Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary | Jorge Ribalta | Sunday, 01.06.2014

Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: A Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary Photography

Hello world!

This is my first blog. I’m not a blogging person and I confess I’m feeling uneasy about the vulnerable improvisatory condition that blog writing involves, a kind of performative public conversation open to doubts and suppositions and maybe to banality :)), rather than solid demonstrative writing. But, anyway: let’s try it.

This blog takes informally, maybe perversely, the title of Immanuel Wallerstein’s recently published fourth volume of his landmark book series on the modern world-system. I will attempt to bring to discussion some ideas and intuitions concerning the postwar reframing of documentary photography as a liberal humanistic (or humanitarian?) discipline. I’ll come back to definitions of humanism further below.

This is a conversation on photographic historiography. Rather than a theoretical or philosophical discussion on the nature of documentary as a discourse and artistic idea (cf. John Grierson’s “documentary idea,” an expression I’m fond of), I propose a historical understanding of documentary practices in photography. I’m not interested in what documentary is, but in how it’s produced and functions in specific historical conjunctures.

My research on the Worker Photography Movement between the two World Wars brought me to the argument that the rise of documentary discourses in film and photography after 1926 resulted from the historical need to provide a visual representation of the working class and its new agency in an era of mass democracy and the new visual media culture. The expansion of public photographic spectacles such as film theaters, the new illustrated press, photographic and multimedia exhibitions (both avant-garde and propagandistic), the rise of advertising and publicity, etc. contributed to the technological conditions for the visual culture revolution of the mid-1920s. I say 1926 because it is when Grierson used the term “documentary” for the first time, as the classic historical accounts have well established. But also because 1926 is when the German communist journal AIZ (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung) published a famous call to amateur worker readers to send in photographs showing their own living and working conditions, which is the official birth of the Worker Photography Movement in Germany and elsewhere. Furthermore, 1926 marks the founding of Sovetskoe Foto magazine, organ of both the Soviet-organized professional photojournalists and amateur worker photo correspondents.

1926 thus represents a double ideological impulse in the rise of the documentary as a new visual tool for the representation of the working class: the impulse from above, represented by Grierson and the British documentary movement, and the impulse from below, represented by the initially German-Soviet Worker Photography Movement. The impulse from above is the one that has dominated Anglo-American “modernist” historical narratives of the genealogy of the documentary genre, whose canon is to be found in Beaumont Newhall and whose patron saint is Lewis Hine; its culmination and greatest monument is the FSA. In such narratives, the documentarian is a mediator between the dispossessed subaltern classes and the state, and his/her role is to contribute to the improvement and inclusion of such dispossessed ones in a paternalistic welfare system – which means to contribute to re-distributive political reforms that expand social inclusion via laws, rights, and citizenship conditions for the poor. I call this impulse from above the liberal (or social democrat) one and it’s been long and classically criticized since the 1970s by the New Art History generation. John Tagg’s “disciplinary frame” epitomizes the Foucauldian argument concerning liberal documentary as governmental technology.

The impulse from below is the revolutionary one and is based on a disobedient, proletarian (counter-bourgeois) agency. Worker photography seeks a “hard, merciless light” against bourgeois paternalism. But the proletarian documentary experience was not free from inner contradictions (somewhat regressive aesthetic mechanisms persisted) and was short-lived. In the mid-thirties it was surpassed by both the political counter-revolution (rise of fascist regimes, Popular Front alliances, wars…) and by the general expansion of innovative mainstream visual media, with Life magazine as the most successful public photographic space since 1936.

The prewar revolutionary documentary impulse persisted after World War II but in precarious, ephemeral conditions. The war trauma and Cold War cultural geopolitics involved a post-revolutionary condition and a new centrist liberal immanence of reconciliatory discourses in the West, whose best examples are Life magazine again and of course The Family of Man exhibition. These have eclipsed other potentially less reconciliatory experiments. In the late 1940s and very early 1950s, in Italy, Neorealism was an artistic experiment for the renovation of the alliance between avant-garde realism and revolutionary politics. To some extent, it can be read as a renovation of the proletarian documentary and it’s probably the most sophisticated and important documentary project of the period, at least until the 1970s (even if it remains quite unread in hegemonic Anglo-American photography histories). Anthropologist Ernesto de Martino made various field trips to southern Italy with photographers like Franco Pinna. Following Antonio Gramsci’s theses on folklore as subaltern forms of historicity, resistance, and liberation, rather than as remnants or survivals of a primitive, ahistorical world, de Martino proposed the concept of “progressive folklore” in his study of magic rituals. The materialist photo-iconography of rural communities produced in de Martino’s field trips complexify the somewhat Manichean, industrial, and metropolitan simplicity of pre-war Worker Photography representations of working class subjectivities.

Ok. At this point of the conversation I need to bring in some methodological considerations on the concept of humanism and the sort of periodization problems involved in my account.

Needless to say, humanism is a very complex concept including a multiplicity of meanings. It has both reactionary and progressive connotations. For the specific debate on postwar photography here, I think the key idea is about the representation of the human condition, the fixation on the “new images of man.” That is, representations of the human figure and body under a post-traumatic experience, namely war, bombings, killings, camps, dead bodies, etc. The war iconography of mass victims that proliferated in illustrated magazines is a key source of such existentialist visual rhetoric. That’s why I think we can relate this kind of iconography to a catastrophic “state of exception” and that’s why the FSA became, in retrospect, the source reference. In The Bitter Years, his farewell exhibition at MOMA in 1962, Steichen quite aptly synthesized the postwar reframing of the FSA experience. With this I mean he revisited the FSA archive after the traumatic experience of war and found an iconographic source: the victims of the Depression appeared as the anticipation of the victims of the war. That’s why I say that the FSA is a retrospective canonic influence. As all archives, the FSA allows many interpretations and Steichen’s one was, I think, the most successful in terms of representing the Cold War imagination/ideology in the West. Also Steichen had the institutions for making such interpretation a hegemonic one. Liberal photographic humanism is institutional discourse; it represents the postwar alliance between capital and labor forces in the capitalist part of the world. The humanism articulated in The Family of Man is the voice of the state and its institutions for the production of a transnational liberal public sphere.

You may say this is not a proper reframing, but rather the erasure of the double (or multiple) origin of documentary discourse in the 1920s. If, in the prewar era, documentary rises from various ideologies in struggle or conflict, in the postwar era there is only liberalism.

In terms of periodization, when does the postwar period actually end? My argument is that the break with liberal humanist immanence in documentary photography happened in the mid-1970s with (what I refer to above) as the New Art History generation – e.g., John Tagg, Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Jo Spence, etc. But its cultural conditions began to take shape in the mid-1960s, with the “new social landscape” photographic discourses led by Nathan Lyons and his followers. Accepting that all periodization is a compromise, broadly speaking the humanist period corresponds to Steichen’s tenure at MOMA. Steichen is the great hero-villain in this history, not only because of The Family of Man, but also because of his World War II exhibitions Road to Victory and Power in the Pacific, and his late 1962 FSA exhibition, just mentioned, all of them radical and brilliant examples of a sophisticated understanding of the photographic exhibition as a mental space, following the great modernist innovations of the late 1920s.

Despite all this, the geography of the narrative I bring here is not just Anglo-American. More precisely, the focus on Anglo-American hegemonic models involves a critical approach. In this respect I think Serge Guilbaut’s account of the postwar displacement of the center of the avant-garde from Paris to New York is useful. What we need to study are the shadow areas that canonized monuments such as The Family of Man have produced.