The Archaeology of Photography: Rereading Michel Foucault


pp.3-6 in:

Bate, David. ‘The Archaeology of Photography: Rereading Michel Foucault and The Archaeology of Knowledge’. Afterimage. vol.35 no.3 (Sept-Oct 2007)


For Foucault, the historian must excavate an archive to reveal not merely what is in it, but the very conditions that have made that archive possible, what he calls its historical a priori.

In the first instance, the idea of photography as a type of “archive” has been around since the early days of photography. Whether it was (or is) an institution that wants to categorize its objects through photographs […] or whether it is through individual photographers who construct a taxonomy of objects through their photographs […] the aim is always the same: to provide a corpus of images that represent – and can be consulted about – a specific object. This means that photographs are almost always to be found within the conception of practice as an “archive”.

The production, filing and storing of images in archives within categories as well as the occasional configuration (selection) from these archive materials into exhibitions thus demands an approach to how we use them and this is where Foucault’s concept of archaeology might be useful.

[applies above idea – not limited to curators, academics, museum researchers or picture editors – but applies to photographers, art or amateur]

[Foucault] argues first that archives are not necessarily coherent […] and, second, “interpreting” an archive is a project that already implicitly accepts the underlying terms of the system. The archive reveals “the rules of a practice”.


In Foucault’s “archaeology of knowledge,” objects, documents, images, and representations are so many parts of what make up a discourse – not the other way round as it is commonly conceived.

A discourse is not the base for other knowledge. Rather, it is itself the site of how knowledge comes to be constituted.

In other words, archives of photographs do not reflect historical reality; they are the material, always incomplete, which form the “already-said,” the basic construction of its description.

An archaeology of photography would be different from a history of photography.

An archaeology of photography would be less preoccupied with the individual rivalry between such figures [Talbot and Daguerre] or the specific personal wishes of specific individuals “to photograph” (a history through “psycho-biography,” which denies social levels of analysis) than with the issue of where and why it emerged as it did, what the photography was used for, and what regular objects appear accross the surfaces of all these photographs.



The archaeology of photography would not try to overcome or “resolve” these contradictions and conflicts between the different functions of photography in art or in media institutions like advertising, photojournalism, or photography used by the state. (Nor would it seek to collapse them together as some postmodernist discourses claimed.)

Instead, an archaeology would attempt to show what seperates the discursive practices, or indeed, what they might even unexpectedly have in common.

[…] in this manner one might begin to totally re-construct thinking about photography (even as plural “photographies”), as a domain that is not totally homogeneous, but neither is it acompletely separate or disparate set of practices with no relation to one another.

Photography might be constructed and conceived as a network of discursive practices, interlinked with contradictions, inconsistencies, and overlapping unities such that to map the points at which these multiple contradictions are constituted become itself the objective of research work.


The photographic image is now completely central to all these technological devices [cinema, internet, video], even if the material substrates have changed. Even the Internet uses relationsbetween images and texts in ways that repeat older practices(“illuminated manuscripts”), but in new forms (the “photoblog”or where the still imageserves even as a button to trigger MPEG-animated movement).

Foucault shows a way – doing history – an archaeology of knowledge – as a practice that recognises complexity and even contradiction without reducing it to some hidden and spurious unity.

With the mass accumulation of images that are now appearing, perhaps even the contemporary photographer must become more of an archaeologist.


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