V. After Liberalism

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One of the most idiosyncratic yet unrecognized trends of the 1970s is how it was precisely then, when the prewar documentary culture from the 1920s-30s began to appear in a new light. Besides the Walker Evans retrospective at MOMA in 1971, which I mentioned in the previous post, the decade started with a series of seminal monographs on the FSA and the 1930s documentary, including Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade (1972), Roy Stryker and Nancy Wood’s In this Proud Land (1973), and William Stott’s Documentary Expression and Thirties America (1973).

This classic trilogy maps out the documentary debate for the 1970s, articulated around the tension between the monumentalization of the FSA and the critical de-naturalization of the ideological role of documentary in prewar American culture. This tension is produced in a context of deep institutional transformation including museums, academia, and the art market.

In terms of the institutional transformation of documentary culture, I see the ICP in New York as symptomatic of the decade. Founded in 1974 by Cornell Capa, brother of Robert Capa, ICP represented a new kind of institutionalization for the “popular front” tradition in photojournalism. Cornell Capa had become the official advocate of this tradition (via the agency Magnum Photos) with his The Concerned Photographer series of exhibitions and books, started in 1967.

The monograph trilogy and the ICP are examples of a no longer humanistic, but liberal institutionalization of documentary. Another example is The New Topographics exhibition at the George Eastman House in 1975 (which probably came to mind for most readers of my previous post as a logical consequence of Nathan Lyons’ “social landscape” discourse of the 1960s). It should not be forgotten that New Topographics was one of two consecutive and complementary exhibitions on documentary that William Jenkins curated. The other was The Extended Document, which actually came first. The Extended Document presented self-reflective practices interrogating photography’s transparency by means of a series of interruptive and de-naturalizing processes that were more or less derived from conceptualism. New Topographics focused on the link between the documentary and landscape traditions, again a mix of the 19th century geographical western survey tradition (via Walker Evans, of course) and the serial and typological post-conceptual and pop-influenced approaches. I would rather argue that the apparently vast influence of New Topographics is actually a recent retrospective myth, and that it represents a conservative reaction to the 1970s debates on the “reinvention of documentary.” Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams became known for their attacks of what they labeled as “postmodern ironists.”

What follows is a sketch of a more radical or progressive reframing of the 1930s documentary culture, in Germany and Britain first.

In 1973, a group of left-wing photographers in Hamburg launched the magazine Arbeiterfotografie and began promoting a German network of worker photography organizations that in 1977 would go on to organize national conferences. The magazine received funds from East Germany and the central office would later move to Bremen, Aachen, and finally to Cologne in 1987, where it still exists. Of course the members and political affiliations of Arbeiterfotografie magazine and its circles have enormously changed during the some 40 years of its complicated existence.

The historic German Worker Photography literature published in the Arbeiterfotografie circles likely reached Britain via Terry Dennett, a collaborator of Jo Spence and fluent in German. Spence and Dennett founded the Photography Workshop in 1974 and were in charge of the Half Moon Gallery. They launched Camerawork magazine in 1976, which they ran until 1977. In 1979 Spence and Dennett, together with Sylvia Gohl and David Evans, edited the anthology Photography/Politics: One, which included a section on Worker Photography, the first contribution in English to the history of the movement.

The magazine and the gallery remained after Spence and Dennett moved on to what was then called “community photography,” becoming a key forum for the British politicized documentary culture in the 1970s through the magazine and a related series of touring exhibitions mounted on idiosyncratic plastic laminated panels. Camerawork was at the crossroads of feminism, cultural studies, Marxism, and an eclectic modernism. In the same issue one could find, for example, an enthusiastic review of Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful, directly followed by an article written from a feminist perspective.

Financially backing the rise of this self-organized documentary photography culture network in Britain was the Photography Sub-Committee of the Arts Council, active since 1972. Public funding was essential for the expansion of photographic culture institutions in the pre-Thatcher 1970s and, in general, for the democratization of cultural and educational public services as one of the main social claims emerging from May 1968.

