installation shot of Jorge Ribalta's exhibition at MACBA

Since his 2005 exhibition Jo Spence: Beyond the Perfect Image, independent curator and historian of photography Jorge Ribalta has organised a series of exhibitions exploring the role and place of documentary photography in modern culture. A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker Photography Movement, 1926-1939, promoted the following conversation, which explores some of the inadequacies and gaps in our current histories of documentary photography.

Stephanie Schwartz: I would like to begin with a question about history. A brief survey of recent exhibitions in the UK and Europe, including your exhibition, The Worker Photography Movement, 1926-1934, which was on view at the Museo Reina Sofia last year, suggests that we are in need of—perhaps searching for—a new history of the document. Do you agree? Concerns about the status and meaning of documentary are certainly ripe today, yet it seems that we are not very clear about what we mean when we talk about documentary or documentary photography. Can we start with a working definition?

Jorge Ribalta: Yes, I think we need more narratives dealing with the historical exclusions produced by the canonical Anglo-American history of modernism, from “new vision” to postmodernism, so to speak. We need a complex and political history of modernism. The major institutions involved in the production of a history of photographic modernism, such as the MoMA or Beaubourg, still offer reductionist, formalist, flat and devaluated repetitions of the old narrative. They are also imperialist, in the sense that the hierarchical division between the centres and peripheries of photo-modernism is strongly predetermined.

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SS: Can you give us a specific example? What geography of modernism would you propose?

JR: Well, I come from Spain, which is significantly peripheral, even absent from histories of photographic modernism, as is much of the production from the “Global South.” Following the model of modernism organised by Serge Guilbaut, the history of modernism in photography is written along a trajectory from Paris to New York. To a large extent, this is a history of some Americans visiting Paris, bringing Eugène Atget to New York and then producing something new.

The centrality of the Paris/New York axis neglects or at least marginalises what happened in Central Europe. Even German photography is not well known outside of the all too simplistic and not very useful labels of “new objectivity” and “new vision.” Yet, the German influence on Central European practice is probably the most important of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet-German exchanges that began taking place in the mid-1920s. But influence is not the right word to describe how things worked. Networks of exchange characterised this period. This is so, even if the strongest economy of the region was Germany’s and the lingua franca was German.

Researching the worker-photography network for the exhibition at the Reina Sofia taught me that the links between Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Zurich, Bratislava and other Eastern European capitals, including Moscow, produced a rich, complex and intellectually advanced photographic activity centered around the struggles of the working classes. This geography remains relatively marginal in our histories of modernism. A history of modern photography written around the Berlin/Moscow axis would produce a pretty different narrative.

SS: But this is not just a geography lesson. To produce a history of modernism along the Berlin/Moscow axis and its “satellite” sites, which the exhibition at the Reina Sofia did, is to insist on the centrality of documentary to the history of modernism. This is an important shift and it leads me back to my initial question: Howdo you define documentary?

JR: Documentary is a structurally ambiguous category. First, I think we have to be careful to distinguish its “philosophical” from its “historical” definitions. Philosophically speaking, documentary is attached to photographic realism. It is a distillation of that idea. To be more specific, I define documentary as the intersection of the discursive spaces of the museum, the archive and the media. It is a fragile and temporary agreement between the aesthetic, the communicative and the epistemic conditions of photography. The fragility and unresolved tension between these three fields is constitutive of documentary and any attempt to resolve or simplify this tension involves the erasure of the idea itself.

More important, for me, is the “historical” definition. Let’s not forget that realism exceeds mimetic representations in which the indexical condition of photography is rooted. Realism emerged with Gustave Courbet and the 1848 revolution. It emerged from a pictorial project seeking to represent the social movements and it was organised around ideas of public service and public debate. This brings me to my key point in terms of carving out a historical definition of documentary: it emerged in the 1930s as the result of a historical, political and cultural need to make the working class visibilie. This need came simultaneously from above, from the State, and from below, from mass social movements. But the hegemonic narrative has only accounted for the impulse from above.

SS: If we take this definition of documentary, historically speaking, as emerging out of or from within the context of a specific public sphere, which included the museum and new forms of illustrated media, than it has not simply been excluded from modernism. It has been—perhaps strategically—misread. Can you give us an example of the hegemonic narrative?

JR: Well, one example would be the narrative canonised by Anglo-American photographic historians like John Tagg around the New Deal photographic programs. In this history, documentary is defined as a technocratic governance technology. Of course, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Life magazine, the other major “archive” of the period, were totally identified with the State. Yet, the narrative of documentary as technocratic governance is grounded in the erasure of the types of photographic cultures that had already emerged from below in the mid-1920s, and from within the new mass-mediated visual cultures of the period. The FSA production is important, but it is a late contribution to photographic culture.

