Sunday, 9 February 2014

Proletarian Eye for the Bourgeois Guy

Recently I’ve gotten back to reading through The Worker Photography Movement (1926–1939): Essays and Documents, which is the publication that accompanied the exhibition “A Hard, Merciless Light” held by Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid in 2011. It’s one of those rare moments where actually having too much information presented about a really interesting topic actually makes it harder to start, which is strange to say because the rise of the worker photographer movement until this point has been something that has been quite underexplored. But there is something about sitting down with 400+ page catalogue that is somewhat intimidating, at least if one was thinking of reading it anywhere else then sitting in your own living room.

But I digress (and so quickly!). The overall emphasis here is charting the rise of worker photography as a movement in its multiple iterations and versions across Russia, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, the US, France, and Spain (during the Civil War). And not surprisingly there are some common themes that emerge, such as the use of photography as a tool to explore the consequences of industrialization, the realities and class and exploitation, and the possibility of emergent forms of class politics. And in the publication of basically every national version of the worker photograph association there are a series of articles explaining how photography can play an important role in class struggle rather then being a plaything of the idle rich and bourgeois aesthetes, or put into the services of the capitalist advertising executive (who was really just starting to come into his own around that time).

What’s interesting about reading these debates and the putting forth of arguments for the importance of photograph as a tool of class struggle, is thinking about the contingent nature of technological and media development as they relate with the changing nature of class composition in a particular context. For the worker photography movement you could take this back to Marx’s argument in the 18th Brumaire that the small holding peasant class cannot represent itself, it must be represented. What then would the role and position of the worker photography movement be? Would it be to represent this non-class that cannot represent itself? Thus would its politics be found in representing those who could not represent themselves, because of their fragmented position in the labor process? But would not the same problems of the fragmentation of the labor process not also apply to the labors of the worker photographers themselves?

The last question is admittedly a bit anachronistic, in the sense that perhaps it is quite easy today to imagine the work of photographers as being quite individualized because of the way photographic technology has developed since then. We don’t even need to go the local CVS to develop the images anymore, but simply click away and then upload to whatever mediated sharing site we so choose. Of course that doesn’t mean that all the labor that goes into producing the equipment has disappeared, nor the free labor that greases the wheels of the social circulation of images, etc. But what’s interesting is that the labor produce that underpinned the image for the worker photographers that populate this book is much different. The sheer cost and complexity of tools involved at the time (1926 – 1939) meant that they could only really be used collectively. The costs involved, and relatively scarcity of the tools were thus not surprisingly something that necessitated the constant justification of why this was a useful endeavor in the first place, as it could easily not seem to be worth it. But the amount of resources involved meant that worker photography really was only possible when underpinned and supported by forms of association and collectivity that could bear those costs. Basically you had to do it together if you wanted to do it at all.

There’s something interesting here about moments when an emergent media or otherwise form of technology still involves quite high costs, thus through that almost require a form of collectivity around it to bear that cost. For the worker photography movement this could be described as where the costs of the technology thus lead to creating a certain form of social composition in order to support their usage, which is pretty handy given that this thankfully happened to fit with their ideological outlook anyways.

The most interesting parts of the book are when the defense of worker photography has been gotten past, the use of photography as a form of class struggle as representation, and the authors of the various texts get into talking about the training of the proletarian eye. In other words, discussing the classed nature of perception and visuality itself. This comes through in Anatoly Lunacharsky’s statements about the importance of understanding the image as a medium of literacy and the importance of visual literary in worker education, which strikes me as quite forward thinking for the 1930s. Even today, over 80s years later, I’m surprised that most of my student have not really had any experience in how to interpret and work with images in any serious way. It also comes through strongly in Edwin Hoernle’s argument that “The worker’s world is invisible to the bourgeoisie, and unfortunately to most proletarians also” (109). But it’s at moments like these where the faith in the technology takes over and its usually suggested that the objective powers of the photograph to accurately represent can overcome the ideological training and trained blindness that had proceeded. One can be wishful, and perhaps appreciate how this might have been thought before, but alas tis’ far from true.

I'll leave Lunacharsky to puzzle over that while I sleep...


  1. Hi, thanks for this wonderful blog post. I have been looking for"The Worker Photography Movement" for a long time. Do you have any idea where can I still find a copy of this book?

  2. Thanks. The easiest place would probably be from the Reiner Sofia themselves: