Photo capture: depiction, extraction, and the work of the camera

review by Daniel Freed

Capitalism and the Camera: Essays on Photography and Extraction, edited by Kevin Coleman and Daniel James. New York: Verso, 2021. Paperback: $20.26. E-book: $9.99.

Verso’s recent collection, Capitalism and the Camera, explores the fertile intersection between photographic reproduction and capitalism’s engine of accumulation and extraction. Indeed, much of the volume takes a step further and proposes that the frame of the camera and the frame of capitalist hegemony are often inextricably bound. The editors argue that this symbiotic linkage is intrinsic, and this framing embeds itself within a “cultural ecosystem of images.” Chapters investigate photographic milieus, the political-economic systems under which they operate, and the very conditions and labor that enable the camera’s possibility. Authors travel novel and occasionally thorny paths to express the interdependence between critical realms—political economy, aesthetic judgement, social history, and photographic technology.

The editors deserve praise for the depth and intellectual provocation of their selections. This collective prism helps to clarify a second argument: that understanding the camera’s utilitarian function may simultaneously open up space for a critique of capitalism. What role does photography play in capitalism’s saturation of social worlds? Can the camera trace capitalism’s affective qualities? Can such a ruthlessly objective technology simultaneously liberate and reveal? The editors also argue for the camera’s role in constructing publics. If the collection’s wide range of approaches does not always cohere, it nevertheless abounds with sharp and enlightening observations.

Constellations of authors are also suggested for those who work primarily with non-art or art images. This visual schema speaks to the “relative inattention to capitalism by scholars of visual culture, and the relative inattention to photography by theorists of capitalism.” Chapters are organized into three clusters to help distill the varied approaches: Accumulation, Critique, and State.

Editors’ Introduction: “Capitalism and the Camera”

The editors’ introduction highlights radically opposed dimensions of photography and capital to set the stage for the manifold tensions that follow. They begin with a revealing critique of a multinational corporate photo archive. The United Fruit Company’s exploitation of the Honduras Plantation serves as a “case study” for the editors’ intersection of capitalism and photography. UFC’s vast photo enterprise (10,400 UFC images catalogued in Harvard’s archives) reveals an unsavory amassing of corporate self-authorship in their forging of “banana republics.” UFC’s visual constructions range from scientific dissections of desirable banana traits to images tailored for shareholders and consumers alike.

The United Fruit Company tailored images for its respective audiences. This measured image chart portrays banana ripening as a scientifically controlled process to maximize shareholder profits. Here, the United Fruit Company image promotes banana consumption abroad, while concealing the exploitation of labor and resources in Honduras. This canned banana product explicitly features a “work-free” experience.
Allan Sekula’s pathbreaking Fish Story (1989-‘95) explores the plight of global shipping labor from the perspective of workers. Here, the mass and scale of this container ship is photographed from aboard the deck, where work is routinely performed. The fallout of such massive shipping circuits must be cleaned up by human toil. In Fish Story, Sekula poignantly captures this burdensome work, which is often concealed or sanitized by managerial perspectives.

As incisive counter-critique, Allan Sekula’s remarkable photo-essay interventions break apart capitalist hegemony by revealing its exploits from the inside out. Sekula’s books Fish Story (1995) and The Forgotten Space (2010) view the global shipping industry in major port cities through the lens of dispossessed workers left in the wake of capital flight. The editors’ admiration for Sekula’s oeuvre shines through, and I too am left inspired.

Siegfried Kracauer’s pessimistic prognosis for photography in 1927 recognized how the camera’s factory-like mode of reproduction could easily fall prey to “the hands of the ruling society.” Yet Kracauer also glimpsed how photography’s literal dissection might allow us to apprehend society as a construction, and thus reassemble it. The editors locate one such site in the “petrographs” of Warren Cariou. Cariou developed a petro-based artistic practice that exhibits both critical distance and intimacy through his chosen medium, bitumen, which he collects on an exchange basis in the tar sands of Saskatchewan. The resulting creations are emblematically toxic, at once coarsely textured and industrially chatoyent. In contrast to aerial photography’s distant panorama of environmental destruction, the editors propose Cariou’s petro-interventions as “indigenous and settler colonial visual poetry, intentionally repulsive yet mesmerizingly beautiful.” At stake in Cariou’s process is the potential for photography’s reconfiguration. From under the capitalist sediment, a non-hierarchical creativity emerges.

