Photography, like history, involves a balancing act between objectivity and subjectivity. The historian collects his or her facts and then interprets them: the photographer selects one frame from a myriad possible, and presses the shutter to make an indelible record.
In previous times, we tended to believe in the essential objectivity of both pursuits. Now, after post-modernism, all we can be sure of is that photographers and historians – and anyone else with the ambition to explain the world – also bring themselves to bear, as individual subjects, on the objects of their scrutiny.
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Histories are partial, and subjective. In the Face of History: European Photographers in the 20th Century (Barbican Art Gallery, 2006) is both a subjective history of twentieth century European photography, and a history of subjective documentary photography. It was conceived in one sense in response to the market and museum dominance of another partial historical trajectory. The art world fell in love with the Dusseldorf School in the 1990s and gradually extended its admiration to the American New Colorists – Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld – who had had such an impact on the Germans. An extremely significant axis within modern photography, it is nevertheless one account which seemed to have subsumed all other accounts to become de facto history. In this project I, and my co-curator, Mark Sladen set out to reexamine some of the great forgotten masters of European tradition, as well as to probe some of European photography’s historical amnesias. Where, for example, were the auteur photographers of the former Eastern bloc and where were the women, beyond a familiar handful?
Just as no philosopher of history, in contemporary times, really believes that a single theory of causation can be found to account for the course of human destiny, so it would have been foolhardy to search for a single story of European photography, given how multifarious and protean it is as a medium. The exhibition opens with the work of five photographers – Eugene Atget, Andre Kertesz, S I Witkiewicz, Brassai, and Josef Sudek. Each is a photographic originator, and each – in very different ways – stands at the beginning of a thematic or aesthetic approach which will come to dominate later twentieth century photography. The exhibition does not claim to map a unitary trajectory of causation and continuity; but is instead attentive to the way that photographic subjects and fascinations resonate across time and space. For example, Eugene Atget’s wanderings in the zone militaire in southern Paris just before the First War, presage Robert Doisneau’s in exactly the same area, just after the Second. The dark glamour of Brassai’s denizens of the night in interwar Paris, is echoed by Christer Stromholm’s gorgeous Place Blanche transsexuals twenty years later. Sune Jonsson’s gentle study of his remote Swedish village in the 1950s, compliments Inta Ruka’s account of Soviet and post-Soviet times in a rural Latvian community in the 1980s and 1990s. The blasted trees that Josef Sudek photographed in the ancient Mionsi woods in the 1950s might have seeded Jitka Hanzlova’s Bohemian Forest, in the 1990s.
In the Face of History contains images by twenty-two significant photographers working in Europe in the last 100 years, who illuminate aspects of European life and experience. Working in what, following Walker Evans, we might call a documentary ‘style’, (that is, in a fundamentally observational and realist mode, expressed in the form of unmanipulated negatives and prints, and without, unlike social documentary photographers, any ambition to change or reform the world) each has created photography which garners its intensity from the particularity of their personal experience, as well as an individual artistic vision.
Rather than observing and commenting on their subjects from a distance, as a photojournalist or a classic modernist might do, these photographers are all distinguished by a remarkable closeness to their subject matter. Sometimes – as with Emmy Andriesse’s images of Amsterdam’s terrible 1945 Hunger Winter, or Henryk Ross’s record of life inside the Lodz ghetto – the photographers are themselves, literally and only too painfully, participants in the dramatic events they are recording. Sometimes – as with Seiichi Furuya’s testament to his wife Christine or Annelies Strba’s family chronicle – this special proximity to the subject matter results from a deep emotional bond. Sometimes – as with Sune Jonsson’s The Village with the Blue House, 1959, Jitka Hanzlova’s Rokytnik 1997, or Anders Petersen’s Café Lehmitz, 1978 – it emanates from a shared experience of place or community. The photographer, to borrow a term from social anthropology, is here a participant-observer, intimately and knowingly acquainted with the group he or she is photographing.
At still other times, the characteristic of ‘closeness’ is harder to define, being of more metaphysical or existential character. It is expressed in a peculiarly obsessive absorption in the practice of photography. This absorption could be said to mark the work of Eugene Atget, for example, who walked the streets of Paris for over forty years and captured what he saw in some 10,000 photographs. As the years pass, Atget’s deceptively straightforward images become increasingly charged with symbolic value. A similar intensity of observation characterises the work of the great Czech Joseph Sudek who, like Atget, focussed consistently and determinedly on his everyday world, and yet simultaneously looked beyond it, to reach an ineffable dimension. Sudek was concerned not to make poetry out of things, but with the poetry of things themselves.
