The Corporate Eye

I just finished a review of Elspeth Brown’s The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884-1929 for an upcoming issue of IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology. Although I will not post that review here, I did want to share some observations about the book that didn’t make it into the review because of the journal’s specific audience.

Brown has crafted a clever volume that examines how turn-of-the-century business and industry used the new technology of photography to make production (and consumption) more efficient. Against the backdrop of the dramatically expanding and changing industrial and corporate world of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Brown seeks to understand the very different roles that photography has played in the quest for efficiency, standardization and rationalization.

Although the book is based on her dissertation, it is very cleaver in its organization–it is actually four case studies that focus on photography’s role at different stages of the late-nineteenth century industrial process. These case studies explore photography’s role in labor selection (Chapter 1), standardization and time-motion studies (Chapter 2), corporate appeals to labor (Chapter 3) and commercial illustration (Chapter 4), respectively.

In each of these chapters, Brown provides us with an enormous amount of detail and historical context (verging on a historiographic version of “thick description”), but is also her theoretical leanings that caught my attention…This was best noted in Dennis Dunleavy’s blog The Big Picture?

Brown, using Roland Barthes’ model, contends, “Photographic signification is a historical process, dependent upon the specific choices of cultural producers and the historically specific sign vocabulary of particular readers.” In others, Brown is saying, we make sense of pictures based on what we already know to be “real” for us. Making sense of pictures is historically contingent — Signification is a process fixed in memory and time. Signification, the act of making sense of something, depends on a viewer’s capacity for decoding the literal and figurative meanings in an image.

What I like is really rather simple…Brown does not go to the extreme of saying that these images are “empty signifiers” whose meanings are completely open for hundreds of equally valid readings, nor does she take cameras as “truth machines” as did the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century observers. Rather, she makes a more nuanced argument for paying attention to historical contexts…the interpretation of photographs, like any material culture, is historically situated.

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Categories: history

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