By utilizing photographic imagery, those in power manipulate the Real and capitalize on the medium’s supposed truth value. The theorists Allan Sekula, Rosalind Krauss, and Carol Squiers each look at the role of photography in modern society and how the institutions of criminology, advertising, and corporate public relations, respectively, employ photography to advance their own interests. They take differing approaches in looking at this concept, however, as well as look at a diverse selection of work from different periods of time. Looking at Identification Anthropométrique (1893) by Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton’s Criminal Composites (1878), Sekula sees photography as an epistemological tool that 19th century pseudoscience used to create the supposititious image of the criminal. Krauss analyzes Irving Penn’s Clinique ad from 1981 and how it creates a simulacrum, a false reality, in order to sell the product. For Squiers, photography plays a specific role in corporation’s annual reports, aiding in the focus on or away from specific issues. The inclusion of a still life by Jerry Sarapochiello in the Union Carbide Corporation’s 1984 report is striking to the author because it forgoes depictions of a disaster at a plant earlier that year in favor of an aestheticization of the company’s products. With these analyses in mind, photography can no longer be considered a neutral medium; it is irrefutably political, tied to specific ideologies, and imbued with power dynamics.
Photography holds a privileged position in modern society. The belief in its objective transcription of reality has led it to become essential to a number of institutions: medical science, police records, government identification, and journalism are all dependent on photography’s ability to convey truth, or so is commonly understood. Scott Walden suggests that the camera’s mechanistic etiology may be the rationale for the belief in photographic truth. Unlike painters, who must first cognitively register the scene, photographers’ mentation is somewhat excluded. This belief is in accordance with the post-industrialization trust in the machine; notably, photography itself came into being at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The visual similarity of photography to reality also contributes to its verisimilitude. It would be naïve, however, to view the relationship between photography and truth as this straightforward.
Considering the number of ways the photographer is involved in the final image, it becomes clear that photography is subjective rather than objective. Walden argues that mentation is a factor in the photographic process. Photographers make a number of choices when creating a photograph that ultimately affect the viewer’s reading; lens choice, composition, angle, dodging and burning, and many others are all conscious decisions. Furthermore, selecting an image to print is an editing process. The photographer actively chooses an image to enlarge and the viewer does not see the rest of the negatives, which could tell a vastly different story. Context is also crucial to consider, as it can change the way one reads a photograph. It is this precarious trust in photography that many institutions capitalize on – by accepting photographs as transcriptions of the Real, viewers are force fed certain beliefs and ideologies.
Through the compilation of thousands of photographs, Bertillon creates not only an archive to identify specific criminals but depicts the criminal body itself. Bertillion devotes a number of plates in Identification Anthropométrique to photographs of the ears of incarcerated criminals, which become particularly interesting in their multiplicity. Due the way they have been photographed, the ears begin to lose their original context and revert to formal elements of line and shape. The signified in Bertillon’s images is lost, leaving only the signifier. Detached from the subject matter, the viewer is left to make connections in the photographs’ formal elements. When one reconnects with what is depicted, the associations take on meaning; the similarities become definitive of criminal’s physical characteristics. That is to say, this is what a criminal’s ear looks like. Bertillon not only portrays individual criminals through his project, but creates an index that invites viewer evaluation and scrutiny.
Bertillon’s project, contingent on the alleged objectivity of photography, sought to manage the problem of recidivism and regulate the increasingly threatening subproletariat. He amassed an archive of criminal portraits, allowing the police to easily discern repeat offenders. Utilizing precise standards of image-making, Bertillon reinforced the belief in the camera’s mimesis. One may presume that there is no issue behind this collection of photographs, as its creator has removed as much of himself as possible. To do so, however, would ignore the specific motive behind creating such an archive. After an agricultural crisis in the 1880s, a massive number of peasants migrated into cities across France. Sekula sees a cause and effect relationship between the two, noting the “social danger posed by the vagrant” as well as the blame of increased crime on the urban poor rather than structural issues. After Bertillon’s system came into being, Gambettist Republicans passed the Relegation Law of 1885, which allowed for criminals to be placed in court-ordered exile in Guyana or New Caledonia. Identification Anthropométrique is a project steeped in classism, concealed under the façade of scientific objectivity. In this instance, photography is an epistemological tool; it produces certain kinds of knowledge that serve the bourgeoisie and their desire to denigrate the lower classes.