The group of photographers selected here are bound by the fact that their work is rooted to the place and the time in which they were photographing. As Michael Schmidt put it: “I could take my photographs elsewhere – but I don’t know why I should.” Each focusses on their immediate environment, and each, in very different ways, summons the specificity of an historical moment or period. Collectively, viewed chronologically, these twenty-two bodies of photography thus map a history of human experience in Europe’s twentieth century. Individually, our photographers are caught up in moments of epic conflict and ideological rupture: Andre Kertesz and S I Witkiewicz in the First World War; Henryk Ross, Josef Sudek and Emmy Andriesse in the Second; Michael Schmidt and Craigie Horsfield in the Cold War; Boris Mikhailov and Viktor Kolar as Soviet state socialism disintegrates; Wolfgang Tillmans and Jitka Hanzlova as Europe reunites and global capitalism replaces political creed as the continent’s determining force (the time that Francis Fukuyama, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, controversially declared ‘the End of History’). At other points, they find themselves swept along in the slower, subtler currents of change that have shaped European social and cultural life in cities, towns and villages across the continent. Our selection encompasses a notion of social change that stretches from 1930s subcultural bohemianism (Brassai) through to the 1960s sexual revolution (Christer Stromholm, Ed van der Elsken) through to the effects of de-population and post-industrialisation in rural communities (Sune Jonsson, Chris Killip). It also explores, in works of serial portraiture by Annelies Strba, Seiichi Furuya and Inta Ruka, how individual lives are shaped by the forces of history, whilst they simultaneously create their own histories. For just as every individual exists within an historical moment, so history exists within every individual.
In the Face of History focuses on photography free from any programmatic or commercial imperatives. There are no Modernists or Futurists or Socialist Realists here, or indeed, any fully-fledged Surrealists: no photographers signed up to artistic manifestos, seeking to transform or mould the world according to a predetermined vision. And neither, on the flip side of the coin, have we included photographers working to someone else’s brief, for a magazine, newspaper, political or humanitarian organisation. (fn Although Atget made most of his work to sell, and he had regular clients ranging from artists to antiquarians, he was not working to commission in the sense that he did not know a priori that an image would find a buyer. Henryk Ross was employed by the Jewish authorities charged by the Nazis to govern the Lodz Ghetto. He was required to make identity photographs and other visual records to be passed to the Nazis: but the photographs he left behind, clearly at great personal risk, exceeded those requirements .) Instead, these photographers, regardless of whether they view themselves as artists, are all driven by an internal compulsion to photograph the world as they find it refracted through the prism of their own experience. The act of photography becomes a dynamic process of enquiry, into self and into human experience. To frame it another way, these are all photographers who seek to understand themselves, as well as life, through the making of photographs. ‘I am interested in photographing beliefs, my own and other peoples”, said Chris Killip. Or as Michael Schmidt expressed it: ‘I need my photographs as confirmation of that which I have experienced’.
There is a humanist flavour to In the Face of History – if one follows de Trezy’s definition of humanist photography as being predicated on “the human being and the mark he leaves on nature and on things.” We are concerned, here, with a photography of human subjects, and the representation of their experience. But this is not to confuse In the Face of History with the universalising ethos of the well-known school of humanist photography which dominated European photography’s mid-century period, roughly from Kertesz’s arrival in Paris in 1924-5, to the tumultuous events of 1968. The defining moments for Humanist photography were the founding of Magnum in Paris in 1947, followed by Edward Steichen’s epochal The Family of Man exhibition (which opened at MoMA in 1955 and was to be seen by a staggering nine million people worldwide). In 1957, Roland Barthes was to famously critique The Family of Man’s underlying essentialism: he decried the fact that the exhibition, in gathering scenes of common human experience, naively suggested that ‘man is born, works, laughs, dies everywhere in the same way…everything here, the content and appeal of the pictures, the discourse which justifies them, aims to suppress the determining weight of history.’ In contradistinction to The Family of Man, In the Face of History focuses on photographers for whom the weight of history on human subjects is not only specific, but is, at moments, almost palpable. Of the great figures associated with Humanist photography, Andre Kertesz and Robert Doisneau feature here: Kertesz during his early period whilst he was still living in his native Hungary, during and immediately after the First World War: Doisneau during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in Paris. Doisneau is included because he, in common with our grouping and in difference to many globetrotting humanist documentarians such as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Capa, concentrated on what was local and particular to his life. He was born and grew up in the southern, working-class, suburbs of Paris. He lived in Place Jules Ferry in Montrouge for nearly sixty years. Henri Cartier-Bresson remembers asking him why he wouldn’t join Magnum, and Doisneau replied: ‘If I were to leave Montrouge, I would be lost.’ He was to describe his ten-year post-war project, La Banlieue de Paris in which he photographed his locality and the lives and leisures of his neighbours, as “my self-portrait”. And in a sense, every photographer here, like Doisneau, could be described as engaged, philosophically and emotionally, in an act of self-portraiture.
Published in Photoworks Issue 7, 2006
Commissioned by Photoworks