Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary | Jorge Ribalta | Donnerstag, 19.06.2014

Excursus: Politics of the Victim

I mentioned in my first post that the rise of documentary discourses between the World Wars resulted from the political need to visibilize the working class in the new media culture corresponding to the era of mass democracy. Both in its “from above” (state/liberal/Griersonian/FSA) and in its “from below” (social movements/revolutionary/worker-photography) versions, documentary rhetoric contributed to this political need, in part through the dissemination of an iconography of a victimized working class.

The production of a poetics of dispossession is a key contribution from documentary methods emerging from the 1930s to social struggles for justice and democracy. Beyond the specific historical prewar context, I think this poetics was a central contribution to the 20th century universal citizenship democratic imaginary, which finds precisely a key historical iconic source in the worker-photography documentary project. I mean, the iconography of a fragile and precarious life is constitutive not only of the project of proletarian documentary, but is in the root of the poetic construction of democracy and justice. Egalitarianism is based in the poetics of all being equally vulnerable to poverty and abuse. Documentary poetics is about the production of the “common man” which constitutes the new political subject of mass democracy and is fundamental to the modern notion of popular sovereignty. Starting in the mid-1920s, worker photography contributed to the visual production of such a poetics through the depiction of the bare materiality of everyday life, of ugliness, and abjection, which is a programmatic aspect of German worker-photography literature. Edwin Hoernle, author of probably the most important programmatic essay on the movement, “The Working Man’s Eye,” articulated the idea of a “hard, merciless light” (a phrase I took as the title of the Reina Sofia Museum exhibition in 2011), as a class-struggle expression of proletarian self-determination and insurgency against bourgeois paternalism. The ugliness and abjection of proletarian subordination was thus attached to the visual production of a rebellious proletarian subjectivity, which constitutes one of the problems and contradictions inherent to the worker-photography discourse, a kind of structural ambivalence between empowerment and victimization.

What I want to examine here are the ambiguities in such victim iconography by addressing the figure of the prostitute in postwar humanist photography. The recent Joan Colom retrospective exhibition at MNAC, Barcelona, was the context for a discussion on the interpretations of prostitute imagery, which constitutes the core of Colom’s work. Colom was seen as the peak of what the main Spanish photography critic and historian at the time, Josep Maria Casademont, called the “new avant-garde,” corresponding to a period of great innovation in Spanish photographic culture between 1957 and 1964. We can also consider this period to be the golden age of Spanish postwar humanist photography.

Colom started photographing with a hidden camera in Barcelona’s red light district around 1960. A selection of his photographs was published in 1964 in a now famous photo-book, with texts by Spanish writer Camilo José Cela (awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1989). The book title (Izas, rabizas y colipoterras) is a series of slang names for prostitutes and already contains the characteristic pejorative language that Cela uses in the book, which is essentially a taxonomy or dictionary of such slang names, written as commentaries of Colom’s clandestine prostitute street portraits. Taken as a kind of abject social typology of prostitutes, the book can be seen as a pervert underclass parody of, say, August Sander’s social typologies: Antlitz der Zeit, the face of our times.

How can we read Colom’s photos of prostitutes ideologically?

Ideological interpretations of postwar photography in Spain bring new specific problems, since fascism won the war (and lasted formally in power until 1975). So the links between postwar documentary projects and its prewar left wing ancestors are more complicated to trace than in other Western European countries like Italy, France, or Britain. My view is that Spanish postwar photographic culture reproduced the dominant ideology of the national-Catholic dictatorship, and current resistance or oppositional interpretations of the period are pretty much revisionist.

Let’s try to stage the dilemma: Using the Sander analogy of Colom’s prostitutes as the “face of the times” in Spain under Franco’s dictatorship, we can see the photographs as the representation of citizenship under fascism, namely the prostitution of public life. This interpretation would also correspond to what Colom himself said about his work, that he “worked the street” (which I used as title for his exhibition), meaning that he did not photograph landscapes or still lives but street scenes. Seen in this light, Colom articulates an oppositional, resistance discourse under the dictatorship But this reading of identification of the photographer with the prostitutes (and with the underclass by extension) is contradicted by his explicitly sexist and classist work method and mentality, which is confirmed in Cela’s writing. Cela was not an oppositional intellectual to Franco, but rather quite the opposite, an official one. The book expresses the double morality of Spanish national-Catholicism in a most radical way: as an apparent denunciation of prostitution and social degradation, what is expressed in fact is an explicit voyeuristic and stereotypically masculine aggressive attraction to women in public space. The book expresses the viewpoint of the prostitute client: Colom’s identification with the oppressed is simultaneous to his identification with the oppressor. Thus Colom participates in a kind of sexist, petit-bourgeois, reactionary masculinity, which was a dominant ideology under Spanish national-Catholic rule.

If we compare Colom’s photographs to those by Brassaï or Christer Strömholm (who was briefly in Barcelona during the same period) made in similar contexts, we see that Colom’s hidden camera is antagonistic to the intimacy of the participatory and friendly observation that we see in the others.

The problematic ambivalence in Colom’s 1960 work is radicalized in his late work made in 1990s post-Olympic Barcelona, which documents the neoliberal transformation of urban space and the effects of the “easyJet revolution” on the street life of the city’s historical center. The indiscriminate representation of poverty, hooliganism, mass tourism, female sex work, and various other “carnivalesque” or “abject” uses of public spaces, all confirm a classist and reactionary mentality that sees public space as social chaos, even if we can also take Colom’s late work as a critique on the pervasive neoliberal propaganda of false consensus and idyllic multicultural public spaces. Barcelona is a paradigmatic case study for the neoliberal city and its new forms of propagandistic cultural governance.

OK, I hope I’m not getting too far off-track. To recapitulate:

It seems important to recognize that clandestine shooting is a constitutive trope in photographic modernism. Paul Strand already used side viewfinder methods in some of his early street shots from the 1910s. And in the late 1920s and 1930s, Cartier-Bresson, Ilya Ehrenburg, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and even Margaret Mead’s husband Gregory Bateson, while photographing in Bali, all used right-angle viewfinders in their Leicas in order to avoid the rigidity present in subjects who are aware of the camera presence. This way, they were able to capture “life itself”: the pure spontaneity of the unaware and anonymous passerby. Such unawareness is the precondition for the poetics of modernist photojournalism and documentary expression, to a large extent. But this unconscious, anonymous “common man” kind of representation is also the result of unequal power relations. Ehrenburg was aware of such power, addressing it through his analogy between the camera and a gun. In his book on Paris from 1931 he declares the dubious honesty of the writer as commentator of reality: “I can talk about this without flushing: a writer has his own notions of honesty. Our entire life is spent peeping into windows and listening at the keyhole – that’s our craft.”

What do the photographed ones have to say?

In 1964, when the book by Colom and Cela was published, one of the women in the photos sued them. She contested that she was not a prostitute and that the book was injurious to her. The case was taken up by the sensationalist press. Ultimately, the woman did not appear before the judge and the case was closed. By the way, she was the most beautiful and elegant woman in the book. Standing out from the others who appeared to be rather old, ugly, and fat, she seems to represent an upper class in the underclass world of prostitution (ironically, the press revealed that she was related to an employee of the state prison). So here we find a situation of rebellion against denigrated representation as the abject victim imposed upon by unequal power relations. Colom reacted to the situation by giving up photography, the cipher of such inequality. Did the slave triumph over the master? And yet, the repressed returned: 30 years later as an old man, Colom went back with his hidden camera to those very same streets.