Magazine article Artforum International

"A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker-Photography Movement, 1926-1939": Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Magazine article Artforum International

"A Hard, Merciless Light: The Worker-Photography Movement, 1926-1939": Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Article excerpt

AT FIRST GLANCE, it is not entirely obvious what the term worker-photography means. The phrase pivots on an enigmatic vinculum that, while insisting on a connection between the two words, fails to clarify the nature of this bond. Yet the question that is skirted by this slapdash conjuncture is essential to understanding both the technical parameters and the political ambitions of an interwar documentary impulse that came into being "for the purpose of giving visibility to the emerging popular classes in the era of mass democracy," as curator Jorge Ribalta observes. Was worker-photography an authentic grassroots movement that emerged spontaneously from the ranks of the working class in response to an impulse toward self-determination? Or was it instead defined thematically, as a revolutionary iconography of the proletariat? In other words, was the working class the author or the object of worker-photography?

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Eschewing any simplistic answer, the show at the Reina Sofia maps, with tremendous subtlety and breadth, the complex triangulation of popular organizations, artistic avant-gardes, and party directives that determined the emergence and course of the worker photography project. The exhibition's narrative is organized around three critical caesuras: 1926, when the two major organs of the movement, The Worker-Photographer and Soviet Photo, were founded; 1929, the year that worker-photography began growing beyond this initial German-Soviet dialogue to become an international initiative with cadres in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Britain, the Netherlands, and the Americas; and 1935, when Popular Front strategy shifted the movement's focus away from the rhetoric of class struggle to the creation of a united front against fascism.

Initially, the amateur worker-photography groups in Germany and the Soviet Union shared a program close to that of the Proletkult movement: to cultivate a participatory proletarian consciousness outside the political agendas of the Communist Party. Central to this project was a system of alternative media networks such as the one established by Willi Munzenherg, whose weekly Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers' Illustrated News) was, at its peak, the second-most-read periodical in Germany. One of the remarkable feats of the show is that it reconstructs and exhibits, alongside framed prints, the material media--magazines, book covers, posters, almanacs, postcards, etc.--through which these images were disseminated. Together with the six documentary films shown in the exhibition, this multimedia coverage creates a vivid impression of the movement's ambitions to organize a counterhegemonic "life matrix" (Lebenszusammenhang) for the delegitimized experience of the proletarian subject, whose existence otherwise appeared fragmentary and incoherent in comparison with the dominant narrative of bourgeois "lifestyle."

Turning their cameras toward overlooked logics of the commonplace, worker-photographers expanded the theater of proletarian struggle beyond the economic analytics of the party into the sites of everyday existence, defining the working class at the level of habitus and lived ideology. Morris Engel chronicled life in Harlem, and Henri Cartier-Bresson documented the modest vacations of French workers, but nowhere was this impulse to exceed the party's economism better exemplified than in the immensely successful and widely imitated 1931 photo-essay "24 Hours in the Life of a Moscow Worker Family," by Maks Al'pert, Arkadii Shaikhet, and Semen Tules. …

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