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.
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?