Galton takes a similar approach to Bertillon, but uses his own distinct methodology. His composites are created from underexposing multiple shots, leaving the blurry apparition of a person. Sections of the portrait take on a spectral quality and become detached from the physical realm while other areas materialize in their dense blackness, most notably the eyes. Certain overlapping features are brought to the forefront of the image and idiosyncrasies are erased. The resulting photograph is an image of the criminal, not an individual, but the criminal as a type. Reinforcing this notion, Galton created his composites around certain classes of crime such as larceny or murder. These photographs become an ontological disjunction—the figures exist on the surface of the negative, but have no referent in reality. These spectral criminals, signifying crime itself, become more important and more real than the individual who actually committed the act.
Through juxtaposition, Galton contrasts composite portraits of soldiers, the middle class ideal that one is supposed to aspire to, with that of criminals, those who are a detriment to society. These works were included within the context of a larger body of work, found in Inquires into Human Faculty and Its Development. It is important to consider this work as a book because the format produces a particular reading. Notably, it opens with a composite image of Alexander the Great, created from the images of various engraved coins. Galton mourns the “vanished physiognomy of a higher race." Later on, a composite portrait of men in the Royal Engineers is immediately followed by images of criminals and the diseased, contrasting the utopianism of the former with the dystopianism of the latter.
The criminal composites are so unspecific that they begin to signify the urban poor that many believed were the source of criminal activity. Sekula writes of this, “Thus Galton seems to have dissolved the boundary between the criminal and the working-class poor, the residuum that so haunted the political imagination of the late-Victorian bourgeoisie. Given Galton’s eugenic stance, this meant that he merely included the criminal in the general pool of the ‘unfit.’” At the heart of Galton’s work is the belief in photography’s truth value. He is able to push his ideologies, to contrast the image of the middle-class solider with that of the working-class criminal, because photographs are not supposed to lie. An ignorant viewer would believe that criminals look a particular way, a way that happens to be in accordance with the image of the urban poor. Galton’s composite photographs are only one instance in which photography is used to advance certain beliefs.
Penn’s Clinique ad seems strangely disconnected from reality. The image is striking in its clarity and beauty and offers the promise of these traits to potential buyers. Seeming to exist in an idyllic realm of white light, the bottles lose their concreteness. A sense of depth has been effaced, leaving the eye to focus only on the products and their shadows. There is a repetition of verticals in the piece, found in the bottles, soap, glass, and the reflection of light. The photograph’s verticality is punctuated by the diagonal toothbrush, drawing attention to it. Visually juxtaposing the two seemingly unrelated groups of objects, Penn connects the invigoration of brushing one’s teeth to the effect of Clinique’s products, a meaning that is anchored by the caption “Twice a day.” The pristine setting and overall whiteness of the image signify the youth that the product claims to provide. The small text near the bottle reads, “For skin that just gets better and better looking. Every day of your life.” Clinique almost declares to have found the fountain of youth. Perhaps these assertions can be true in the idealized world of Penn’s photography, but elsewhere they are erroneous.
Inhibiting the viewer’s access to the reality of aging, Penn then poses the image’s lustrous perfection as a transcription of the Real. Krauss conceives of photography as inherently simulacral, then applies her ideas to the advertisement and analyzes the way it poses a false copy as the Real. Multiplicity is a definitive aspect of photography – multiple images can be taken of the same scene and multiple prints can be made from the same negative. It therefore confuses the distinction between original and copy. Photography reroutes one’s connection to the Real – it becomes impossible to locate, or perhaps one could say that photographs become more real. Krauss writes of Penn’s advertisements, “They are posing as pictures of reality, marked by a straightforwardness that proclaims the supposed objectivity of the image. But they are, instead, the reality that is being projected by an advertising company, by a given product’s imperative to instill certain desires, certain notions of need, in the potential consumer.” In the dialogue between photographer/advertiser and viewer/consumer, there is a complex, power-laden relationship to consider. Advertisers overwhelmingly turn to photography for a clear reason: its ability to construct a false reality. Consumers believe that they can buy into this reality, but it is illusory and exists only within the image. Viewers must be cautious in their image consumption, as photography is always promotes specific ideologies.