If we recognise the worker movement—if we start earlier and in different geography—then a very different genealogy of documentary practice begins to emerge. It is not ground in state policies. It is ground in the new political protagonism of the working class, in the revolutionary process of subverting or radically transforming the liberal-bourgeois order.

Documentary is a construction embedded in, not against, the illustrated press and propagandistic exhibitions, the new visual culture regime of the period between the wars, and so on. Worker photography, for example, represented the materiality of everyday life from the perspective of the workers themselves and in this respect it anticipates 1960s micro-politics. It was an emancipatory art of dissent, based in self-representation by those historically excluded as political subjects (or only visible as victims) in the liberal public sphere. It is significant that the worker photography experience only became readable again in the 1970s, that is, after the micro-political explosion of ’68.

SS: Your last point is worth unpacking. Instead of insisting that the 1970s saw a radicalisation of the documentary impulse of the 1930s, you are suggesting that the 1970s was the moment when documentary was first historicised or discovered. I think this is a crucial distinction that needs to be mapped out, especially for those attempting to define the stakes of documentary today.

JR: Yes, the first monographs on the FSA published in the United States mostly appeared in the 1970s. The decade opened with Szarkowski’s Walker Evans exhibition at MoMA in 1971. Though the most important retrospective monograph was certainly Roy Stryker and Nancy Wood’s In this Proud Land, which appeared in 1973. Wood argued that Stryker was dissatisfied with the selection of FSA photographs that Edward Steichen had offered in his 1962 exhibition The Bitter Years, his last exhibition at MoMA. With In this Proud Land, Stryker responded, consciously or unconsciously, to a new wave of politicised readings of the FSA and documentary culture that had emerged around ‘68. Perhaps he was also consciously or unconsciously responding to MoMA’s role as the institution producing the hegemonic narrative of modernism. Simply put, it seems that Stryker sought to prevent negative critical readings of the FSA’s production, which Steichen’s selection could have facilitated, and that he was attempting to protect MoMA, against itself, by staging a “return to order.” It was as if Stryker intuited that Steichen was opening the door to postmodernism or that he was a postmodernist avant la lettre.

My larger point, though, is that the documentary cultures of the 1930s remained largely unreadable and repressed during the cultural Cold War in a way that paralleled the generalised repression of communist experiences from the 1930s. Postwar neo-realism attempted to reconstruct that culture. Yet, it was very quickly subsumed into a humanist framework—and culminated in Steichen’s 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. Only when a younger generation of politicised artists and scholars living through the micro-political struggles of the late 1960s came of age did the documentary production of the 1930s become legible again. I am thinking of the work of Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler and Jo Spence, which emerged precisely at this moment and as a “reinvention” of documentary, to borrow Sekula’s now well-worn phrase.

SS: Yet, what became legible in the 1970s was not the FSA project. You are referring to a historical awareness of worker photography.

JR: Yes, I recall a Benjamin Buchloh interview with Rosler in which she defended the Photo League, against Evans, as the truly relevant documentary project of the 1930s. But, most important, is simply to note that Spence and her circle in London, including Terry Dennett, produced the first attempt to historicise the worker photography experience in their 1979 publication Photography/Politics: One.

SS: We encounter the writings of Sekula, Victor Burgin and Tagg in our history of photography primers and edited volumes with very little acknowledgment of the context within which their essays, such as Sekula’s ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary’, were originally published. That is, it is rarely acknowledged that it was published alongside a series of articles offering the first major critical investigation of the international worker photographer movement. As you noted above, only one side of the story gets told. It is the story that begins with a heavy-handed critique of State-sponsored documentary work. In these histories, documentary remains modernism’s “bad object,” to quote Sekula again.

JR: Once the historical context comes into focus it becomes clear that 1970s documentary practices were critiquing modernism from the inside. The documentary idea suddenly appeared as a repressed condition of modernist self-critique. Take an example from the modernist canon: Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Praise Now Famous Men. There are incredible passages in the book in which Agee’s descriptions of their position as observers of the tenant farmer families take on a rather surprising materialist approach. This was the model proposed by the Soviet factographers. Agee was not that far from Sergei Tretyakov. Likewise, it is pretty amazing to read Lewis Mumford writing in the 1930s that photography was the most adequate technical means for social observation. His observation is also similar to that of Tretyakov and the factographers.