Public funding was also pivotal in the rise of photographic institutions and initiatives in Western Europe and the USA. There are plenty of examples from the late 1970s and particularly the 1980s. In the USA, public funding for photography by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was at its greatest during this time. The NEA was particularly active in funding photographic surveys between 1976 and 1981, which was partly related to the 1976 Bicentennial. According to Lewis Baltz, “the 1970s witnessed an intensity of photographic activity in America unequaled since the 1930s.”

Not only do the 1930s and 1970s correspond to moments of invention and re-invention in documentary; the historical parallel between 1929’ and 1972 documentary culture also exists in terms of economic history: both correspond to major crises of capitalism in the 20th century. So here’s another possible historical definition of documentary: it was established as an artistic response to historical crisis, representing corresponding emerging political subjectivities.

To elucidate:

The 1929 crisis was the context for the rise of a self-conscious documentary discourse in photography and cinema. Since then, documentary has remained a means of self-representation for the industrial working class and its new political agency in both its social-democratic and revolutionary versions, as discussed in previous posts.

The 1972 crisis was the context for a neo-avant-garde re-framing of documentary as a critique of institutionalized postwar humanist modernism. For the new generation that participated in the 1960s rise of the micro-political paradigm shift in social struggles (the rise of the new social movements), documentary was the site of a double revolutionary operation: “dismantling modernism and reinventing documentary” as Allan Sekula put it in his seminal essay that counts as the central photographic documentary manifesto of the decade. In the 1970s, and following Henri Lefebvre’s theses on the “right to the city” and the “urban revolution,” the urban context was reframed as the site of agitation and revolution and the imaginary of the industrial worker as the revolutionary subject rendered obsolete. The “reinvented documentary” emerged in response to the need to visibilize the new pluralism in micro-political “revolutionary” subjectivities.

To close, I’d like to raise two sets of questions.

First, the epistemic ones: Are we still in the 1970s? Or, following my “crisis = documentary shift” hypothesis, might the present crisis initiated in 2008 correspond to a new documentary experience? What current experiments in the representation of emerging political subjectivities can we understand as reinventions of documentary?

Second, the geopolitical ones: Is this narrative of the 1970s’ “reinvention of documentary as critique of modernism” valid for other scenes beyond the Anglo-American context? What other experiences challenge this periodization?

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9 Comments

  1. Geoffrey James
    Posted 9. July 2014 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Jorge, always interesting, but I question the idea that the self-representation on the industrial working class is at the heart of social documentary movement, especially now. By its mandate, the FSA, which you rightly describe at being at the centre of the social-documentary discourse, was of course concerned with agrarian problems. There was an interesting collaborative in Quebec in the 70′s, Le Groupe d’action Politique, which published a study of the region of Disraeli, but again it dealt with rural popular culture, and had the net effect of annoying many of he subjects depicted. I just came across an excerpt from an interview with Pasolini, in which he felt he was losing his audience because everyone was becoming bourgeois. Kenneth Hayes has written a couple of interesting essays in Prefix magazine on the photographic representation of the mining town of Sudbury, which Sekula treated in Geography Notes, and one gets a very good idea of how the role of the unions has changed. When was the last time an American politician used the phrase ‘working class?’. We are all middle class now.
    For different examples of social documentary beyond the Euro- N American axis, I would pointed the extraordinary work of David Goldblatt, which came out of another extreme set of circumstances. Part of his genius was to show, with clarity and no evident rhetorical manipulation, the nature of the dominant race. It took a while for it to get full recognition, but now we have his books. In the current crisis, I get a sense that the real power of documentary resides in the moving image, so much easier in the digital age. There is so much amazing work out there, I don’t know where to begin.

