4. Heart of Darkness
Published: 29.06.2014
in the series Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary
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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?

10 comment(s)
Posted 29.06.2014 at 18:39

Hello Jorge, probably just a wayward question, but can you tell me where to obtain a copy of English exhibition catalogue of "A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker-Photography Movement, 1926-1939"? Try to find it anywhere without success and really want to read it.



Jorge Ribalta
Posted 30.06.2014 at 16:04

Thanks Cheb. I'm sorry but I'm afraid you can't get it. It's sold out and my efforts to convince the museum to make a second printing or to find an Anglo-American publisher who can make a new edition are not successful. I have to upload some pdfs because otherwise there is no access to the book at all. I'm pretty desperate about this.

antonella russo
Posted 02.07.2014 at 16:36

Dear Jorge,
Thanks for Part IV of your blog which is particularly intense and dense !

One thing I’d like to point out is that the paradigmatic shift you so rightly underlined from Steichen’s modernist/humanitarian photodocument to the Szarkowski’s own existentialist/ antimodernist “New “ documentarism, did not happen suddenly in 1967 but is was probably carefully planned at the moment Szarkowski ‘s became the third Moma photo department director.
For just as under Steichen’s governante high-art photography was contained but kept alive ( see his “ Abstract Photography” 1951http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/1513/releases/MOMA_1951_0031_1951-04-25_510425-24.pdf?2010; 12 photographers, 1951; “Harry Callahan and Robert Frank exhibition” 1962, among a few others) during Szarkowski’s directorship the 1920s-1930s photo- document was not erased ( see his “The photo essay exhibition “1965
http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/3450/releases/MOMA_1965_0026_23.pdf?2010 and his “From Picture to Press “1973
http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/4948/releases/MOMA_1973_0018_4.pdf?2010) was but subtly and firmly severed of any possible links with social photodocumentarism .
It seems to me that in 1962 MoMA photodepartment director prepared this transition very carefully, erasing the impact of what may be seen as the last Steichen’s propaganda shows namely “Korea –The Impact of War” 1951;
http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/1497/releases/MOMA_1951_0015_1951-02-08_510208-11.pdf?2010 and especially “Bitter Years” ,1962 -- which opened right at the time of the Cuban missile crisis as consequence of the US Cuba invasion in 1961— two shows that old patriot and Captain Steichen orchestrated as an hymn to America’s spirit of endurance and at the service of White House ‘s cause .
Szarkowski’s MoMa years meant the establishment of a neo-formalist astethetics of (individualist) documentary photography, one made by great authors, one in which photoamateurs works were replaced by anonimous ( especially native visual creators belonging to photography ‘s own aesthetics. ( one which hinged on a stubborn North- Americanocentrism with but a few exceptions )
I would also like to stress that the point you make about MOMa photodepartment as the MAIN institution engaged in circulating photography discourse. Besides exporting photography shows domestically and internationally, acquisition and photography sale shows, publications andcourses on photography, symposia and periodical lectures on the media it established , as early as 1964, of a MoMa Edward Steichen Photography Center, complete with Steichen’s plaque while he was still alive.
One other photography institution that I would add to the ones you mentioned is the Photography Department established by Van deren Coke (1921-2004) in New Mexico in the early 1960s. Photographer , curator and photo historian and teacher he founded of the the top two photography departments in the US and was instrumental in bringing Beaumont Newhall to teach at UNM in the 1970s.
Before becoming director of the San Francisco MoMA in 1979 Van deren Coke, a devot of Newhall, was already known for his “The Painter and the Photographer” 1964 exhibition, very popular in Europe where it inspired “From Today Painting is Dead “ at the Victoria and Albert Museum 1972, and “Malerie nach Fotografie . Von der Camera Obscura bis zur Pop Art “Munich, Statdtmuseum, 1970) and “Combattimento per un’ immagine”
( The Fight for the image) 1973 curated by Luigi Carluccio and Daniela Palazzoli which marked the beginning of the institutionalization of photography in this country.

