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Week 1: Introduction to Visual Sociology by Howard Becker

Photographyandsociologyhaveapproximatelythesamebirthdate,ifyou
countsociology'sbirthasthepublicationofComte'sworkwhichgaveitits
name,andphotography'sbirthasthedatein1839whenDaguerremadepublic
hismethodforfixinganimageonametalplate2.Fromthebeginning,both
workedonavarietyofprojects.Amongthese,forboth,wastheexplorationof
society.
Whilesociologyhashadotherends,moralandmetaphysical,sociologistshave
alwayswantedtounderstandhowsocietyworked,tomapitsdimensionsand
thenlookintothebigsectorsandlittlecranniessomapped.Theyordinarily
wantedtofindthingsoutrigorouslyandscientifically,andtodevelopgeneral
theories.Butsomesociologistshavemadeittheirmainbusinesstodescribe
whathasnotyetbeendescribed,inthestyleoftheethnographer,totellthebig
news,inthestyleofthejournalist,combiningthese(moreorless)withthe
desireforrigorandgeneraltheory.
Sociologists'choiceoftheories,methods,andtopicsofresearchusuallyreflect
theinterestsandconstraintsoftheintellectualandoccupationalcommunitiesto
whichtheyarealliedandattached.Theyoftenchooseresearchmethods,for
instance,thatappeartohavepaidoffforthenaturalsciences.Theyfrequently
chooseresearchtopicswhicharepublicconcernsofthemoment,especiallyas
thosearereflectedintheallocationofresearchfunds:poverty,drugs,
immigration,campusorghettodisorder,andsoon.Thesefaddishtendencies
arebalancedbyacontinuingattentionto,andrespectfor,traditionaltopicsand
stylesofwork.
Theeffortsandprojectsofphotographershavebeenmuchmorevarious.In
ordertounderstandhowphotographersgoaboutexploringsocietywhenthey
undertakethatjob,itwillbeusefultorememberthemelangeofotherjobs
photographydoes.Thinkofacameraasamachinethatrecordsand
communicatesmuchasatypewriterdoes.Peopleusetypewriterstodoa
milliondifferentjobs:towriteadcopydesignedtosellgoods,towrite
newspaperstories,shortstories,instructionbooklets,lyricpoems,biographies
andautobiographies,history,scientificpapers,letters....Theneutral
typewriterwilldoanyofthesethingsaswellastheskillofitsuserpermits.
Becauseofthepersistentmyththatthecamerasimplyrecordswhateverisin
frontofit(aboutwhichIwillsaymorebelow),peopleoftenfailtorealizethat

thecameraisequallyatthedisposalofaskilledpractitionerandcandoanyof
theabovethings,initsownway.Photographershavedoneallofthethings
suggestedabove,ofteninexplicitanaloguewiththeverbalmodel.Different
kindsofphotographersworkindifferentinstitutionalsettingsandoccupational
communities,whichaffecttheirproductastheinstitutionalsettingsinwhich
sociologistsworkaffecttheirs(Rosenblum1973).
Photographershaveworkedtoproduceadvertisingillustrations.Theyhave
madeportraitsoftherichandfamous,andofordinarypeopleaswell.They
haveproducedpicturesfornewspapersandmagazines.Theyhaveproduced
worksofartforgalleries,collectorsandmuseums.Theconstraintsofthe
settingsinwhichtheydidtheirwork(Becker1974)affectedhowtheywent
aboutit,theirhabitsofseeing,thepicturestheymadeand,whentheylookedat
society,whattheysaw,whattheymadeofitandthewaytheypresentedtheir
results.
Fromitsbeginnings,photographyhasbeenusedasatoolfortheexplorationof
society,andphotographershavetakenthatasoneoftheirtasks.Atfirst,some
photographersusedthecameratorecordfaroffsocietiesthattheir
contemporarieswouldotherwiseneverseeand,later,aspectsoftheirown
societytheircontemporarieshadnowishtosee.Sometimestheyeven
conceivedofwhattheyweredoingassociology,especiallyaroundtheturnof
thecenturywhensociologistsandphotographersagreedonthenecessityof
exposingtheevilsofsocietythroughwordsandpictures.LewisHine,for
instance,wassupportedbytheRussellSageFoundationinconnectionwiththe
earlysurveysofurbanlife(Gutman1967).TheAmericanJournalof
Sociologyroutinelyranphotographsinconnectionwithitsmuckraking
reformistarticlesforatleastthefirstfifteenyearsofitsexistence(Oberschall
1972:215).
Anotherkindofsocialexplorationgrewoutoftheuseofphotographstoreport
thenewsandtorecordimportantsocialevents.MathewBrady(Horan1955)
andhisstaff,whichincludedTimothyH.O'Sullivan(Horan1966)and
AlexanderGardner(1959),photographedtheCivilWar,andRogerFentonthe
CrimeanWar.Butitwasnotuntilthe1920'sthatthedevelopmentofthe
illustratedweeklyinEuropeproducedagroupofphotographerswhomade
thephotoreportageorphotoessayintoaninstrumentofsocialanalysis(Alfred
EisenstaedtandErichSalomonareamongthebestknowngraduatesofthese
journals)(Gidal1973).Later,thePicturePostinEnglandandTime,

