Social Change and the Struggle Against Art

By Paul Hester

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural recourses, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capabilities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in two ways essential to the working of an advocated industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.”

- Susan Sontag, writing in On Photography

The central problem for photographers who actively believe in the necessity of social change is the production and presentation of images that refuse to support the status quo. This refusal has traditionally assumed the form of documentation of particular social conditions.

Our social situation, however, is continually interpreted for us by television, news papers, magazines, and advertising. In order to challenge this dominant interpretation, it has become necessary to invent new forms of active refusal. Several recent publications thoughtfully explore the possibilities of photography for social change.

A new catalogue from the Mulwaukee Art Museum, Photography and reform: Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee, places photography and social change in a historical perspective. In it, the authors write: “Like most reform organizations of the early twentieth century, the NCLC began its labors with research and publicity, in accordance with the widely held idea that success in reform work depended on the support of public opinion. Reformers thought that the way to bring the people to their particular crusade was to bombard them with facts exposing bas social conditions and to educate them about the causes and solutions about the evil… They knew that only extraordinary persistent propaganda could wear away public indifference. Moreover, they fully understood that many people had a significant economic stake in perpetuating child labor.”

Hine was employed by the NCLC as a full-time investigator from 1908 to 1918. Unlike the way in which we have come to think of his photographs and in contradiction to the manner in which they are most frequently presented, his photographs “were not independent pieces of evidence, but supplementary visual documentation… They were integral parts of his own written reports.”

This small catalogue joins 75 of Hine’s photographs with the original textual information which was intended to expand the viewers’ understanding of the conditions in which the visualized individuals functioned. Two essays discuss Hine’s position within the larger issue of reform movements in the early part of this century and give details of his working methods during his employment by the NCLC.

The general attitude of the catalogue, however useful it might be for publicizing these images from the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, is apparent in two quotations:

“As they exposed the conditions and concequences of child labor in America, these photographs humanized the laborers. For enlisting the support of the middle class, the primary group at which the NCLC crusade was aimed, this humanization was vital. Hine composed his photographs to allow middle class viewers to look through unfamiliar and sometimes brutal activities and surroundings to see that the children of the poor were not unlike their own… In his efforts… Hine revealed something of his own soul in his photographs.”

“Hine’s position is now secure as a master of photography in America and the creator of compelling images of people at work and the dignity of children in distressed circumstances… Hine’s photograph summarizes the cruelty of child labor, its ceaseless toil, and its destruction of human potential. Typical spinners like Mamie may be gone, but the humanity in Hine’s child labor images remains with us.”

In order to understand the (not so) subtle transformation of social reformer into master of photography that has occurred here (and in the work of numerous other photographers), it is helpful to investigate other recent books.

Thinking Photography is a provocative collection of essays. Of particular interest in relation to Hine is “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning” in which Allan Sekula analyzes the popular opposition of “art photography vs. documentary photography” through a photograph by Alfred Steiglitz and one by Lewis Hine. His main thesis is the way in which “the meaning of a photograph, like that of any other entity, is inevitably subject to cultural definition… In other words, the photograph, as it stands alone, presents merely the possibility of meaning…The romantic artist’s compulsion to achieve the ‘condition of music’ a desire to abandon all contextual reference and convey meaning by virtue of metaphorical substitution. In photography this compulsion requires an incredible denial of the image’s status as report… The invention of the ‘photographer of genius’ is possible only through a disassociation of the image-maker from the social embeddedness of the images. The invention of the photograph as high-art was only possible through its transformation into an abstract fetish, into significant form.”

Sekula’s position is both an analysis of the means by which photography is enshrined into esthetic objects and critique of the rhetoric of liberal reform: “The celebration of abstract humanity becomes, in any given political situation, the celebration of the dignity of the passive victim. This is the final outcome of the appropriation of the photographic image for liberal political end: the oppressed are granted a bogus Subjecthood when such status can be secured only from within, on their own terms.”