I also have one question about Lyons “Contemporary Photographers Towards a Social Landascape” Exhibition and wonder if it could be seen as an indirect response to Szarkowski “ The Photographer and the American Landscape” (1963) http://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/3193/releases/MOMA_1963_0105_100.pdf?2010 in which “ the landscape is considered not as a scenery, or natural history or economics but as a subject in picture making”.

Your statement about Kark Pavek’s 1964 “Welt Austellung der photographie” subtitled “Was ist Man” gives me another opportunity- welcomed by Sarah—to move away from the mainstream history of photography narratives- and focus on Pavek's exhibition reception in Italy . Here, during the first half of the Sixties , the photography scene was dominated by photoamateur associations and Pavek’s exhibition was especially well received among Italian photographers, both photoamateurs and professionals who seized an opportunity to show and circulated their works abroad as well as to contribute to Pavek “ spiritual journalism “ according to his definition of his Magnum magazine mission.
It also needs to be pointed out that Pavek, who spoke and wrote Italian, was in touch and regularly wrote to Giacomelli, Migliori, Roiter , Merisio among many others , requesting them pictures to illustrate his “Magnum” magazine which published such issues as “ What is the West” (1961) or “Western Life and society” or “Habits and wishes of our times” (1962).
Italian photographres saw in “Welt Austellung” that opportunity that Steichen did not give them –for no Italian photographer except from Horvat who hardly ever worked and lived in Italy for long periods of time– was represented in “The Family”.

One exhibition that needs to be mentioned as a response to Steichen’s is “The Italian Family in 100 Years of Photography “ (1968) curated by marxist photography critic Ando Gilardi, anthropologist Tullio Seppilli, photocritic Marcantonio Muzi Falconi exhibited at the University of Perugia; it showed anonimous photographs sent by readers of newpapers and magazines in response to the curators’s announcement. All pictures were mounted on panels and placed in grids for each 20 decades and displayed according to the social classes :from the upper midle class, to middle and lower ones down to the families of the urban and rural proletaritat. This appears to me as a neo-positivist and marxist response to Steichen’s a historical “family of Man . More importantly it represented one of the first archeological study on domestic life and costumes in Italy from 1867 up to 1967 and an big opportunity to discover ( but partially) a wealth of Italian vernacular photographic patrimony, quite unknown at the time.

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 07.07.2014 at 12:11

Great remarks Antonella!
I'm unclear about the relations between Lyons and Szarkowski in the sixties and that is certainly a very interesting topic. I'll be happy to hear what you have to say about it. It is true they they look as close and somehow complementary figures of its time, even if in retrospect they took rather divergent careers along the 1970s, specially from the moment when Lyons started the Visual Studies Workshop. But in the sixties their positions seem less antagonistic, so to speak.
It is also interesting to note that in Pawek's 1960s exhibition some Spanish photographers participated, like Xavier Miserachs, Gabriel Cuallado and Ricard Terre. Even Colom received a letter of invitation, but he finally did not participate, I don't know exactly why, probabnly because at that time he had already abandoned photography . But in Spanish histories of photography this World Exhibition of Photography is never mentioned. It did not come to Spain and strangely the Spanish participant photographers did not mention his participapation in their resumes. It is also true that after 1965 there was a kind of anti-climax in terms of Spanish photo-avantgarde derived from the fact that the photographers that participated of the late 1950s "new avantgarde" were assuming professional positions and abandoning experimentation. So in that respect it seems as if Pawek's exhibition arrived too late or represented some sort of anachronistic photographic culture in a context of decline which would last till the mid-1970s, when a great structural transformation in photographic culture started to take shape. Contrary to the strongly idealized The Family of Man, the memory of Pawek's exhibition seems to have been a bit repressed in the historisization of Spanish photography.

Posted 03.07.2014 at 18:57

Hi Jorge, thanks for your reply and very sorry to hear this. I have been trying to find this catalogue for two years ever since I heard about the exhibition. Afterall not every people have a chance to visit Madrid at that time so I was thinking at least I could get a copy of this book to learn more about working class photography movement. Unfortunately I quickly found out that this book is extremely difficult to locate outside Spain and a few places selling it on the internet are demanding ridiculous high prices for it, treating it as a rare, precious "item". My attempts to ask for local libraries (I live in Taiwan) to obtain a copy for further research reference also failed, as they also had difficulties buying this book.

