What appear to be a sequence of old snapshots in faded colour have been framed and hung on the gallery wall. They look as if they had been dug from some forgotten trunk in a family home, yet they show only backgrounds—walls, garden lawns, a deserted tea-table, an empty pram. An artist, Stephen Murphy, produced these pictures by digitizing old snaps and replacing their figures with a plausible background sampled from the surrounding area. On close inspection, shapes slightly differing in tone trace the effaced subjects in outline; these photographs are both a glimpse of a future world depopulated by some catastrophe, and images of our passing and forgetting.

Murphy’s pictures are only one example of the recent integration of family photography into fine art. Such work comments not only on the power of digitization over photography but also on that topical matter, the crisis of the family. Many fine-art photographers now take pictures of domestic scenes, and even—most notoriously in the work of Sally Mann—of their own families. Various exhibitions have been dedicated to this trend, which received the ultimate official sanction at the Museum of Modern Art with Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort.footnote1 On the face of it, this seems a surprising development: fine-art photography had always been concerned to distinguish itself from the hordes of snappers who degrade the medium. Yet now it flirts with subsumption into the mass.

In this context, the reissue of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1965 book on the ‘middle-brow art’ appears singularly ill-timed, for it is hard to see how such a development could be accommodated within the sociologist’s rigid schemas.footnote2 For Bourdieu and his collaborators, photography is determined, not directly by its intrinsic qualities but by the fact that it has become a mass social practice. In making film in rolls rather than single sheets or plates, bringing developing and printing from amateur darkrooms to mass manufacture, producing cameras which automatically expose, focus, wind on, wind back, pretend even to compose, and beep or blink admonishingly at the user’s mistakes, first Kodak, and then the other giant corporations, altered photography forever. It became, above all, a family matter. The vast bulk of photographs, claims Bourdieu, are taken without much skill or conscious effort at times when families come together—and even amateur enthusiasts fare little better in his confident judgement: ‘In a sample of 500 amateur photographs, the pictures which showed any technical or aesthetic effort amounted to less than 10 per cent.’ (p. 194n) Taking photographs is a demonstration of a family’s integration and the resulting prints are used for the same purpose, shown or sent to acquaintances and relatives. Not much is expected from these modest pictures, only that the people in them should be recognizable. If aesthetes object to the endless succession of snapshots with stiff figures placed dead centre, they are in error, because they mistake what they are looking at for failed attempts at art. This mundane photography continues, of course, a little less formal perhaps than the stilted examples in Photography where self-conscious couples stand insignificantly before the bulk of some tourist monument, but nevertheless largely unchanged. Who has not found themselves with their arm thrown awkwardly over a relative’s unfamiliar shoulder to make a picture in which ‘subjects are shown pressed against one another’ and ‘people’s eyes converge towards the camera so that the whole picture points to its own absent centre’? (p. 81)

Bourdieu’s aim in this book is ambitious, being no less than to create an account of how social relations become subjectively internalized, and of how that subjectivity in turn acts on the external world. The objective and the subjective are inseparable on this view: ‘aspirations and demands are determined, in both form and content, by objective conditions which exclude the possibility of desiring the impossible.’ (p. 16) To study photography is to look at how various groups actually practice it, and at the relation of these groups to one another. Only in this way can we explain photography’s ‘instruments, its chosen objects, its rhythms, its occasions, its implicit aesthetic and even its subjects’ experience of it, the meanings that they secrete in it and the psychological satisfactions that they derive from it.’ (p. 19)

While, as an art, photography is governed by class-based attitudes which affect culture as a whole, it is more deeply marked by its status as a virtually universal social practice. So while the class battle between bourgeois, Kantian taste and lower, literal, ‘barbarous’ taste is familiar, the combination of views attached to photography is peculiarly illuminating. Bourdieu tells us that senior executives are very likely to grant photography the status of an art when asked about it abstractly, but very unlikely to actually indulge in such a vulgar pursuit. Photography’s equivocal status places those who seek to make it an art in a very fraught position, condemning them to an activity ‘uncertain of its legitimacy, preoccupied and insecure, perpetually in search of justification.’ (p. 129)

This work on photography is, of course, only a part of Bourdieu’s long empirical and theoretical study of culture. He was attracted to it not, he later wrote, because he thought culture was of overriding importance but because the field was virtually deserted, and the few who ventured into it ‘oscillated between a reductive economism and an idealism or spiritualism. . .’footnote3 Bourdieu’s rebellion against the ‘sacred rights of subjectivity’ is still salutary given the current abandonment of cultural studies to identity mongering. The scandal of his writing is the application of statistical and empirical analysis to culture; the turning inward of the anthropological gaze to our most treasured enclaves of non-instrumental activity. There is even now a shock in reading a passage cited in support of some sociological theorem, only to find, on turning to the notes, that it was penned by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The mass social use of photography is like the force of gravity, restraining those content to rest on the surface of its planet as much as those who pathetically try to jump free. Photographers and viewers can be divided into strictly demarcated groups, defined structurally against one another, and determined by the overweening forces of family, class and—to a lesser extent, for Bourdieu—gender. The resulting analysis is itself a snapshot of the current state of play in the struggle for actual and cultural capital: it grasps ‘a moment, a state of the game with two, three, four or six players, or whatever. It gives you a photograph of the piles of tokens of various colours that they have won in the previous rounds and which they will play in the rounds to come.’footnote4 And, of course, like other snapshots, it is taken for a specific purpose.