Psyche’ [online blog] In: The New York Review of Books. At: (Accessed on 15.05.17)


Figure 1. Huebler, Douglas (1972) Variable Piece #101 At: (Accessed on 15.05.17)

Figure 2. Becher, Bernd & Becher, Hilla (1972–2009 ) Water Towers. At: (Accessed on 15.05.17)

Figure 3. Ruscha, Edward (1963) Twentysix Gasoline Stations. At: (Accessed on 15.05.17)

Figure 4. Dibbets, Jan (1968) Perspective Correction. At: (Accessed on 15.05.17)

Figure 5. Hilliard, John (1971) Camera Recording its Own Condition (7 Apertures, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors). At: (Accessed on 15.05.17)

Figure 6. Klein, William (1955) Candy Store New York. At: (Accessed on 15.05.17)