Life,andFortuneintheUnitedStatesprovidedoutletsforserious
photojournalistswhoworkedwiththephotoessayform:MargaretBourke
White,WalkerEvans,W.EugeneSmith,RobertCapa.
Theimpulsetophotographicsocialexplorationfoundanotherexpressioninthe
workproducedbythephotographersRoyStrykerassembledforthe
photographicunitoftheFarmSecurityAdministrationduringthe1930's
(Hurley1972,1973;StrykerandWood1973).DorotheaLange,WalkerEvans,
RussellLee,ArthurRothstein,andothersmadeittheirbusinesstorecordthe
povertyandhardtimesofDepressionAmerica,theirworkverymuchinformed
bysocialsciencetheoriesofvariouskinds.
Morerecently,politicalinvolvementhashadahandinshapingtheuseof
photographytoexploresociety.
Photographersparticipatedactivelyinthecivilrightsmovementofthe1960's
andbroughtbackphotographswhicheffectivelystirredpeoplejustasHine's
photographsofchildlaborershad.Theythenusedthoseskillsinsomewhatless
immediatelypoliticalkindsofessaysexploringcommunities,occupations,
subcultures,institutionsthathaveasociologicalintent.Theseessayscombinea
journalisticandethnographicstylewithaselfconsciousanddeliberateartistic
purpose.
Photographyfromthebeginningstrovetowardartjustasitdidtowardsocial
exploration.Tobesure,earlierphotographersinthistraditionunderstoodthat
whattheydidhadanartisticcomponent.Theyworkedhardtoproduceimages
thatmeasuredupasart.Buttheartisticelementofphotographywasheldata
substantialdistancefromphotographycarriedonformoremundanepurposes,
includingjournalism.SuchinfluentialphotographersasEdwardWeston
conceivedoftheirworkassomethingmorelikepaintingtheyproducedfor
galleries,museums,andprivatecollectorsasmuchastheycouldanddidvery
littlethatcouldbeinterpretedinanydirectwayasanexplorationofsociety.
Artandsocialexplorationdescribetwowaysofworking,nottwokindsof
photographers.Manyphotographersdobothkindsofworkinthecourseof
theircareers.Andeventhisisanoversimplificationsincemanyphotographs
madebysomeonewhoseworkispredominantlyofonekindhavestrong
overtonesoftheother.PaulStrandisclearlyanartphotographer;buthis
picturesofpeasantsaroundtheworldembodypoliticalideas,andanynumber