Sarapochiello’s still life focuses on form over function, coldly aestheticizing Union Carbide’s products. The objects appear to float in air and seem to exist in a black vacuum devoid of physics. Diagonals are a predominant element, creating visual restlessness that keeps the viewer’s eye moving. It then becomes difficult to determine exactly what is depicted. The photographer includes an orange in the upper left-hand corner, which seems out of place; in context, it naturalizes the manmade products around it, or perhaps draws attention to man’s control over what is deemed to be “natural.” Destabilizing distinctions between appearance and use, Sarapochiello’s photograph encourages viewers to take in the visual splendor of the image and not worry about what is portrayed.
Annual reports are a crucial tool that corporations utilize to produce certain kinds of knowledge. These publications are a way to share information with a diverse array of people. Looking further into this medium, Squiers writes, “It’s clear that many different kinds of problems can be resolved, dissolved, dispersed, or transformed depending on how the pictures and design are handled. It’s one time when a corporation can tell its own version of reality with no pesty journalists or unfriendly outsiders interpreting the information.” Through careful visual and textual signals, designers can greatly affect the way people absorb information. Many of these annual reports, accordingly, employ photography. Anthony Russel, who has his own design firm, says of its strengths, “The photography is very important in an annual. It’s the most effective, real, believable way of telling a story. To a large degree the annual depends on the success of the photography.” It is this very believability that corporations capitalize on to manipulate the viewer’s understand of and access to the Real.
In addition to the omission of any pictures of the Bhopal disaster, Sarapochiello’s still life is a method for the Union Carbide Corporation to control their public perception. The photograph is presented in Union Carbide’s 1984 annual report, notably the year of a catastrophic gas leak at a plant in Bhopal, India. The treatment of the still life abstracts the products and distances them from their use; suspended in blackness, they are reduced to formal elements of visual wonder. These items are transformed into harmless, clean, jewellike forms and the viewer’s mind is taken away from the Bhopal disaster, if only momentarily.
The works of Bertillon, Galton, Penn, and Sarapochiello use three distinct, but related, types of manipulation: contextual, visual, and escapist. Each of these is utilized by a dominant power to control the knowledge the viewer receives. With both Bertillon and Galton, the context of the photographs allows for the image-makers to push their classist ideologies. They worked within the field of criminology and used a set of pseudo-scientific standards, thus one may presume that they have no bias. Similarly, Penn’s advertisement seems to be straightforward. The whiteness and clarity of the image, however, signify a reality detached from aging that Clinique hopes to capitalize on. The still life of Union Carbide’s products, shot by Sarapochiello, becomes a form of escapism for the viewer. By appreciating the visual qualities, one can distance themselves from the disaster in Bhopal. These institutions all have a specific reason for incorporating photographic imagery and are undoubtedly aware of its power. If the viewer is not cautious, they are led to simply believe what they are told.
Photography is propaganda. Of course, as Upton Sinclair has said, “All art is propaganda.” Photography, however, has the ability to fly under the radar and pose as the objective truth. Sekula, Krauss, and Squiers look at three distinct kinds of manipulation in the photography of Bertillon, Galton, Penn, and Sarapochiello. While these function in different ways, the authors all agree that photography cannot be conflated with truth. To do so would misrepresent the ideological complexities of the medium, as well as its close relationship to knowledge and power. Negligent viewers are likely to take photography at face value and succumb to the coercion of dominant institutions; to accept photography as unquestionably true is to be at the losing end of this power dynamic. Viewers must become conscious of the “truth” of photography, or specifically, that truth is tangential at best.
 Scott Walden, “Photography and Knowledge,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70 (2012): 144.
 Ibid., 144.
 Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” in the Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, ed. Richard Bolton (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992), 361.
 Ibid., 360-361.
 Ibid., 369.
 Ibid., 369.
 Ibid., 370.
 Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” in Overexposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography, ed. Carol Squiers (New York: The New Press, 1999), 176.
 Ibid., 180.
 Carol Squiers, “The Corporate Year in Pictures,” in the Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, ed. Richard Bolton (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992), 207-208.
 Ibid., 208.
 Ibid., 216.
 Upton Sinclair, Mammonart (Pasadena, CA: Upton Sinclair, 1925), 9.