Sarah James
Posted 04.07.2014 at 16:40

Jorge – I think your conceptualisation of the ’60s as the new-old, but also as simultaneously dystopian and utopian – is really helpful. And I think the place of Winogrand and Friedlander in the discrediting of documentary and its reinvention in the 1970s perhaps needs closer – and renewed – consideration. It’s interesting that it is Evans who provides the preface to Friedlander’s ‘Little Screens’ in 1961, and I can’t help but feel that their approach to documentary – so rubbished by Rosler, for example, and certainly distinct from that of Arbus, deserves a more nuanced reconsideration than the established paradigm shifts of the period often allow.

It also seems to me that it is really significant that 1959 marks the beginning of the Bechers’ long archival project and its own complex recalibration of photographic modernism and documentary. Here you have another kind of social landscape – one that engages with Atget, Sander, and conceptualism, but despite the dominant readings of its aesthetic, sculptural and depopulated – so subsequently melancholic or picturesque – landscape, one which can also be read as a complicated attempt to picture post-industrial culture, globalization, labour, class and to rethink the documentarian’s social or political purpose. (Although, clearly, the Becher School and the museum-worthy, glossy large-scale images associated with figures like Ruff and Struth seem to announce documentary’s final dissolution – at the other end of the scale from the snapshots of the 1960s – in the most cynical and ultimately hollow aestheticism and institutionalisation.

If Steichen’s universalism lived on in Karl Pawek’s peculiar and paradoxical series of homages – that extended throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s – another strange afterlife (and one which I feel was no less crucial to Sekula and Rosler’s condemnation of the collusion between photography’s patriarchal universalism and American transnational capitalism’s) is found in projects such as Cartier-Bresson’s IBM commissioned ‘Man and Machine’ of 1968/9. (https://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYD1D4U8P) This exhibition that also toured the world and was published as a photobook clearly derived from Steichen’s humanist vision, but put the nail in the coffin in terms of documentary’s violent corporate co-option. Here, international collectivism literally meant computer markets and neo-colonial domination. It seems to mark the total dereliction not just of photographic modernism and social/humanist documentary, but also of the photo-essay form. For figures such as Sekula and Rosler this kind of collapse into consumerism was obviously begun on the pages of LIFE. However, the same images by Cartier-Bresson moblised in this exhibition - of the Chinese on the brink of revolution, say - when published by Robert Delpire in Paris as ‘D’une Chine à l’autre’ in 1954 enabled Sarte – engaged not in poststructuralist deconstruction of man, but the decolonized new man of Fanon – to argue for a radical humanism in Cartier-Bresson’s documentary pictures. The latter’s recent – albeit tentative – reframing as a Leftist at the Pompidou Centre (http://www.centrepompidou.fr/cpv/ressource.action?param.id=FR_R-8528b4338f3fde2beee8388769730d1&param.idSource=FR_E-8528b4338f3fde2beee8388769730d1) – and the inclusion of the many images he took of protests around the world in the 1960s and 70s, often left out of discussions of his oeuvre – is surely another important and well over-due revision of mainstream photo-history, and one that leaves more complex questions unanswered as to the 1960s and 1970s discrediting of documentary and the Left's retreat from mass/mainstream and popular photographic cultures.

