From the beginning, both sociology and photography worked on a variety of projects. Among these, for both, was the exploration of society. Photography and sociology have approximately the same birth date, if you count sociology’s birth as the publication of Comte’s work which gave it its name, and photography’s birth as the date in 1839 when Daguerre made as i looked at that photograph essay his method for fixing an image on a metal plate. From the beginning, both worked on a variety of projects.
While sociology has had other ends, moral and metaphysical, sociologists have always wanted to understand how society worked, to map its dimensions and then look into the big sectors and little crannies so mapped. They ordinarily wanted to find things out rigorously and scientifically, and to develop general theories. Sociologists’ choice of theories, methods, and topics of research usually reflect the interests and constraints of the intellectual and occupational communities to which they are allied and attached. They often choose research methods, for instance, that appear to have paid off for the natural sciences. They frequently choose research topics which are public concerns of the moment, especially as those are reflected in the allocation of research funds: poverty, drugs, immigration, campus or ghetto disorder, and so on. These faddish tendencies are balanced by a continuing attention to, and respect for, traditional topics and styles of work. The efforts and projects of photographers have been much more various.
In order to understand how photographers go about exploring society when they undertake that job, it will be useful to remember the mélange of other jobs photography does. Think of a camera as a machine that records and communicates much as a typewriter does. Work on this paper has been supported by the Russell Sage Foundation. A book-length version of the material is in preparation.