ofsociallyconcernedphotographersdoworkthatispersonallyexpressiveand
aestheticallyinterestingquiteapartfromitssubjectmatteras,forinstance,in
DannyLyon'sTheDestructionof
Photographyandsociology5
Photographyhasthus,likesociology,displayedashiftingvarietyof
characteristicemphases,dependingonthecurrentsofinterestintheworldsof
art,commerceandjournalismtowhichithasbeenattached.Onecontinuing
emphasishasbeentheexplorationofsocietyinwaysmoreorlessconnected
withsomewhatsimilarexplorationsundertakenbyacademicsociologists.As
sociologybecamemorescientificandlessopenlypolitical,photography
becamemorepersonal,moreartistic,andcontinuedtobeengagedpolitically.
Notsurprisingly,then,thetwomodesofsocialexplorationhaveceasedtohave
verymuchtodowithoneanother.
Sociologiststodayknowlittleoftheworkofsocialdocumentaryphotographers
anditsrelevancetowhattheydo.Theyseldomusephotographsasawayof
gathering,recording,orpresentingdataandconclusions.Iwanttoacquaint
themwiththistraditionandshowthemhowtheycanmakeuseofthestylesof
workandtechniquescommoninphotography.Manysocialscientistshave
alreadybeenactivephotographically,andwhatIsaywillnotbenewstothem
(Barndt1974).3
Manyphotographershaveundertakenprojectswhichproduceresultsthat
parallelthoseofsociology,andmakeclaimsthatinsomewaysparallelthe
claimstotruthandrepresentativenessofsociology.Insofarastheirworkhas
thischaracter,Iintendtoshowthemhowaknowledgeofsomeoftheideasand
techniquesofacademicsociologycanbeofhelptothem.
Idonotwanttomakephotographersofsocialscientistsorimposeasocial
scienceimperialismonphotographers(notthatthereisanychancesuch
attemptswouldbesuccessful).Manysociologistswillfindtheworkand
methodsIdescribehopelesslyunscientific,althoughIhopethatthisdiscussion
willcausethemtoreconsidertheirownmethods.Manyphotographerswillfind
mysuggestionsacademicallyarrogant;satisfiedwiththewaytheynowwork,
theywillseenoadvantageinalienideasandprocedures.
WhatIsayismostdirectlyaddressedtothosesocialscientistsand

photographerswhoaresufficientlydissatisfiedwithwhattheyaredoingto
wanttotrysomethingnew,whofinddifficultiesintheirpresentproceduresand
areinterestedinseeingwhetherpeopleinotherfieldsknowsomethingthat
mighthelp.Ideally,itisdirectedtothegrowingnumberofpeople,whatever
theirprofessionalbackground,whoareconcernedwithproducingphotographic
explorationsofsociety.
Inaddition,Ihavetriedtoshowhoweventhosesociologistswhohaveno
interestinphotographicworkcanlearnsomethingfromthelightshedon
conventionalresearchmethodsbyacomparisonwithphotographicmethods.
Somegenericproblemsofsocialexplorationprofitfromthelightthe
comparisongenerates.
Iwillnotbeconcernedwitheveryaspectoftheuseofvisualmaterialsinsocial
scienceinthispaper.Specifically,Iwillnotconsiderthreemajorareasofwork
towhichsocialscientistshavedevotedthemselves:(1)theuseoffilmto
preservenonverbaldataforlateranalysis,asintheanalysesofgestureand
bodymovementbysuchscholarsasBirdwhistell,Ekman,Hall,andLennard;
(2)theanalysisofthevisualproductionsof"nativeseers"fortheirculturaland
socialmeanings,asintheWorthAdair(1972)studyofNavahofilmmakers;(3)
theuseofphotographsashistoricaldocuments,whethertheyhavebeentaken
byartlessamateursandpreservedinfamilyalbums,asinRichardChalfen's
work,orbyprofessionalphotographers,asinLesy'sWisconsinDeath
Trip(1973).Allthreeareinterestingandimportantareasofwork,butdiffer
fromtheuseofphotographstostudyorganizations,institutions,and
communitiesthatIhaveinmind.Thereisconsiderableoverlap,ofcourse,andI
donotinsistonthedistinction.
Anyonewhogetsintoanewfieldmustpaysomedues.Photographerswho
wanttopursuethematterfurtherwillhavetoreadsomesocialscienceprose,
andmanywillprobablyfindthattoosteepaprice;somewillfindaviable
solutioninaworkingpartnershipwithasocialscientist(asinthefruitful
collaborationofEuanDuffandDennisMarsdeninanasyetunpublishedstudy
ofunemployedmenandtheirfamiliesinBritain).
Thepricetosocialscientistsislesspainful.Theymustacquaintthemselves
withtheextensivephotographicliterature;Ihavereproducedsomeexamples
hereandwillprovideabriefguidetomore.Inaddition,theywillhavetolearn