Spence and her group reframed the unequal power relations inscribed in documentary representation, a problem evident to the documentarians in the 1930s, into a different linguistic framework about the politics of representation. They literally re-enacted the same practices that Evans and Agee or Tretyakov had developed in the 1930s. Documentary discourse and method is part of the productivist anti-bourgeois artistic culture of the 1930s, which was developing both inside and outside the Soviet Union. This artistic culture re-emerged in the 1970s as counter-culture.

My point is this: the materialist condition of documentary was only understood after the 1970s, after the repressive forces and apparatus of the cultural Cold War were in decline or in a process of being dismantled. To me, this is the meaning of Sekula’s call to “dismantle modernism.” The institutional repressive apparatus needs to be dismantled, not the documentary or modernist impulse, which is, historically speaking, emancipatory. By historicising the birth of documentary culture in the 1930s, which Sekula, Spence, and Rosler did, a new version of modernism appeared. It is a process of re-signification, not an abandonment of a historical project.

SS: You have outlined a definition and a history that situates documentary, perhaps uncomfortably, between mass media and the museum. This triangulation of practices and institutions shifts our frame of reference drastically. It also sits at the centre of your curatorial practice. The Worker-Photography Movement as well as your current exhibition at MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona), Barcelona International Center of Photography, belong to a series of exhibitions that you have curated in the last few years, including Universal Archive: The Condition of the Document and Modern Photographic Utopia (2008), in which you have sought to address and excavate what you have referred to as a “photographic public sphere.” What is the museum’s role in this practice?

JR: I can only answer this question with reference to attempts I made at MACBA with Manolo Borja, in which we have tried to redefine the museum as an experimental public sphere. This is something that Borja is trying to continue at the Museum Reina Sofia, though in a very different context and under very different conditions, of course. The worker photography project was an institutional critique intervention in the context of a mainstream, hegemonic modern art institution, such as the Reina Sofia. I sought to produce a narrative that made visible the historical exclusions we spoke about earlier and, in turn, to transform the conditions for the production of historiography. My work in the museum has taught me that what is missing today are links between artistic experimentation and new social movements. It is clear to me that these links have to be negotiated on an institutional level. Documentary, as a historical problem of realism, is precisely about these links. The museum and documentary, I have often said, face the same problem—the problem of political representation. In order to produce a transformative effect, I think artwork has to operate institutionally. I feel the worker-photography exhibition project was relatively successful in that respect.

SS: I would agree. The exhibition certainly stressed the importance of the connections between institutions, cultural practices and social movements. It also countered much of what we see of photography in museums today. I am not referring simply to the exhibition’s content. As we discussed before, the exhibition provided new historical and geographic axes for organising histories of modernism. Yet, it also countered the document’s association with self-contained images. You gave us the films, the posters, the books, the covers of the new illustrated magazines, and mapped out spatially and visually the relationships between artistic practice and social movements. This goes against the grain of photography’s entry into the museum. Even Evans got this. After all, in his 1938 American Photographs exhibition, the first major photography retrospective organised by MoMA, he took his photographs out of the frames and tacked them directly to the wall. His decision has been read as an assertion of freedom and authorship, though, to me, it was the exact opposite. The Worker-Photography Movement was successful. Yet, it must be noted that it did not travel.

JR: It did not, and would not have, even if we tried. There are several reasons for this. The first is simply the scale of the exhibition. It was too large to travel. There were about a thousand objects in the exhibition, and a lot of them were rare loans of precarious materials from strange peripheral institutions. This made it difficult to hang the exhibition in another venue. Yet, this is not just about logistics. Most museums do not present photographic exhibitions of the scale. The ruling paradigm of photographic exhibitions in major museums remains attached to a classic modernist framework. The 1938 MoMA paradigm of the single author seems still to be the hegemonic one.

The second reason, of course, is political. Communism is still taboo in major museums and clearly so in the United States. Modern art museums (as well as the mainstream media) still operate with a sort of non-declared anti-communist unconscious. If they don’t, then communism is only acceptable as exotic, grandiloquent or monstruous. It is never represented as producing an emancipatory poetics of the everyday, so to speak. In Madrid, a right wing newspaper critic blamed the museum for not keeping up with necessary “pluralism” by presenting such an exhibition, which, for her, was too politically motivating for the audience! The exhibition opened at the same moment the M-15 (May 15) movement was starting in the streets of Madrid. I guess I don’t need to say that I’m not offering an apology of communism with this project (but, what if I were?), I am simply trying to face the repressed, to read the communist experience beyond the blindness imposed on it by the reigning anti-communist unconscious.