Cluster One: “Accumulation—Imperial Image Worlds”

“Toward the Abolition of Photography’s Imperial Rights” by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: This essay opens with an arresting challenge, grand in scope and conceit. By proposing that photography begins in 1492, Azoulay argues for a fundamental reframing of photography as an imperial technology of domination and conquest. To ground her central project of “unlearning imperialism,” Azoulay proceeds to examine how the scene of 1492’s violent capture will repeat itself—in images of Algeria from 1830, in images of Palestine from 1948, and in adjacent sites of expropriation and violence. In this light, photography serves as an accomplice to capitalist hegemony. And capitalism becomes inseparable from imperialism’s violent ordering of society—its laws and subjugation, its resource extraction, and its regulation of space and bodies. The absence of a recording device does not prevent the spread of imperial visions. A troubling property of photographic capture—a problem with which several of the authors here contend—is the camera’s propensity to conceal the very extractions that condition its existence.

This first engraving of Algiers, El-Djezaïr, “Le port d’Alger,” fortified town/city plan (c. 1690), displays the town from an external perspective. The depiction bustles with life and dignity via an upright orientation. This second image, Langlois’s panorama for an imperial installation (1832), reverses the perspective and reduces Algiers to a sterile, flattened dissection. Notable is the absence of any human habitation.

To come to terms with Azoulay’s massive project, it can be helpful to understand it on two levels. First, Azoulay aims for us to confront the imperialist world-system and durably change it. As arbiters of capitalist conquest, photographic images abide by an imperial logic of exploitation and extraction. Azoulay calls upon us to act as informed abolitionists, as opposed to selective reformers. Azoulay enlists historians, photographers, archivists, and intellectual laborers to actively revoke the imperial project writ large and go “on strike.” This solidarity presses us to conceive anew the very world-fabric we inhabit. Thus the second level of Azoulay’s project: a fundamental shift in thought is required to extricate ourselves from a pre-fabricated, imperial epistemology. To accede to imperialism’s denial, or to reinforce its construction, creates what Azoulay calls the “’imperial phenomenal field,’ through which imperial visions are made into reality.” This is not simply acting out the compulsions of a predatory system, but a fulfillment of imperialism’s ruthless logic. How can we understand Azoulay’s call to unlearn imperialism in visual terms?

The material transformation that photography effects as a documentary tool consigns its imaging to a mode of capture. Even with an intention to disclose capitalist destruction, photography still engages and reifies that destruction. Photography objectifies, accumulates, and proffers its raw material—images—to be further commodified in archives, museums and libraries. Azoulay condemns expert documentarian Burt Glinn’s 1956 photo in Palestine for his caption, “Palestinian Prisoners.” Moreover, Glinn’s preeminence amplified his imperial typecasting with wide and influential circulation. Though Palestinians were forced to flee their homes and brutalized, unquestioning adoption of terms like “prisoners” and “refugees” cedes definition to Israeli imperial categories.

Burt Glinn’s documentary photos of persecuted Palestinians reproduced imperial Israeli categories, such as “prisoners” and “refugees.” Glinn’s photos still circulate these captions in present-day collections. A selection of Magnum photographer publications suggests the far-reaching visual influence of this platform. Prominent members may easily spread an imperial agenda.

A logical backdrop to imperial decolonization is Azoulay’s call to unlearn history itself, and to recognize the discipline of history as deeply implicated in imperialism’s construction and maintenance. At times I wondered if Azoulay’s encompassing methodology might unwittingly reproduce an unauthorized definition of others’ respective labor.[1] [open endnotes in new page] Azoulay’s profound call urges us to envision a photography of reparation and worldliness—a mode of being with others in the world, with communities, with those who have been exploited and extracted.

“Mining the History of Photography” by Siobhan Angus: Tracing a route from silver mining in Cobalt, Ontario, to Eastman Kodak’s technological and laboratory consolidation in Rochester, New York, Angus proposes the roles of the metallurgist and the mine worker as metaphoric "alloys" of photographic reproduction. Angus does not reject the artistic or historical underpinnings of photography. Rather, she argues that by considering the materiality of the photograph through the lenses of mining and metallurgy, and by following silver’s course of extraction and profit, we gain a fuller understanding of photography as industry and labor. Via silver, Angus exhumes three “shadow histories” of photographic labor: the mine, the lab, and the darkroom.

These shadows underscore Eastman Kodak Company’s “dematerialization” of labor, as Kodak dominated the marketplace.[2] Profits from repeat sales of silver halide film were maximized at the hidden cost of extractive labor.

Like the metallurgist, this Kodak chemist works on behalf of consumers to separate silver compounds for film development. From The Home of Kodak, 1929. Rows of women toil in the development and printing department, Harrow’s Kodak Factory, London. This internal image conveys efficiency and control of photographic labor to Kodak shareholders.