    • Jorge Ribalta
      Posted 12. July 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      OK Geoffrey, just a couple of comments:

      I think what you are raising is a new aspect implicit in my historical argument, but not yet put in a explicit way. What we find both in the 1930s and 1970s is some sort of link between the artistic and the political avantgardes. In the 1920s and 30s AIZ was the site for some pivotal innovations in terms of visual and documentary cultures and was clearly a political communication instrument. In the 1970s and 1980s you find similar links in the second wave of Worker Photography and in, say, the late 1980s Martha Rosler’s collaborative project “If You Lived Here”, an artistic and civilian response to the consequences of the then emerging neoliberal urban condition, just to mention a couple of examples amongst many possible others. I feel after the 1980s these links become more and more rare, to some extent I feel they are pretty lost today, as far as the neoliberal institutionalization has erased notions of public service in cultural policies and institutions. So we really need to move to the margins of institutions to find alternatives. I mean of course in Europe and North America mostly.

      I think David Goldblatt is one of the greatest living photographers today. His work produces a historical visualization of a country in transition and reminds me August Sander’s attempt to study photographically the historical conditions of Germany during Weimar, the “face of its time”. His documentary project is grandiose. But I have a hard time to see him as an example of a “reinvented” documentary in the sense of Sekula’s argument. He participated of the extremely rich and polemical debates in the early 1980s South Africa and, contrary to other positions defending a militant documentary or “struggle photography”, like the Afrapix collective, he always remained faithful to some sort of “autonomous” documentary poetics, less instrumental to political struggles and thus open to ambivalence, etc. He has remained faithful to “classic” modernist models such as Walker Evans, Paul Strand or the aforementioned Sander. This is not a critique at all, I hope this is clear. I just mean his work seems to me not much affected by the 1970s’ neo-avantgarde and micropolitical debates on representation. And in that respect maybe he is not really relevant for the kind of question I’m posing. But you can of course refuse the terms of my question and the kind of historical framework I’ve bee proposing here as interpretation of the meaning of the documentary idea. At this point I start thinking that maybe closing my historical sketch along these posts with a quick jump into our present dilemmas was not the best idea. It’s probably better to remain into a “historical” discussion here.

  2. François Brunet
    Posted 12. July 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Dear Jorge, thank you for a very illuminating history of inventions of documentary. I like your hypothesis of crisis = reinvention of documentary. And to answer your first question at the close of your post, I can tell you that I see a small but significant trend, in the past two or three years, of Masters students attempting to trace the notion of “documenting the crisis” in the post-2008 period, often with explicit reference to the 1930s. Nothing very surprising there, of course, but I thought I would mention it. Regarding your second question, the French context of the late 1970s and early 1980s — with a surge of big institutional and state-sponsored documentary projects — might be a case in point, but you know that of course.

    • Jorge Ribalta
      Posted 14. July 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Yes, that’s right. The 1970s-80s are the “survey” years. In Europe, the largest one of course was the DATAR in France, but there was a tremendous proliferation of such “survey” or “mission photographique” projects all over Europe, rarticularly in the 1980s. Another analogy with the 1930s FSA, of course. My interpretation is that the period between those two survey eras, pretty much corresponds to Hobsbawm’s “golden age of capitalism”. In some respect those surveys may be seen as the historical documents of such period. It’s a good point and that’s for raising it. That could be the subject for a new discussion or future blog.

