The snapper as nerd


November 15, 1996

If in its ordinary form, photographic activity is both an index and a means of social integration, the members of a camera club are, from the start, deviants in terms of this primary function." In neatly providing us with a sociological definition of the nerd, two of Pierre Bourdieu's colleagues also reveal the central thesis of this path-breaking work. It is therefore slightly unfair that the cover of this book should give the impression that is uniquely attributable to Bourdieu. His collaborators contribute studies of both amateur and professional photographers, while he puts in the - occasionally obscure - theoretical story-line. It is sad that our culture tends to lionise individual "genius" so that the book has come to be widely seen as just another tome in the "Bourdieu" canon.

The book is a translation of a work first published in France in 1965, and based on research carried out as early as 1961. Its belatedness reflects market conditions - the cultural turn of sociology, widespread fascination with media and cultural studies, and a consequent need for academic texts to feed an expanding demand. But it is worth asking whether this book fits that demand, and the answer is far from an unequivocal "yes". For one thing the version we see here is not a complete (nor always accurate) translation.

What remains of the original is certainly excellent in parts. Bourdieu et al's premise that photography should be examined as a Durkheimian social fact, in other words understood as a part of the solemnisation and celebration of collective life, was and remains a novel argument. As they say, "there is no wedding without photographs". Because the Bourdieu school concentrated on the social uses of photography, they were also able to show how different groups have widely differentiated, but equally structured and systematised modes of access to the medium. Nonetheless they all share certain - socially mediated - ideas about what is photographable, and when. This leads to the intriguing idea, encapsulated in the quote at the beginning of this review, that those who are interested in photography beyond what is conventionally sanctioned as photographable - family, festive occasions, children, holidays - are in some sense deviants, people whose social integration is less than "normal".

Much of the theoretical argument of the book proceeds, however, from assumptions that now seem quite dated. Central among these is the idea that photography is no more than a vulgar medium of representation, and certainly not an "art" with a place alongside socially sanctioned forms such as painting, music or the theatre. When Bourdieu remarks that photography "so rarely fulfils a properly aesthetic intention", one is inclined to laugh. Anyone familiar with the widespread use of the medium in modern art will find such an argument quaint, to say the least.

In reading this dated but intriguing work we must remember that the Bourdieu group's research was done long before the incorporation of photography within the cultural organisations of the state, which began in France only during the late 1970s. Its present cultural status would have seemed an impossible dream in 1965, a historical low point in its standing as a cultural activity. This may explain why the authors seem curiously ignorant both of its history, and of earlier literatures that foregrounded questions about the medium's cultural position. They often appear to be arguing for its serious consideration against a straw man whose sheaves have long since rotted away.

The Durkheimian drift of this book is a pleasant antidote to the reams of Foucauldiana which now assail the shelves of anyone interested in theoretical questions about culture. Yet its publication simply underlines the fact that there is a dearth of good material on the sociology of photography.

Peter Hamilton is lecturer in sociology, Open University.

Photography: A Middle-Brow Art

Author - Pierre Bourdieu
ISBN - 0 7456 1715 8
Publisher - Polity
Price - £11.95
Pages - 218

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