The third reason is geopolitical. Madrid is not a hegemonic centre. Anyway, I have no major problems with the fact that it did not travel. The best reception came from abroad, and the best reviews were published in German and English speaking countries. Amazingly, the most enthusiastic review was published in The Financial Times. In spite of the fact that it did not travel, the intellectual and academic reception of the exhibition was essentially Anglo-American. Also, New York’s International Center of Photography awarded the book produced in conjunction with the exhibition their 2012 Infinity Award. Being peripheral sometimes gives you a lot of possibilities.

SS: The exhibition re-signified documentary, to borrow your word; it demonstrated that the project is now, once again, legible.

JR: Yes. This was part of my point about the exhibition’s relationship to the M-15 movement. It was clear that the media was reading the exhibition through the present, as the iconography of precariousness, poverty, charity lines and unemployment, which is becoming all too familiar again today. Journalists and various publics began to ask questions about current sites for self-organisation and dissent. They began to ask about where to find current spaces for the visual formalisation and dissemination of the everyday experiences of non-normative subjectivities, equivalent to the worker-photography networks and media from the 1930s. They responded to the exhibition with questions about the current and coming class struggles, even if “proletarian” is not a term we use to define the current conditions of subalternity.

SS: Can you say a bit more about your curatorial attempts to transform the conditions for the production of historiography?

JR: In my curatorial projects dealing with aspects of the history of photography, particularly in the Universal Archive and The Worker-Photography Movement, I have tried to explore and develop an understanding of photography as a constitutive part of a total visual environment. I highlight important moments, such as the rise of the illustrated press in the 1930s and new exhibition practices, around Lissitzky, Herbert Bayer and Steichen, to stress the ways in which photography produced a new visual culture. Rather than offering histories of photography based on authors and key works, I am interested in producing histories in which photography was part of cultural debates and means for their circulation. I am interested in the “traffic in photographs‚” to quote Sekula again. For me, the most important part of my job as a curator is to maintain photography’s historical density. I want to de-naturalise narratives on post-photography or post-documentary. I want to find ways to acknowledge that the public role of photography has remained essentially the same since the 1920s, not to say since the 1850s.

SS: Yet, whereas Sekula is extremely critical of Steichen’s curatorial practice, specifically, of The Family of Man, you seem to be pointing to a way to develop a history of photography around Steichen’s exhibition program that establishes rather nuanced links between documentary work in the 1930s and contemporary mass mediated practices.

JR: Not long ago I had a public conversation with Sekula in which I accused him of not being so far from Steichen and The Family of Man in his work on sea labour. I think he didn’t like my comment, even if I’m a declared fan of Steichen. Somehow I see myself as a curator as in a process of “becoming Steichen,” following Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “devenir” or “to become.” That is, I understand subjectivity as an endless production process, not as a fixed precondition. Steichen’s exhibitionary ideas hold tremendendous potential today, despite, as I am well aware, of Steichen’s reactionary aspects and his part in the cultural Cold War apparatus. For Sekula, this is an unacceptable burden, which explains his refusal.

We cannot forget that Steichen’s curatorial practice was a vampirisation of Lissitzky’s. As Buchloch explained in his now classic essay ‘From Faktura to Factography’, Steichen re-signified the revolutionary project into postwar humanism. We need to re-signify the re-signification and deepen the process started in the 1970s. Ariella Azoulay is attempting a similar process of re-signification in her recent work on The Family of Man, which I know only superficially. Her deconstructive or postcolonial take on the exhibition stems from a similar feeling of admiration for Steichen, for a curator for whom the power of photography was its means of free expression in modern public visual culture. I remain attached to Blake Stimson’s assessment of The Family of Man as a political space for citizenship before mass consumption became the model for social integration and participation in the 1960s.

SS: Her return to The Family of Man was surprising. Your point about Steichen, though, reframes the way we can look at this move. It also reframes Azoulay’s theorisation of the social contract of photography as part of a much longer history of photographic public spheres. Well, it gives “the contract” a history.

JR: Azoulay’s theory of photography as a social contract does a lot of important work. Most importantly, it liquidates the false debates on the index that emerged in the late 1980s and culminated in pretty empty and sterile discussions of the death of photography, post-photography, the end of photographic realism in the digital era and so on. Azoulay demonstrates that photography’s truth claims, and its public function in terms of social struggles and access to citizenship, have remained essentially unchanged. Photography’s indexical or realist condition, she argues, is not based in technological essentialism. It is a historical condition, a sort of social agreement or a “contract.” And, as such, it is permanently renovated.