Kodak’s advertising model reinforced this erasure, with its emphasis on photography’s ease and mass appeal. Consumers were also seduced by a transformation of “work to play,” rendering the labor of film processing remote and practically invisible. In contrast, it was precisely control of labor that was emphasized for internal corporate promotion. Angus identifies an exemplary material object as counter-critique in a 1907 picture postcard of striking IWW mine workers from Cobalt, Ontario. This postcard serves as a resonant centerpiece, as it foregrounds the very labor that becomes increasingly obscured in the shadows of mine, lab, and darkroom. The handcrafted postcard bears traces of its sender, of its manual handicraft, and of the silver that makes it legible. A tissue of historical, political and artisanal traces, the postcard circulates its silvered imprint of resistance and expands the community’s circle.

Art-historical acuity animates this materially innovative thesis. I was struck by the resistance mounted by earlier photo artists to the loss of their tactile darkroom labor.[3] The photo artists’ effort to control the conditions of their labor mirrors the resistance of the striking silver miners, upon whose exploits Kodak’s business model also depended. The concealment of labor here resonates with other chapters, as does an alternative exchange circuit of resources. Angus notes silver trading networks between the Cobalt mines, Ojibwa and Algonquin nations, and Eastern settlers. Concluding remarks on geology brought to mind John McPhee’s geological attention, and how elemental detail accrues to form literary strata[4]. Angus’s research complements and enriches the agenda set forth by the editors.

A picture postcard from Cobalt, Ontario, 1908, portrays the mining town’s financial imperatives: “A view of Cobalt’s Wall Street, where frenzied finance plays in mining stocks.” Its sender, “Jack,” writes upon the card’s surface, “This is where I didn’t go broke.” This picture postcard of the Silver Miner’s Strike, Cobalt, Ontario, 1907, offers a window through which to view the history of photography. The memento bears traces of elemental silver, of the labor that enables the image’s legibility, and of the community that circulates its message of resistance.

“Go Away Closer: Photography, Intermediality, Unevenness” by Kajri Jain: This discussion of intermediality and unevenness moves beyond the medium specificity ascribed to photography by modernism’s Eurocentric legacy. Jain argues for a vernacular image-world, one embedded in post-colonial social practice and experience. Such a multivalent image-world both responds to, and mediates capitalism’s manifest unevenness. As a suitable venue for such a definition, Jain centers upon the bazaar, and the mercantile ethos that pervades it.[5] A foundation of barter informs and extends this image-world beyond capitalism’s prescriptive borders. Jain elaborates the upon the bazaar’ lateral circulation of images with textured observation.

Jain explores the bazaar’s rich visual grammar with an astute analysis of contemporary Indian devotional icons, and the role photography plays in circulating their aura. The social intersections of iconographic media transfer their devotional imprints from the past onto popular consumer goods. Devotional icons are embedded into pillows, maps, calendars, and decorative gifts. Icons carry a signature of divinity that “has the potential to become the abode of that which it depicts.” An admixture of paint, photo and print media, these representations confer what one Indian artist calls sajivata, or “livingness.” That photographic interpolations like embedded icons lie outside modernist indexicality is Jain’s point. Likewise, the circulation of icons, and the objects and sites to which they are wedded, cannot be reduced to crude valuation. Gifting and other reciprocal exchange avoid the social taboo of instrumental, Western capitalist transactions. The bazaar’s distinctive visual ecosystem intersects with consumer culture at an oblique angle—hence Jain’s “unevenness.”

The pliability and wondrous re-configuration of these refractive images crystallize in Jain’s discussions with contemporary Indian book maker, photographer, and multimedia artist Dayanita Singh. Media and transactional conflations typify Singh’s works, which consciously modulate and re-interpret notions of object, installation, archive, and environment. Singh acknowledges the influence of 19th century bazaar artists. Their perseverance under an oppressive regime inspired Singh to democratize her contemporary practice, and encourage direct community participation. Singh’s “mobile museum” projects, Museum Bhavan (2017) and Museum of Chance (2013), lateralize and scramble the museum’s hierarchies. Other projects are self-distributed, fashioned and worn, or gifted in enlightening interventions that re-order sense and meaning as communal invitation.[6] Authorship is mediated through interpretative exchange, and Singh’s refreshing oeuvre exemplifies the bazaar’s underlying ethos with humility and hospitality.

Photos embed seamlessly into pillows and other consumer goods. The circulation of images, people and objects is informed by the interpersonal connections of the bazaar. Multimedia and book artist Dayanita Singh’s playful interventions reconfigure the bazaar ethos and its contemporary goods, such as her throw pillow with a “Dream Villa” (2007) imprinted upon it.
Singh honors the spaces and connections of her vernacular as she absorbs Western art market conventions. This domestic “museum” display features Singh’s unfolded book, Sent a Letter (2008), set against conventional titles. Singh personally sells her photo books from a cart, Venice Biennale, and adopts the role played by art publishers and conglomerates. The roles of artist and audience are reconfigured to emphasize hospitality and communion.