As at the Filipovs
The Worker Photography Movement - Jorge Ribalta (ed.)
Book Review by Steve Edwards
Published by: TF Editores
In 2010 the seminar ‘The Worker Photography Movement: Towards a Political History of the Origins of Photographic Modernity’ was held at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. The extraordinary follow-up exhibition A Hard and Merciless Light: The Worker Photography Movement, 1926-1939 ran at the same location between April and August 2011. Bringing together hundreds of images, publications and films from across Europe as well as the USA, the curator Jorge Ribalta and his team cast a new light on politics and modernity between the mid 1920s and the fall of the Spanish Republic. As the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s continues to engulf Europe it is an apposite moment to revisit reactions to that earlier watershed in the history of capitalism.
The catalogue accompanying the show is a major publication in its own right and is available in both English and Spanish versions. In fact, it can lay claim to being the most important contribution to the history of twentieth-century photography since Christopher Phillips’ Photography in the Modern Era, which collected source texts from the period between 1913 and 1940. There have been important works published in the period since Phillips’ book appeared in 1989, but Ribalta’s collection reframes a whole period and makes available important material in English. Organised as a series of national studies, the catalogue contains eleven survey essays and sixty-seven translated texts as well as numerous black and white photographs and reproductions of publications from the period.
The worker photography movement dates roughly from 1926; the year when A-I-Z carried a call for amateur worker photographers to supply the paper with images and the formation of VdAFD – the Association of German Worker Photographers and its journal Der Arbeiter-Fotograf and the simultaneous appearance in the USSR of Sovetskoe foto and the first worker-photography exhibition in Moscow. The aim of the movement was to redirect worker hobbyism in photography into militant channels; creating a space of autonomy in which photographs of working class life – images from the tenements, workplaces and slums as well as pictures from demonstrations and other political manifestations – would be produced by and for workers. In some places the movement relied on camera professionals and designers, but worker photography came to mean those images produced with a militant orientation. The resulting images appeared in Left publications, exhibitions and books; there were collective production facilities and instruction manuals. In 1931 at its height in Germany the movement claimed 2,400 members in more than hundred local groups. In addition to Germany and the USSR, Ribalta’s book addresses groups in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Britain, France, Holland, Hungary, Spain and the USA. There appears also to have been a group in Bulgaria working in illegal conditions under the fascist regime, but no evidence is presented here. Some of these were much bigger than others. It is telling that only one text from Britain appears in the book; oddly there is only one from Spain. There are also significant differences. The Czech texts are highly sophisticated, the US and French ones populist, yet other material is rudimentary.
There has been some earlier attention to the worker photography movement: in 1981 Creative Camera published a series of recollections and interviews with German participants; specialist studies have appeared of the associated film groups and, on and off, the US (Workers’) Film and Photo League has received its share of scrutiny. Most significantly, Photo/Politics 1 contained a survey of a number of groups and projects (Ribalta’s catalogue is dedicated to the memory of Jo Spence). However what makes this new volume so valuable is its character as a source book. The range covered by the essays and the sheer quantity of the translations allows for a comparative analysis previously unavailable. Some works are obviously more compelling than others, but more importantly core themes materialise that reshape our perception of modernity and photo culture. A second modernity emerges alongside the official version studied by art historians and cultural critics. This shadow modernity articulates workingclass perceptions of social and cultural change. The photo-story was essential to this structure of feeling and it is a huge asset to finally have in English the texts for such pioneering photo spreads as the Filipovs and the Deutscher Filipovs. In one essay Erika Wolf notes that Soviet officials came to use the phrase "as at the Filipovs" to characterise the rosy propagandist images of the USSR. Elsewhere in the book, there are a series of extracts from letters written by German and Austrian workers to Father Filipov and if the picture story itself was a masterpiece of media construction, the desire called Filipov testifies to another reality.
The book illuminates a host of other important matters: for instance, it fleshes out the criticisms of Rodchenko’s formalism, demonstrating that his critics were happy to employ unorthodox angles; they just thought he fetishised this procedure. From across the range of material a number of shared themes emerge. First and most obviously worker photography is distinguished from bourgeois camera work. Sometimes this is pushed to a distinction between bourgeois and worker seeing. Second there is an obsession with objectivity – the "hard and merciless light" that Edwin Hoernle saw as the form of perception required by worker photographers. This commitment to ‘social fact’ might be seen as part of the shared episteme of the period. However, it exists in a tension with the third factor, the recognition that titles and sequences are central to producing photographic meaning. The fourth premise is a commitment to inviting critique; to declaring work conducted inadequate and to wanting to revise and learn, particularly from the opinions proffered by other workers. Fifth and perhaps most important, the problems of organisation or production are a central preoccupation. This is unsurprising given the conditions in which most worker photographers had to operate: often they laboured in conditions of illegality or employers forbade photographing in the workplace. When the movement began in Germany bosses tried to have it declared illegal, claiming it was a form of industrial espionage. Equipment and materials were expensive and facilities were inaccessible; most workers lived in one or two rooms and shared toilets and wash facilities – setting up darkrooms was hardly tenable. But something else emerges here, a commitment to build worker autonomy; a desire to construct alternative centres of production that would be self-reproducing and able to sustain the worker’s press outside the circuits and influence of capitalism. It took an enormous effort from workers with minimal resources to begin to construct their institutions. The networks run by those impresarios of this worker-communist world – Mikhail Kol’tsov and Willi Münzenberg – were vital to sustaining this culture; the former was executed in the USSR in 1938 and the latter was found dead in suspicious circumstances the following year, probably also a victim of Stalinism. Autonomy requires Münzenbergs.