I think Azoulay and Stimson offer the two most important theoretical contributions to debates about the social function of the document today and the production of a “photographic public sphere,” as well as about the role documentary plays in democratic struggles. But, of course, the problem comes when we try to link new social movements to the theory or to find an institutional framework for photography beyond the academy. I am afraid Azoulay will hate me for saying this but her very important books fail completely in terms of social or imaginative mobilisation. Her uses the exhibitionary or institutional spaces are also not satisfactory.

SS: I always wondered if the contract works as a theory of photography. I appreciate your point about her contribution to postmodern debates on the index and “the death of photography,” but, to me, her analysis is based on a political theory, not a theory of photography. The political contract defines photography, not the other way around, which means that photographs are stripped of their complex operations both within and against the State, and as historical objects. There is something eerily ahistorical about the contract that drives against the materiality of photography. We are left with Steichen’s universal subject and private encounters. But maybe that is your point? Can you give us an example of successful social mobilisation?

JR: It is hard to find good successful examples after the 1980s, but Marc Pataut’s work from the mid-to-late 1990s, when he was part of the Ne Pas Plier’s tremendously innovative work in the context of the anti-capitalist movement, is important. His recent work is not as satisfactory. I say this even if I like Pataut. I respect him enormously and have worked with him several times. His work has lost much of its links to the social. It runs the risk of becoming a sort of instrument for the expression of the bad consciousness of certain institutions trying to legitimate themselves socially. This is always the risk with these kinds of practices, as I know from my experiences at MACBA. I was horrified when our (often painful) experiments with what we called a “board of trustees from below,” an inversion of the traditional composition of the museum’s board of trustees in which we replaced the political and financial elites with representatives from the new social movements, was quickly labeled and packaged as “relational art.”

Processes of absorption and co-option, or whatever you want to call them, always chase us. Every rupture lasts for a moment; it is quickly commodified and resignified. This does not mean that the transformation did not happen. In the next few years, we will certainly see worker-photography “returning to order” and appearing everywhere. The problem of social articulation is a problem of temporalities. Social mobilisations, by definition, happen for short periods of time and the institutional inscription is always antagonistic to this ephemeral condition.

I am not blaming Pataut for what is going on with his work at the moment. To be fair, the task of social mobilisation is too difficult for one person, Azoulay or Pataut. In part, this is why I think the emphasis should be put on the institutional level. Artists and scholars do their job the best they can, but the political exigency has to focus on institutions. This was evident in Spence’s work in the 1970s. She and her groups reinvented the structural link between documentary, social movements and institutions. Of course, the context in which she worked—of self-organised “alternative” spaces network—has now disappeared. She was more successful in that respect than Sekula or Rosler, whose institutional framework became quickly academic. You may say I am being simplistic or manichean…

SS: Well, there is no denying that Sekula and Rosler have become academic. Yet, one could argue that documentary as such has become academic and this is the condition we are in now. This is not unrelated to another aspect of Azoulay’s work and your point about the absence of self-organised social spaces. Her call for active spectators, for spectators to acknowledge their civic duty, has to be read against a wide variety, politically speaking, of calls for participation. I am thinking of the rise of citizen journalism and new Web 2.0 based practices. Calls for democracy have become technical and individualised, even academic. Isn’t this the other side of the social contract?

JR: William Stott, in his seminal Documentary Expression and Thirties America, also from the 1970s, characterizes documentary as both propaganda and a democratic art. To me, this means two things. First, it reminds us that since the constitutive moment of the 1970s documentary has been identified with social democracy. This is a consequence of its identification with New Deal policies, an argument, which as I noted before, Tagg developed to its extreme.

The second meaning, though, goes deeper. For western modern culture in the mass mediated era, documentary is historically attached to democratic struggles for social justice and recognition. Documentary has a structural role in the way western liberal public democratic spheres represent or make visible social pluralism. Documentary poetics is about the visual production of the common man, a kind of anonymous universal citizen that is a key figure for western liberal political culture. Documentary is about the poetic construction of the “everybody.” This is the role of photojournalism today. You can say the documentary is Habermasian, in this respect. I would argue that it is also anti-Habermasian, if we follow the worker-photography genealogy.

This genealogy has many contradictions. It allows for the emergence of a falsely universalist or consensual concept of antagonistic democracy. The problem we face now—in the context of a proliferation of so-called documentary practices, most of which often lack a sophisticated historical understanding of the practice—is that what we are trying to produce as part of the radicalisation of democracy (if we identify documentary with democratic struggles) may end up instead being reframed as new humanism and a legitimation and reproduction of the existing order. How to escape this condition is difficult, but also the most important task.
Published in Photoworks Issue 18, 2009
Commissioned by Photoworks

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