Heart of Darkness
The 1960s are dark and phantasmagoric, like an ambiguous terrain vague or “nowhere land” in the periodization of photographic history. I’m not free from that uncertainty about the interpretation of this complex decade. It seems like a moment when the past was not quite over and the future had yet to start. Such ambiguity is evident if we compare Steichen’s The Bitter Years with Szarkowski’s New Documents. Both exhibitions were created within only five years of each other, yet stand for two different historical eras in the same decade. In a way, The Bitter Years is the last hurrah of prewar modernism, a living fossil that represents the peak and the end of the 1920-30s’ innovations. Meanwhile, New Documents is the (negative) anticipation of 1970s-80s’ postmodernism. By postmodernism (a label I’m not really fond of) I mean the constellation of post-liberal, micro-political critiques of representation that I’ll discuss in the next (and final) post.
So what we have on the walls of MOMA (the castle?) during the sixties is a move away from large, propagandistic spectacle exhibitions (back) to the minimalist white cube. In this context, the documentary idea is re-signified as a style, with no links to any aspiration of social reform. This re-signification is precisely what makes Szarkowski’s New Documents “new.” Social change-oriented documentary (identified with propaganda) becomes “old.” Doesn’t this sound like Thatcher-Reagan avant la lettre? Szarkowski really was a killer.
And yet, throughout the 1960s and parallel to this movement at MOMA, Walker Evans also began to stir in his grave. Was Evans’ return to life a kind of necessary “returned of the repressed” subtext for Szarkowski’s curatorial discourse at MOMA?
In 1964, after more than a decade of relative obscurity, Evans gave his famous Yale lecture on “lyric documentary.” In 1966 a selection of his subway portraits was exhibited at MOMA and the corresponding book Many Are Called was published. These events seem to be the prelude to his glorious resurrection: a major retrospective at MOMA in 1971. Evans had been pivotal at MOMA in 1938 with his American Photographs exhibition and book as the paradigm of the modernist institutionalization of photography. Evans is another hero/villain candidate for our list, our “prince of darkness.” Thirty years later it seemed as if history was repeating itself – but this time, of course, as a farce. The unease with this historical farce is what would be called “postmodernism” by the end of the next decade.
So, in the Anglo-American context, the shift towards a new scenario of the re-politicization of documentary discourse in the 1970s as the key site for the critique of postwar modernism actually began in the 1960s.
In December 1966, Nathan Lyons curated the exhibition Contemporary Photographers. Towards a Social Landscape at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The term “social landscape” meant for Lyons a new awareness of the historical and cultural conditions that allowed, quite literally, a de-naturalization of the pictorial tradition of landscape. We can, of course, take this de-naturalization in a double sense: as both iconographic and self-critical. Iconographically, it meant that the idea of nature as independent from human action had become anachronistic and, thus, a contemporary notion of landscape should necessarily include the new urban environments. Self-critically, it meant that the photographic representation of landscape was not transparent but historical, and that a critique of such representation was a necessary precondition: In other words, a critique of presumptions about transparency, objectivity, and universalism that were so internalized in photographic modernism.
Obviously, with Lyons the “socialization” of photographic representation was not explicitly formulated in materialist terms, but it is significant as a historical symptom of the paradigmatic shift in photographic culture that was starting to be produced and perceived at that moment. In 1967, the term “social landscape” term was again used, for an exhibition Thomas Graver curated at the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, called Twelve Photographers of the America Social Landscape. In hindsight, Szarkowski’s New Documents can be seen as the third exhibition dedicated to “re-framed” urban or social-landscape documentary photography. In spite of their differences, what these three exhibitions had in common was notably the presence of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, to which Diane Arbus was added in the MOMA show. (Winogrand’s destiny was to become the “serial killer” of modernism; I’ll address that in a moment).
I’m not going to expound on these “social landscape” exhibitions. For now, just two important aspects about them should be kept in mind. One is that Lyons resigned from the George Eastman House and in 1969 started an independent organization, the Visual Studies Workshop, in Rochester. This marks a key starting point for the transformation of higher photographic education in the US, one of the “long revolutions” of the 1970s. With this I mean that during the 1970s, the insertion of photography into artistic and art history academic programs became institutionalized. Importantly, in 1972 the Visual Studies Workshop launched Afterimage magazine, which of course would go on to play a central role in the production and dissemination of progressive photographic literature.
The second thing is the role of both MOMA and the George Eastman House as the main American legitimizing institutions for conservative modernism that would soon come under attack. Especially MOMA (the castle), which, to a certain extent, continued into the 1970s its ideological role as a cultural Cold War institution – a role that characterized Steichen’s period, even if, of course, Szarkowski was not Steichen. This role was mainly played through its promotion of travelling exhibitions of American photographers via its international network of US cultural institutions.
The re-signification of postwar liberal humanism into “social landscape” is symptomatic of a changing institutional inscription of documentary discourse. From the perspective of the history of the documentary movement as an instrument for the representation of the working class, such institutionalization is both a triumph and a failure. It culminates the ambivalence of humanist rhetoric on documentary and represents historically the unprecedented expansion of welfare public institutions in the West. This expansion corresponds to what Eric Hobsbawm has called the “golden age” of capitalism: the two long decades of generalized and sustained improvement of the life conditions of the working class, unprecedented in all of human history.
But for the same reason, such institutionalization involves the erosion of the insurgent potential of documentary as a class struggle weapon, which needed to be re-invented in the 1970s. Class itself was apparently dissolving into molecules, across the universe.
The de-humanization of liberal humanism reached its final expression in Garry Winogrand’s late work in the streets, or better, on the expressways of Los Angeles, shot from his car window. Taking the random shooting initiated by Robert Frank and Joan Colom to its radical consequences, Winogrand was compulsively shooting rolls and rolls of film, without ever processing them. No intention, no desire, no intelligence, no photographer’s eye, no nothing – just the finger pushing the button and nobody doing the rest. Documentary becomes a dystopian, exhausted discourse. Photography itself seemed to melt into air, along with the whole postwar cultural system in which it was inscribed. Photography’s positivism, transparency, universalism, humanism, and the rest of the modernist myths went into trash. Winogrand: a modernist Terminator.
By looking at the new-old 1960s, what we see is that historical processes are less linear than they are rhizomatic. And what we find is how apparently new dystopian forms of self-exhaustion or self-dissolution appear together with apparently older utopian solid forms. The Family of Man was still alive (or was it a phantom?) in Karl Pawek’s 1964 World Exhibition of Photography. To what extent was what was going on between New York and Los Angeles also happening on the rest of the planet?