Grey Room

An Eternal Esthetics of Laborious Gestures

Allan Sekula

Henri-Gérard Fontallard. Les Daguerreopipeurs ou Le talent vient en dormant, 1840. Cover of Aujourd’hui: Journal des ridicules, 15 March 1840.


Returning to Roland Barthes’s criticism of the exhibition The Family of Man (1955), Sekula takes up Barthes’s comment about the indispensability of the human hand to examine the sequencing through which the exhibition naturalizes historical conditions of work. After considering the motif of the hand and its connection to images of labor in the history of photography, Sekula concludes by rereading one of the earliest records entered into the photographic archive: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s view of the Boulevard du Temple (ca. 1838). Often presented as the first photograph of a human figure, and implicitly the earliest photographic portrait, Sekula shows it is not only a picture of a single, male, bourgeois subject, as commonly held, but an image of work and economic exchange between two figures.