Power in Photography

Stranded at home by a minor infection and pervading tiredness, once again I haven’t made it to the Frieze Art shows, and I’m left with reading up for the next course seminar – still on Victorian portrait photography. John Tagg’s relentless emphasis on the development of photography as an instrument of social control and a reflection of changes in class relations is frankly rather tiresome and while it’s sound enough in its arguments, he’s clearly more interested in the impersonal sweep of social change than in the lived experience of people. Carol Mavor, on the other hand, is so personal and involved in her subject matter that one wonders about her academic objectivity, as when she comments on another historian’s exposition of female masturbation: “This makes me blush.” (it made me blush too) – but then she segues into erudite discussion of Lacan and Merleau-Ponty, removing any doubt on her credentials. It’s a fascinating description of a particular manifestation of sexuality; I’m less sure how it fits into photographic histories. The pictures of Hannah Cullwick and the description of her strange relationship with Arthur Munby are fascinating and disturbing:

Hannah Cullwick

Hannah Cullwick

Carol Mavor’s book summarises their relationship from Hannah’s point of view, and there is a good summary of her life here.

hannah magdaleneHere she is uncomfortably posing as Mary Magdalene, with a chain around her neck to which only Arthur had the key – a striking contrast between her muscular frame and the submissively feminine posture – and below cleaning the kitchen grate.

Hannah cleaning the grateIn her diaries Hannah writes about her cleaning work, positively revelling in getting filthy with soot etc.,  especially when Munby (her “Massa”) is aroused by her appearance.  For me Mavor’s account, and the various issues it raises around gender and class relations  are more thought-provoking by far than Tagg’s meticulously loaded arguments.   In the end, they are both writing about the ways in which photography can be used to articulate power relations, one by focusing on a specific, rather extreme example, the other by analysis of impersonal social forces (Althussser’s ‘ideological state apparatus’).  The extent to which these two writers personify a ‘male’ and ‘female’ approach is interesting; would I respond to them in the same way if told that the authors’ names were actually Joanna Tagg and Charles Mavor?

John Tagg The Burden of Representation – if you are studying photographic history, this may well be required reading – if not, count yourself lucky.

Carol Mavor Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs – a good read,with multi-layered analysis of photographic practices, and a remarkable amount of personal involvement in the stories she tells.

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