tolookatphotographsmoreattentivelythantheyordinarilydo.Laymenlearn
toreadphotographsthewaytheydoheadlines,skippingoverthemquicklyto
getthegistofwhatisbeingsaid.Photographers,ontheotherhand,studythem
withthecareandattentiontodetailonemightgivetoadifficultscientificpaper
oracomplicatedpoem.Everypartofthephotographicimagecarriessome
informationthatcontributestoitstotalstatement;theviewer'sresponsibilityis
tosee,inthemostliteralway,everythingthatisthereandrespondtoit.Toput
itanotherway,thestatementtheimagemakesnotjustwhatitshowsyou,but
themood,moralevaluationandcausalconnectionsitsuggestsisbuiltupfrom
thosedetails.Aproper"reading"ofaphotographseesandrespondstothem
consciously.
Photographerslearntointerpretphotographsinthattechnicalwaybecausethey
wanttounderstandandusethat"language"themselves(justasmusicianslearn
amoretechnicalmusicallanguagethanthelaymanneeds).Socialscientists
whowanttoworkwithvisualmaterialswillhavetolearntoapproachthemin
thismorestudiousandtimeconsumingway.Thefollowingexercise,taughtto
mebyPhilipPerkis,isawayofseeingwhatisinvolved:
Takesomegenuinelygoodpicture;theonesreproducedinthisarticlewilldo.
Usingawatchwithasecondhand,lookatthephotographintentlyfortwo
minutes.Don'tstareandthusstoplooking;lookactively.Itwillbehardtodo,
andyou'llfinditusefultotakeupthetimebynamingeverythinginthepicture
toyourself:thisisaman,thisishisarm,thisisthefingeronhishand,thisis
theshadowhishandmakes,thisistheclothofhissleeve,andsoon.Onceyou
havedonethisfortwominutes,buildituptofive,followingthenamingof
thingswithaperiodoffantasy,tellingyourselfastoryaboutthepeopleand
thingsinthepicture.Thestoryneedn'tbetrue;it'sjustadevicefor
externalizingandmakingcleartoyourselftheemotionandmoodthepicture
hasevoked,bothpartofitsstatement
Whenyouhavedonethisexercisemanytimes,amorecarefulwayoflooking
willbecomehabitual.Twothingsresult.Youwillrealizethatordinarilyyou
havenotconsciouslyseenmostofwhatisinanimageeventhoughyouhave
beenrespondingtoitYouwillalsofindthatyoucannowrememberthe
photographsyouhavestudiedmuchasyoucanrememberabookyouhave
takencarefulnoteson.Theybecomepartofamentalcollectionavailablefor

furtherwork.(Whenyoudothisexerciseanumberoftimesyouwillacquire
newhabitsofseeingandwon'thavetospendasmuchtimelookingatanew
print).
Ihopethisdoesnotsoundmystical.Blackandwhitestillphotographsuse
visualconventionsthateveryonebroughtupinaworldofillustrated
newspapersandmagazineslearnsjustastheylearntotalk.Wearenot
ordinarilyawareofthegrammarandsyntaxoftheseconventions,thoughwe
usethem,justaswemaynotknowthegrammarandsyntaxofourverbal
languagethoughwespeakandunderstandit.Wecanlearnthatlanguage
throughstudyandanalysis,justaswecanlearntounderstandmusicandpoetry
bymakingtechnicalanalysesofharmonyandcounterpointorofprosody.We
don'thavealargeamountofsuchphotographicanalysisavailable,especiallyas
itrelatestotheconcernsofsocialscientists.Butitisabsolutelyprerequisiteto
anyanalysisanddiscussionthatyoupracticelookingatphotographslongand
hard,sothatyouhavesomethingtoanalyze.