Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary | Jorge Ribalta | Tuesday, 10.06.2014

Paul Strand after Margaret Mead

In this second post I’d like to expand the scenario somewhat by introducing a few other possible significant references for an interpretation of the logics of the 1950s.

In 1949, Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 catalogue of the MOMA exhibition, Photography 1839-1937, appeared revised and enlarged as an autonomous book: The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day. Postwar liberal modernist photographic culture now had its foundational text, its Bible. Chapter 10 in Newhall’s book was devoted to documentary, and the genealogy it proposes on the subject remains as canonical as Newhall’s history itself. The genealogy is as follows: first we have the 1860s and 1870s geographical surveys as a pre-history of documentary. Then we have Jacob Riis as the precursor and Lewis Hine as the founding father of 20th century documentary photography, which reaches its complete and most self-aware form with the FSA. Obviously I’m simplifying but this is the core of the narrative. Importantly, Newhall refers to John Grierson and the British film documentary movement as the modernist, self-aware source moment of the documentary discourse.

Also in 1949, Paul Strand moved to France. Strand is an extremely important reference in this narrative, since he paradigmatically embodies the documentary dilemmas and contradictions in American modernist photographic culture, and represents a most significant (missing) link between the 1930s and the postwar period. A Photo League mentor, Strand served as its role model in the prewar period, when the League was formed in 1936 as a spinoff of the former Workers’ Film and Photo League, which had been established in 1930 through the Communist International Worker Photography networks. Strand’s self-exile was a response to McCarthyism, which also led to the dissolution of the Photo League in 1951. Interestingly, the Photo League is absent (repressed?) in Newhall’s account, except for the mention that it was the repository of Lewis Hine’s archive.

In 1950, Strand published Time in New England, the first of a series of photo-book projects that would be the core of his activity until his death in 1976, including by La France de profil (1952), Un paese (1955), and a few others in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Following the same approach that he started in Mexico in the early thirties while making his film Redes, Strand’s artistic operation consisted in the representation of a specific rural community and its everyday struggle for life as a result of the photographer’s own experience living in such communities for a period of time.

The photographs express the dignity of vernacular forms of labor, creativity, and the spirit of resistance, all embedded within the distinct cultural and physical geographies of the various communities. With this book series, made in New England, regions of France and Italy, the Hebrides, Egypt, and Ghana, Strand seemed to be willing to demonstrate that social life is rooted in a spontaneous communism of sorts, understood as a kind of pre-political and universal human condition, and most accessible in more or less remote, rural, pre-modern parts of the world.

To me, Strand seems to be a relatively neglected precursor of “collaborative” contemporary forms of documentary, such as that of Chris Killip (obvious) or Marc Pataut (less obvious). Blake Stimson has developed the interesting concept of “photographic communism” in relation to Strand, arguing that in Un paese, his representation of a family at the door of their house in Luzzara, we can see a “basic cell” for a communist social organization. Reluctant to accept a somewhat stereotyped, left-wing interpretation of Strand as a Romantic communist (which is to some extent my own), Stimson finds in him a source for an argument on the crucial role of the State in progressive or socialist politics, as opposed to the Deleuze-Guattarian inflection in contemporary micro-political revolutionary discourses.

Stimson actually opened the door for renovated interpretations of postwar humanism with his productive and against-the-grain reading of the other great humanist monument of the fifties, namely The Family of Man. In his excellent book The Pivot of the World, he argues that The Family of Man produced an inclusive transnational public sphere corresponding to the last moment when social inclusion and citizenry was produced though political participation, rather than by access to consumer goods (as happened after the sixties). The Family of Man corresponded to homo politicus, to be replaced soon by homo oeconomicus. It should be noted that the fifties are also the last moment of hegemony of photography in mass media before the arrival of television in the following decade.

The impact of The Family of Man is hard to describe. It was not merely a media effect and I can only recommend the visit to Clervaux castle in Luxemburg, where the only surviving original edition of the exhibition remains on permanent display. My visit to Clervaux and the showing I did in The Universal Archive exhibition (MACBA, Barcelona, 2008) of two of Dorothea Lange’s walls from The Bitter Years with the original enlargements from the 1962 MOMA show, convinced me of Edward Steichen’s sophistication as an exhibition designer and his deep understanding of El Lissitzky’s and Herbert Bayer’s innovations from the late twenties. Existing books on these Steichen exhibitions do not really convey this point effectively, particularly the recent monograph on The Bitter Years.

The Family of Man was like the B-Bomb of the fifties’ photographic culture. It travelled the world and had various epigone exhibitions, notably in Europe in the sixties. Its radiation arrived everywhere. The pre-political, anthropological universal human condition it represented was articulated by Margaret Mead, whom I see as the organic intellectual of photographic humanism in the West, or at least in the United States. Her contribution was articulated through some articles on photography, where she defended Life magazine and The Family of Man as the ruling paradigmatic forms of universal literacy and education, as well as through her photo-book projects, starting with Balinese Character (1942) and culminating with Family (1965).Photo-ethnography is the other main iconographic source of humanism, besides war photojournalism.The idea of photography as a universal language corresponds to an equivalentuniversalist understanding of the human condition. Universal consensus is rooted in some sort of equality given by the shared nakedness, suffering and precariousness inherent to human living. Universalism is also the condition or metaphor of the transnational institutions of the Cold War as well as that of the global circulation, or “traffic,” of photographs in magazines, photo-books, and world-exhibitions. Big Brother is rather the “big father” (USA, UN, NATO, MOMA…) of the “big family” (capitalism). Strand’s spontaneous communism is re-signified into Mead’s spontaneous liberalism.

Steichen, Strand, Newhall, Mead… the heroes/villains proliferate.