  3. antonella russo
    Posted 12. July 2014 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jorge,
    Thank you for your last fully articulated and inspiring post!
    The questions you pose are up to the point and crucial ones but I’m afraid I do not have definite answers to them but nevertheless I’ll try to offer some issues for further investigation.
    Firstly, I’d like to submit that pre-war photo documentary culture does not appear to me as a coherent “whole” movement or at least it did not appear as such in every country in Europe and USA. Probably we need more researches especially in countries different from US and Western Europe and search other manifestations of photo documentary culture; For instance in fascist Italy, country largely agricultural in the 1920s and 1930s , we can count but a few and “elitist” examples of (neorealist ) photo documentary works , but certainly not a photoculture of it
    Second, on the ICP. I do agree with you that Cornell Capa’s ICP began to circulate his (own) liberal version of humanist documentary photography through the “Concerned Photographer” exhibition and publications. It might be worth to note that in Italy the show tour was announced on the pages of “Popular Photography Italian edition” and was exclusively circulated by its editor and photogallerist owner Lanfranco Colombo AND director of SICOF Photo Fair who became also Italian director of the Italian committee of the “Fund of Concerned Photography established by Capa in 1966.
    Marxist photocritic Ando Gilardi single out Cornell’s “Concerned” photodocumentarism as just another new brand fabricated in the USA for the benefit of powerful US photo industries to be put at the service of young radical- chic photoreporters. This proved to be true, for by the mid 1970s any mentioning of the exhibition and its Fund had disappeared .
    Secondly as I already tried to point out , we probably need to analyze carefully the subtle shifts that occurred in the various 19060s- 1970s landscape exhibitions organized in the US . I mean to signal the need to analyze how and when a new paradigm was established according to which the photographic representation of landscape/ nature/ “the given” turned to be described as a cultural/ formal/ social was circulated .
    Thirdly We equally need to investigate the raise of different moments of “urban renewal” both in the US and Europe AND other countries and the photographic documentation of the battle –certainly raging in Europe- for a progressive reorganization of 1970s cities, one open to participation of all citizens rather than imposed upon them.
    For instance nn important photodocumentation of such an “open” urban planning was produced by Mario Cresci who worked for a team of architects and urbanist in Matera, the very neorealist city Cartier Bresson Seymour and many many other humanist photographers worked on.
    Forthly I would like to mention the great influence “New Topographics” has in Italy. It was the work by Gohlke, Shore, Baltz that inspired the work by Guidi Basilico –in part- among others and that later resulted in a sort of formalist reframing of the late ( distorted) Paul Strand ‘s neorealism that came to be know as the workshop “Linea di Confine” commissioning work to Golhke, Baltz, Shore, Schmidt, Huette among others.in the late 1980s early 1990s. While by the mid 1970s Luigi Ghirri had already taken his own “postmodernist” turn.
    On your last question. Probably each day we run across photodocumentions by anonymous or less know authors via TV or internet. The question is that all these works do not get to be institutionalized and thus it will be very difficult to historicized.

    • Jorge Ribalta
      Posted 14. July 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the expansion Antonella. Well, you probably know that ICP was also the model for an ambitious but short-lived photographic institution in Barcelona, between 1978 and 1983. It was called Centre Internacional de Fotografia Barcelona and took a whole building. It was actually bigger than the New York one and Capa visited it and was shocked! It corresponds to the period of recomposition of photographic culture in Spain, including new galleries and education institutions. But in Barcelona it was a failed institutional experiment since the future would be determined by public policies modelled by a kind of “biennal” mentality that to a large determined the new cultural policies in Spain in the 1980s, and whose emblem was the ARCO art fair. The institutional recomposition in Spain after Franco’s dictatorship was very much influenced by the neoliberal and reactionary postmodernism, the return to painting, the promotion of art market, etc.

      Concerning the supposed influence of “New Topographics”, I have to say that in Spain there was a short wave of new (sub)urban documentary in the early 1980s and a relative proliferation of photographic surveys. But I feel at the time nobody was very aware of New Topographics and the references were classic modernist ones, like Walker Evans’. This kind of urban documentary dissapeared very quickly in the late 1980s and it’s been only along the last decade when it’s been reevaluated. That’s why I say I think the New Topographics paradigm is a retrospective construction.

  4. Posted 12. July 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks a lot , Jorge, for your succesful effort on blogging , and on blogging on this subject
    I´d love to hear some answers to the questions you raise at the end
    Cheers!

    • Jorge Ribalta
      Posted 14. July 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Thanks Pablo. I’m afraid those questions will remain open for the future. Like I said in my answer to Geoffrey now I’d better have remained in a more “historical” approach, because the quick historical jump between the 30s, the 70s and today may be misleading. I will only say that concerning the first one, I think that to a large extent, “we are still in the 1970s”. But again, this conversation is more about sharing questions than about having all the answers. Sorry for this poor reply!

