John Tagg
[Writer, theorist, and photohistorian, North Shields, England, lives in Ithica, New York.]

 [“Documentary” photography’s] unlikely and paradoxical mixture of social and psychological “truths,” exotic voyeurism, fetishised artistic subjectivity, and formalist claims to universality, which may once have appeared mutually enhancing, was contradictory and inherently unstable. 
 The transparency of the photograph is its most powerful rhetorical device. 
 Like the state, the camera is never neutral. The representations it produces are highly coded, and the power it wields is never its own. As a means of record, it arrives on the scene vested with a particular authority to arrest, picture, and transform daily life... This is not the power of the camera but the power of the apparatuses of the local state which deploy it and guarantee the authority of the images it constructs to stand as evidence or register a truth. 
 The history of photography stands in relation to the history of Art as a history of writing would to the history of Literature. 
 There is something morbid about looking at pictures, something frigid, and something furtive. We shuffle from one image to the next like buyers of old books. Once I imagined a collective looking, arguing out aloud. But the exhibiting institutions allow no space for such a practice. Now, like the other johns, I move from one picture to another, alone. 
 I look at an image and it is flooded with a half-forgotten dream, bulking out its figures with the forms of desire, opening up its vistas to a physically sensed space and presence. 
 The camera is never merely an instrument. Its technical limitations and the resultant distortions register as meaning; its representations are highly coded; and it wields a power that is never its own. It arrives on the scene vested with a particular authority; authority to arrest, picture and transform daily life. 
 A repetitive pattern, the body isolated; the narrow space; the subjection to an unreturnable gaze; the scrutiny of gestures, face and features; the clarity of illumination and sharpness of focus; the names and number boards. These are the traces of power, repeated countless times, whenever the photographer prepared an exposure, in police cell, prison, consultation room, home or school. 
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