One picture does not tell a sociological story or make a sociological point, let alone build sociological theory visually. No more than one word or one paragraph would, one statistical table or one paragraph from my field notes. A photograph is evidence, data, and requires context to make its point, whether that context consists of other photographs, as in Walker Evans’ photographic investigation American Photographs (1938); photographs and a substantial text, such as the Bateson/Mead collaboration Balinese Character (1942); or Douglas Harper’s Working Knowledge (1987).
Audiences typically read single photographs by providing the context themselves. Most often, that “knowledge” consists of conventional clichés, the ones photojournalists exploit when they produce “famine” photographs of children with distended stomachs or pictures of the bereaved embracing at a funeral. If their interpretation is more solidly based in their own experience, however, one picture can remind them of what they already know and lead them to make some inferences and produce a sociologically based analysis of what they see.
I’ve taken advantage of that possibillity in choosing this photograph, “ASA Convention.” I made the picture during my most enthusiastic period as a photographer, when I used to carry a camera everywhere and make exposures of things that seemed “interesting” to me. I don’t remember exactly which ASA convention this was, but I was photographing a lot, trying to record images that conveyed something of those hectic summer days, when a few thousand sociologists assembled to socialize, do business, and tell each other what they had been doing and finding out.
One afternoon, I walked into a cocktail lounge in the convention hotel and saw, standing at the bar with his back to me, an old friend who truly enjoyed the social life of the annual meeting. Howard Freeman, who died sometime afterwards, was a gregarious guy for whom the convention seemed to be a high point, where he met the hundreds of people he knew in the business, shmoozed and politicked, and had a really good time. I took advantage of his legendary good nature to make this picture of him. (Sol Levine (1993) described him well in the memorial remarks he delivered at UCLA.) I took my time finding a good place to stand, one where the overhead light would catch him, I hoped, in a characteristic pose, and adjusted the camera’s aperture and shutter speed. Then I shouted, “Freeman, you shmuck!”, figuring that he would turn around, walk right into that cone of light, and stick out his hand to greet whoever might have addresssed him in such good fellowship. I thought this image, combined with many others I made that week, would tell an interesting story about, perhaps contribute to an interesting analysis of, the nature of academic meetings.
I did make many other pictures and so did a number of other photographer-sociologists, who joined me in an informally organized effort to provide a visual record and analysis of a sociology convention. When we offered, as a collective, to display our results at the next year’s meeting, the people then in charge of the ASA declined to host the exhibition. Fortunately, as I remember, the Society for the Study of Social Problems, bless them, had no such qualms, and provided a place in their convention hotel where our pictures, this one among them, hung for several days. The many other photographs, made by many other people from many other vantage points, provided the context so lacking here. You’ll just have to imagine it from your own experience of such events.
Although this single image does not itself communicate anything sociological or do much to build sociological theory visually, we can use it as a single item of evidence, as we might use something that appears in a day’s fieldnotes to suggest possibilities for further investigation. (I’ve discussed these possibilities and their associated problems at length in Becker 2007, particularly Chapters 4, 7, and 11.) When I made the picture, academia was enjoying boom times. The somehow unexpected surge in college enrollments had produced a seller’s market in employment and publication opportunities for sociologists, and the atmosphere of ASA meetings reflected that prosperity and confidence. Men still dressed formally—suits, ties—as did women, who were present too (though not in this single image). If we rely on the comparative possibilities looking backward thirty-five or more years gives us, we might make something of those observations. Similarly, Freeman’s look of amiable good fellowship, given the circumstances of the picture’s making I just related, suggests a kind of freefloating sociability, a readiness to engage whoever it might be on whatever terms that person might be proposing, a clue perhaps to the confidence prosperity had bred among academics in general and sociologists in particular. With that clue, we might search for other evidence of that boomtown feeling, as well as look for signs of the more negative experiences and feelings of those people who were not sharing in the good times (and there were many).
Photographers look through the images they gather much the way sociologists search their data for more information, more clues, more signposts to guide the next analytic steps. They make “proof sheets” of the rolls of film they have exposed, which condense thirty-six images onto a single 8x10 inch sheet of paper. Thus able to scan hundreds of images quickly, they look for similarities in almost any detail that might be similar. So, alerted by the single image I’ve proposed here, we might inspect my proof sheets from that ASA meeting, as well as those of the others who participated in the collective documentation of it, looking for other signs of the formality indicated by the men’s clothing, of the freeflowing party spirit suggested by the gesture I photographed. We could look for signs of contradictory moods and modes of interaction: suspicion, fear, hostility, unease. Examining the work produced by the many sociologists involved in this little enterprise, made from the different vantage points available to visual sociologists differing in age, gender, race, network affiliation, subdiscipline and geographical belonging, would surely give us material for many more speculations we could use to inform another year’s investigation of the same event, our shooting now sharpened by this analytic work. And, finally, we might combine our visual observations with all the other material we could find or manufacture to create a real sociology of the ASA convention (a job which, oddly enough, no one has ever done).
Bateson, Gregory, and Margaret Mead. 1942. Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.
Becker, Howard S. 2007. Telling About Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Evans, Walker. 1975 (1938). American Photographs. New York: East River Press.
Harper, Douglas. 1987. Working Knowledge: Skill and Community In a Small Shop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Levine, Sol. 1993. “Salute to Howard E. Freeman,” Health Services Research 28(5): 527-529.