Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary
Jorge Ribalta’s blog series draws inspiration from the title of the fourth volume of Immanuel Wallerstein’s landmark series on the modern world-system. Rather than a theoretical or philosophical discussion on the nature of documentary photography, the blog series proposes a historical understanding of documentary practices in photography, and specifically during the Cold War. Ribalta’s point is that the rise of documentary rhetoric and discourses in the prewar era reflected the need to provide a visual tool for the representation of the working class and its new agency in mass democracy. But histories of photographic modernism, mostly a postwar construction largely determined by Newhall’s contribution, offered specific “liberal” versions of the emergence of the documentary discourse that had long-lasting effects. For example, the hegemony of the FSA documentary overshadowed the rest of the 1930s documentary experiences, particularly that of the Worker Photography Movement. In the 1950s, the large shadow of the monumental The Family of Man invisibilized or re-signified other documentary experiments, like Italian Neorealism or Paul Strand’s photo book projects, just to mention two examples. In both cases, prewar and postwar, centrist liberalism is triumphant. In other words, liberal humanism seemed to be an unsurpassable discursive and ideological horizon in postwar photographic avant-gardes and its historical narratives. The blog series brings to discussion some ideas and intuitions dealing with the humanist condition of postwar documentary photography and its problems.
Jorge Ribalta is an artist, editor and curator, based in Barcelona. After the major survey exhibition A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker-Photography Movement, 1926-1939 at the Museum Reina Sofia, Madrid in 2011 Ribalta has recently curated Centre Internacional de Fotografia Barcelona (1978–1983) and a retrospective of the Spanish postwar neorealist photographer Joan Colom. His new research on the second wave of worker photography and the re-politicization of the documentary in the 1970s is forthcoming in February 2015 (Not Yet. On the Reinvention of Documentary and the Critique of Modernism, Museum Reina Sofia, Madrid).