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 07.07.2014 at 11:47

Another alternative genealogy of the rise of a critical anti-humanist photography can be traced back to the late fifties, when Marcel Broodthaers photographed the construction site for the 1958 Brussels international exhibition, including the iconic Atomium. Broodthaers dystopic photographs were published and they anticipate somehow Smithson's Passaic monuments tour. It is interesting to note here the simultaneity with the starting of the Bechers industrial archeology project that you rightly mention. Obvioulsy we can trace back as early as to Roland Barthes' critique to Family of Man the conceptual origin of such critical practices. In this respect, and as I've been trying to discern here, we should note that along high modernism we find a permanent counter-discourse produced from within, a kind of permanent self-critique. I think the "afterlife" of Family of Man also appears in a complex way in Sekula's work, in Fish Story and specially in his late work consisting of portraits of sea workers made in his travels in The Global Mariner ship. I remember I mentioned this to Sekula in his last talk in Barcelona a few years ago. I told him that I found he was not that far from Steichen in the sense of he was attempting to visibilize a transnational network of solidarity from below. I mentioned Blake's reading of Family of Man to him. He was receptive to that even if he refused the identification with Steichen and The Family of Man, of course. I hope he didn't hated me too much by saying that because what I meant was not a negative interpretation, but precisely the opposite, that he was sort of continuining this kind of self-critical red line inside modernism that is precisely constituting its utopian and emancipatory potential.

Geoffrey James
Posted 06.07.2014 at 16:51

I take it as a given that the Thirties were a decade like no other ,a time of darkness, dread and great polarization in which people were forced to take sides. This was when the notion that all art is political took hold and when the Left had to stand up against the co-optation of High Art by the totalitarian leaders-- there was a chilling five minute propaganda film in the Eintarte Kunst show at the Neue Galerie that said it all, beginning with Bach and the Sistine Chapel and ending with a black man playing a banjo. The conditions of the Thirties did not persist, as Jorge shows in citing Hobsbawm. That might also be a reason why the documentary movement became less urgent. I am always surprised at the agency ascribed to John Szarkowski. The notion that he was a cold warrior, via MOMA's travelling shows, is far fetched. He was a curator in the most influential modern art museum in the world, and a formalist and modernist with his own particular take on the intrinsic qualities of photography. I think Atget, even more than Evans, was the bedrock of his programme- certainly the four-volume catalogue was his greatest, perhaps only, scholarly investment in a photographer. Can The New Document be seen as some kind of ideological rejection of Thirties Documentary? Looking now at show's press release, it seems to something much less grand, but also very bold. The three photographers were not known. Winogrand and Arbus had dismal careers, in spite of Szarkowski's support. Halfway through the show, a museum security guard who was undoubtedly an artist, asked to buy a print from each photographer. They got together to figure out what to charge, and settled on $25. Those were different times. I would suggest that the demise of the social documentary movement had more to do with changed social conditions than with any abandonment by the Left. That said,I would not underestimate the chilling effect in postwar America of Hoover's FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. That was definitely the main reason that Paul Strand ended up in France. Now, Winogrand is showing at the Met. He always claimed to be resolutely apolitical. Friedlander, in his own phrase, photographed America as "friend who isn't perfect." Winogrand,who seemed to have walked around as angry primate, certainly saw no perfection.

Jorge Ribalta
Posted 07.07.2014 at 12:29

It's a good point Geoffrey. I agree that we cannot separate documentary culture from the historical conditions of the working class. And I think the argument in this blog is precisely that the shift in documentary discourse from a prewar revolutionary one to a postwar humanistic one is significant to those very historical conditions of the working class. That also explains somehow why the new anti-humanistic shift happens immediately after, in the 1970s, precisely when the historical conditions of the working class enter a new period after the end of Hobsbawn's "golden age" of capitalism.
Let me also remark that I appreciate Szarkowski, I think he was a great curator and critic and that I disagree with most 1980s attacks to him. It has to be recognized that he was the curator that was closer to photographers in all MOMA's history and that his legacy is immensely influential, probably larger than that of any other MOMA curator. His ability to read the work of the contemporary photographers in "real time" is really impressive and you don't find many people with such "eye". That has to be recognized in spite of the various possible interpretations of his work as MOMA curator.

antonella russo
Posted 08.07.2014 at 18:24

Dear Jorge
I Just would like to second your statement about Szarkowski and stress that by defining John Szarkowski's work as neo-fomalist I did not mean to diminish his work as influential director of MOMA photo department but rather to underline a huge difference he himself wanted to establish between his directorship and Steichen's .
I also think that his " before photography " epistemology , was far too vulgarized ( "The painter and the photographer" is but one example) or quickly liquidated but structuralist critics but never deeply assessed as his own personal (romantic) search for photography as an " undifferentiated whole"

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