  5. Sarah James
    Posted 22. July 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jorge,

    Apologies for my late response, I’ve been away, and – gloriously – without an Internet connection.

    I really like this last post – I think it is actually very brave to try and articulate the link between the 70s and the present day. It is surely one of the most pressing issues for all current work on documentary – attempting to mobilise the historical in relation to the politics of the present. But it is, indeed, the hardest move to make…

    If there is a gap between the reinvention of documentary in the 70s and its possible reinventions now, i think a very significant one lies with the collusion (perhaps too strong a word), or entanglement of the New Left AND photography – as it came to be theorised most prevalently from the 70s onwards – with poststructuralism and deconstruction? (A development that retrospectively seemed to mean the dismantling of political critique into a less militant or utopian identity politics?) I know Sekula and Rosler in the US and Spence and Dennett in the UK are your normal examples exactly because they offer a more radical and dialectical critique of both modernism and documentary – but perhaps other figures, like for example, Burgin also help us to understand the complexities of this particular moment? I say this because the emergence of postmodern critiques, or what became the very prevalent deconstruction of the medium’s truth/realism/naivety etc in the 80s and 90s continued to play such a crucial part in what would go on to emerge after the 90s – both in photo practice and theory. Yet today it seems to me that different debates about technology, realism, labour and politics are possible – and equally, very different interventions into the history of the medium.

    I think an exploration of the positions of different photographic modernisms – and their necessary dismantling or ‘working through’ in the 70s – in the global postwar context – is what has clearly been demanded in the last few decades. Indeed, Steve Edwards voiced a call for this a long time ago when he prioritised the importance of looking at the differences between the Soviet and German experiences of the photographic avant-gardes to the American context, in his essay critiquing the postmodernisation of mainstream Anglo-American photo-theory and practice. Equally pressing in my view is the need to fully explore the different cultural and political stakes of realism in these different cultural and historical contexts and geographies. In my own field I know that work by people such as Matthew Witkovsky – on the photo-modernity of Central and Eastern Europe – has been crucial to rethinking the different photographic cultures and modernities across these particular geographies. And of course, these histories in turn have huge implications in terms of the postwar photographic histories of these regions, and the complex politics that necessitated actually reinventing – or possibly resuscitating modernism – under socialism, instead of dismantling it. During my own work on East Germany I have found many examples of documentary photographic practice which don’t conform to Anglo-American models of the 70s, and cannot be related to examples from the 30s in the same ways, but do, nevertheless, enable striking parallels with and divergences from these more hegemonic paradigms to be clarifed. Clearly the questions of photography’s institutionalisation and its relationship with the art market are also very different in these contexts. In relation to connecting the 70s to the present, post-socialist photographic cultures have obviously continued to reinvent, dismantle and/or return to modernism and documentary very differently. The photographic cultures of the Global South obviously present their own complex narratives and turns. Recent efforts to think through the transnational histories of photography in relation to the global Cold War for example, are incredibly productive in this context: http://inthedarkroom.org/

    I’m certainly not answering your questions, and these are very broad statements, for which I apologise – but I think we can safely say that we are definitely not still in the 1970s, and the Western ‘reinvention of documentary as a critique of modernism’ is both valid and completely invalid when it comes to engaging with different scenes beyond the Anglo-American context.

    Yet, the global picture is harder and harder to maintain in relation to the 70s without the global reach and ambitions of developments which characterised the 30s, such as the Worker Photography Movement (the global reach of which your exhibition – A Hard Merciless Light – did so much to bring to light), or even the problematic global ambitions that coloured Steichen’s 50s. Indeed, Antonella’s – as always very insightful – comments on the Italian context make clear that even Western Europe’s photographic histories are still falsely homogenised and scotomatous.

    This is why I am very excited about your next major exhibition – ‘Not Yet. On the Reinvention of Documentary and the Critique of Modernism’ – Jorge, and the new debates it will undoubtedly generate.

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