Mining Photography II. Allan Sekula's Reading of Georgius Agricola's "De Re Metallica"
The metals are of use to painters, because they yield certain pigments which, when united with the painter’s slip, are injured less than others by the moisture from without. […] In very truth, even the works of art, elegant, embellished, elaborate, useful, are fashioned in various shapes by the artist from the metals gold, silver, brass, lead and iron. How few artists could make anything that is beautiful and perfect without using metals? — Georgius Agricola, De Re Metallica, 15661
Looking through the struggle
There is a great deal to learn from engaging with Allan Sekula’s essay “Photography Between Labour and Capital,” even after more than thirty years since its publication. […] The focus of the essay is not so much on the actual pictures in the archive, as it is on providing a way of looking at and conceptualizing them that is free from ideological and academic preconceptions and suggests an awareness of what they represent in terms of the history of human struggle. In fact “Photography Between Labour and Capital” functions as the ideal companion to prepare and accompany the gaze of the visitor when approaching the “Mining Section (Bureau des mines)” of The Dockers’ Museum, even if the objects and photographs presented in it are not the same as those published in the book.
In the second section of his essay entitled “The Emerging Picture Language of Industrial Capitalism,” Sekula digs for a deeper consciousness of the art-historical gaze by proposing a lineage across the history of visual and verbal representation of mining and of industrial processes starting from Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica (DRM), first published in 1556 and all the way up to the tradition of nineteenth and twentieth century mining photographs.4 The principal objective of this lineage is to show how pictures, from drawing to photography, have been used to offer representations of labor that justify the division between manual and cognitive labor, a separation which is at the core of capitalism and its forms of exploitation. Along with this objective, Sekula tries to shift the attention of historians of photography from the unproductive dichotomy within photographic culture, marked by a separation of the discourses of science and art, to an understanding of the role of the machine and its material processes. In this way, he aims to recuperate the political potential of photography and to address the question of “what it has meant to seek the truth of technical processes by means of pictures.” (Sekula, 1983, 203)
In Defense of Mining and Other Industries
Before directly engaging with Agricola, Sekula clarifies in the opening paragraphs of “The Emerging Picture Language of Industrial Capitalism”, which is the second section of the essay, why mining is so important and what it actually represents. […]
His first point is that Agricola’s addition of illustrations to accompany the textual descriptions of mining is part of a larger process in the development of the empirical sciences, a process initiated with Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, first published in 1543, more than twenty years before Agricola’s book. [...]
Sekula also explains that while Vesalius was responsible for the reunification of manual and intellectual labor in the field of medicine, Agricola belongs to the tradition that conceptualizes their separation. Beyond Sekula’s critical reading one can also sense that his interest in the links between the two newly developing applied sciences lies in the metaphorical associations between mining and anatomy, as most obviously perhaps in the ‘veins of a mine.’ If Sekula does not further explore these associations, they serve as an inspiring backdrop to the presentation of his “Mining Section (Bureau des mines)” of The Dockers’ Museum at the former anatomy amphitheater of Leuven.
Next, Sekula underlines Agricola’s justification for the use of illustrations, which according to the German physician and scholar was necessary to avoid the confusion in terminology surrounding tools, techniques, and materials that was typical of ancient literature on mining, a confusion that was inevitably amplified, it seems, by the passing of history and the limits of linguistic comprehension. […]
Sekula’s critique of Agricola’s rational arguments directs us to the first of the two key issues addressed by his text. In discussing these arguments Sekula observes how they are a striking example of the polemical and ideological character of a new discourse, in this case the emerging discourse of industry. (Sekula, 1983, 206) Agricola explains that other activities such as agri culture, fishing and hunting, and even medicine, would be impossible without the metals and minerals provided by mining and that while mining does have disruptive aspects, of an ecological kind in particular, the same is true of these other human activities (medicine excepted).6 He insists that the disruptive aspects are outweighed by the positive ones with an argumentation not dissimilar from the most common ones in defense of, for example, nuclear energy. In this respect Sekula was correct in considering Agricola’s thinking as crucial for the development of the discourse of industry. […]
There is one more claim that Agricola adds to his list of arguments to legitimize mining, however, and it strangely is one that Sekula does not engage with: mining is essential to art (see the opening quote of this text). It is impossible to know for sure why Sekula decided to ignore it in an essay on the visual representation of mining, but perhaps he had trouble to accommodate the reversal of the perspective provided by Agricola’s claim within his own line of reasoning and critique. What follows is a preliminary attempt to focus on this reversed perspective asking the question, by inverting Sekula’s, what does it mean to search for the truth of pictures in their technical processes? Such an inversion, I would argue, actually has a place within Sekula’s theoretical framework, providing an unusual angle of vision on the objects and pictures on display at the Anatomical Theater.
Without mining there would be no art Agricola tells us, yet how often as art historians, art lovers, art practitioners, and even art makers have we stopped a moment to ponder this evidence? It is not just a claim of a Renaissance scholar who is seeking for arguments in defense of mining and its industry; it is an obvious material truth that we tend to overlook even when contemplating the most materialistically committed art. […] The critical/material realism demonstrated by Sekula throughout his work also suggests that he would have liked us to become aware of this specific circle from production to representation of production and back, because it will direct our attention to the material labor on which so much of our cognitive or creative work depends. […]
Sekula dedicates a significant part of his essay to the introduction of photography in the mines in the early 1860s. He is particularly interested in the reception of these photographs by scholars, as well as in revealing their ideological use for capitalist undertakings. Photography developed in the first decades of the nineteenth century thanks to experiments attempting to register images produced by the camera obscura on a surface. These experiments largely depended on advancements in chemistry leading to different kinds of applications of silver in search of photosensitive materials. Minerals and metals from the mines were again important for the development of the new technology, and they have been essential up to the introduction of digital photography in the early 1980s. Sekula focuses in particular on Timothy O’Sullivan’s mining photographs of the early 1860s by showing how they were part of a broader process of defining power relations between classes and groups (the Native Indians and the colonizers of the American West). At a different level, one could say on the subconscious level, these images stand as signifiers of the long lasting relationship between mining, caves and image making, bringing it to a kind of climax, a closing of the circle, and hence functioning as metapictures.9
– Nicola Setari
1. G. Agricola, De Re Metallica, 1566, transl. H. C. Hoover and L. H. Hoover in 1912 (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1950), 19-20.
4. Throughout this text Agricola’s De Re Metallica will be referred to as DRM.
6. It is actually quite fascinating to observe how a concern with the pollution of rivers was already present in Agricola’s treatise.
9. In Iconology Mitchell uses Plato’s allegory of the cave as the prototypical model of what he considers a hypericon.
Excerpt from Nicola Setari, “Mining Photography II, Allan Sekula’s Reading of Georgius Agricola’s De Re Metallica”, in Nicola Setari and Hilde Van Gelder (eds), Allan Sekula Mining Section (Bureau des Mines). Collaborative Notes (Ghent: AraMER, 2016): pp. 73-88.