“in another essay entitled “Dismantling Modernism, Reviving Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Repression)” that appeared in Photography: Current Perspectives Sekula states even more succinctly the problems of traditional approaches to reform photography: “[Fred] Lonidier is aware of the ease with which liberal documentary artists have converted violence and suffering into esthetic objects. For all his good intentions, for example, Eugene Smith in Minamata provided more a representation of his compassion for mercury-poisoned Japanese fisherfork than one of their struggle for retribution against the corporate polluter. I’ll say it again: the subjective aspect of liberal esthetics is compassion rather than collective struggle. Pity, meditated by an appreciation of ‘great art,’ supplants political understanding.”

When you look at a book such as The Concerned Photographer (which includes the work of Werner Bischof, Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz, Leonard Freed, David Seymour, and Dan Weiner), it is easy to see the process at work. Four of the six photographers had been dead at least ten years by the time of the book’s publication. Images are reproduced one to a page and captions are relegated to the fine print at the back of the book. The caption is limited to “Dead Child in Rubble, Spain, 1936.” But where is the information about the Fascist bombers from Germany and Italy that supported Franco’s attack against the democratically elected government of Spain? Either it is assumed that people have historical knowledge or else too much is avoided. The result is to deny any cause and effect; pity replaces political understanding.

“Still photographers have tended to believe naively in the power and efficacy of the single image. Of course, the museological handling of photographs encourages this belief, as does the allure of the high-art commodity market. But even photojournalists like to imagine that a good photograph can punch through, overcome its caption and story, on the power of vision alone. The power of the overall communicative system with its characteristic structure and mode of address, over the fragmentary utterance, is ignored.” (Sekula)

In contrast to this reliance on single images, consider the book Nicaragua by Susan Meiselas. Although here, too, images have been produced one to a page and captions are again separate from the primary presentation, small black and white reproductions with captions accompany the chronology and text that make up one third of the book. A map places the names in relation to the whole of Central America and quotations from as far back as 1890 indicate the positions of American governments, peasants, workers, newspaper editors, housewives, President Somoza. Statistics of unemployment, illiteracy and health are presented alongside poems. Great effort has been made in order that we see the color of these photographs in a social context rather than as front page headlines or the usual photographer’s monograph. As John Berger has written: “These extraordinary photographs take us right inside a revolutionary movement and speak on behalf of its participants. Yet unlike most photographs of such material, these refuse all the rhetoric normally associated with such pictures: the rhetoric of violence, revolutionary heroism, and the glorification of misery. Here we have the feeling of real people, members of a real community. And this community has reached an important moment in his history. By working in color, Meiselas has posed another difficulty for herself. Color photographs of this kind of subject inevitably give way to gore or to the anesthetization of violence. Here, instead, we have enormous control, a sense of the everyday, and a vitality rooted in an active community.”

John Berger produced a television series in England several years ago which resulted in the book: Ways of Seeing. It is a verbal and visual examination of the ways in which our seeing is affected by what we know or what we believe. Through photographs, paintings, and advertisements he very thoughtfully challenges our taken-for-granted relationship to the conventions for representing the visible. We have learned to denigrate the social context for paintings and photographs in favor of the “higher values” of form and composition. As Berger says about a portrait by the English painter Gainsborough, “…among the pleasures their portrait gave to Mr. and Mrs. Andrews was the pleasure of seeing themselves depicted as land owners and this pleasure was enhanced by the ability of oil paint to render their land in all its substantially. And this is an observation which needs to be made, precisely because the cultural history we are normally taught pretends that it is an unworthy one.”

In his discussion of oil paintings as the celebration of private property, Berger examines publicity and advertising photographs as the last moribund form of that art: “Both media use similar, highly tactile means to play upon the spectator’s sense of acquiring the real thing, which the image shows. In both cases his feeling that he can almost touch what is in the image reminds him how he might or does possess the real thing…But the oil painting showed what is owner was already enjoying among his possessions and his way of life… The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but within the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better… Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved toward democracy and then stopped halfway is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be.