Social definition of photography: Pierre Bourdieu

This work was originally published in 1965 and features in Visual Culture: a reader . It addresses the question of photographic genres in the context of popular culture and how photography is defined socially. While the language and the division of critical perspectives along class lines now seems archaic, the discussion remains relevant. Potentially it has heightened relevance in a contemporary context, in which images are shared prolifically online.

I note aspects of interest to me at this time:

  • ‘… that which is visible is only ever that which is legible’ . If we cannot read or understand a photograph it remains invisible. The ability to read or understand is partly dependent on education and experience, and the implications of limitations are explored by Bourdieu.
  • Building on the idea, Bourdieu argues that while popular reading of photographs might embrace the idea that they agree to reality, it is not the case. However, to be read successfully, they need to conform ‘with rules which define its syntax within its social use’ , otherwise they are not understood and dismissed. Anyone who has taken a photo of something mundane is likely to have experienced this. He explains that popular photographic aesthetic is based on prohibiting certain possibilities (eg photographing into the light, or blur) and anything that fails to acknowledge these rules may be read as a failure. Therefore, if non-conforming work is to have any chance of being read broadly, it needs to be explained and appropriately situated. Perhaps in a genre that connects it with art rather than the vernacular.
  • Bourdieu discusses the idea of ‘natural poses and postures’ and observes that these are based on cultural ideals of what is natural, rather than actualities. And that the cultural ideas often reflect norms stemming from social relationships. For example, ‘the convergence of looks and the arrangement of individuals objectively testifies to the cohesion of the group’
  • Popular judgement of photos is then against norms, ‘whose principle is always ethical’ . Bourdieu explains that genres help to situate photographs amongst the norms and ‘the ordinary use of photography almost completely excludes any concern for the universality of the picture … [and is concerned] with what it is for one person or for a group of people.’ . As artistic photographs might escape conventional genres/categorisation, unless they can be placed as ‘a competition photograph’ – it then has a social function.
  • Bourdieu discusses a technology aesthetic, which seems prevalent in contemporary vernacular photographs and camera clubs. He sums up, ‘the judgement of taste is the appraisal of a disparity between the realisation … and a real idea or model.
  • In concluding the essay, Bourdieu discusses the legitimacy of various creative activities in the sphere of art, placing photography in a category that is fighting for that. He suggests that ‘it is no accident that passionate photographers are always obliged to develop the aesthetic theory of their practice, to justify their existence as photographers by justifying the existence of photography as a true art’

While the work was written over half a century ago and photography is widely accepted into the art establishment, my feeling that this acceptance is not universal or understood – photography is increasingly open to everyone at the level of pressing a button on a camera or phone to make some kind of image. Whereas it is self-evident that playing a musical instrument, for example, is more of a rarified activity.

What is slightly concerning that this need to justify and theorise can perhaps take over the activity of making images. Where does the analysis stop and the image making begin – do we choose to be photography theorists or photographers? Perhaps there needs to be just enough theory to justify the work we make as art.


Bourdieu, P. (1999) ‘The social definition of photography: Pierre Bourdieu’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (ed.) Visual culture: the reader.London ; Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University. pp.162–180.