Sunday, 12 October 2014

Return to the real?

Frieda Khalo and Tina Modotti

I was surprised to find that under 'Realism' Wikipedia had nothing. To me, Realism was the very stance that guaranteed the relevance of photography.

Documentation, reportage are the very activities I grew up with, not only with HCB, or Magnum, I certainly grew up with Life, Paris Match, and the lesser illustrated magazines that catered about film stars. 

Images of the Vietnam War and McLaughlin also defined v. well my youth. But suddenly all this was gone, replaced by Postmodernism, a re-photography at best, where the very concept of tangible reality had become doubtful or even disappeared.

I found a useful British site that provides theses,  so let me quote it about Realism:

"Photography was now used extensively in art, and in the new postmodern culture. Postmodernism discarded the idea of finding something new and original and instead focussed on recombining elements from existing culture. Nothing new was being created which soon meant that art had become exhausted. The postmodern culture played ‘with signs of never ending reference, where the more you played the less anyone seemed to know what reality it was touching’ (Bate, 2004a: 31) and we had ‘lost touch with what we thought reality to be’ (Bate, 2004a: 31). The constant referencing and re-referencing had led to us being absorbed in representation. We no longer knew what reality was, and what it was not. We were lost. ‘The fear about postmodern culture was that there was no longer any anchor to reality at all, and that ‘reality’ had disappeared into an endless chain of other representations’ (Bate, 2004a: 31). 

"This never ending reference meant that all grip on reality had disappeared. There was a wish to return to something more stable and basic. There was a need for change, for something new to emerge from the endless trail of reference. In this culture, in which reality was discarded in favour of mass intertextual referencing, there was a desire to return to reality. As David Bate says, there was a, ‘wish for a grittier, ‘closer to reality’ relation through realism’ (Bate, 2004a: 35). Many people wanted a ‘return to the values of modernism (the straight and pure photograph) to contemporary art photography, this is a return to description, originality and actuality – precisely all the things that were strongly rejected by postmodernism’ (Bate, 2004a: 33).

I am not really presuming that with digital you can't do less or better than imitate film.You can with  Fuji's Film Simulation modes, or Olympus Art Filters. To me Kodak's Tri X. or Ektachrome are the very modes in which reality appears.

One knows wowever  perfectly well that in Digital Adobe reigns supreme, and with any of its sliders you can fetch any tone or colour your brain can conceive. So what is real?

There is also a social side of the question. As we saw in Rodchenko life in the streets, or in the city, squares,boulevards, was always meant as a presentation of the workers' life in the open, so it was the result of class struggle and social interaction. It is interesting to see that American humanist realism (The Family of Man) stepped back  from such a socialist endeavour.

For instnce Vivian Maier couldn't be packaged as a socialist photographer, but we can probably use classical photographers like Paul Strand and Tina Modotti, who were part of another interesting institution like the Photographers' League in New York. In the 1930s it put together all the progressive photographers of the era, without many of knowing that it was a Communist project.

March of the Mexican artists by Tina Modotti

Tina is interesting: the daughter of a communist artist in America, she was many things, a model, an actress,  a lover of Weston, a photographer, notably in Mexico, where she made friends with Frieda Kalho. She drifted towards social symbols (see her in the sombrero with sickle and hammer).

Campesina and self portrait, Tina Modotti

 After being expelled in Merxico, Germany and Switzerland she eventually fought in The Spanish Revolution with Moscow envoy Vidali. Although by 1940 she was herself a professional revolutionary, she gave up photography for more clandestine work.
Realism is certainly connected with social awareness in my conception, but not necessarily with communism. In the 1930s however the choice was stark between Nazifascism and communism, so one can't really use the same metrics of today. Just to remind of the times, Tina was actively researched by the Italian Political Police for assassination.

 It was while on a fieldtrip in this class that Strand first visited the 291 art gallery – operated by Stieglitz and Edward Steichen – where exhibitions of work by forward-thinking modernist photographers and painters would move Strand to take his photographic hobby more seriously. Stieglitz would later promote Strand's work in the 291 gallery itself, in his photography publication Camera Work, and in his artwork in the Hieninglatzing studio. Some of this early work, like the well-known "Wall Street," experimented with formal abstractions (influencing, among others, Edward Hopper and his idiosyncratic urban vision). Other of Strand's works reflect his interest in using the camera as a tool for social reform. He was one of the founders of the Photo League, an association of photographers who advocated using their art to promote social and political causes.
Mostly because of the same Internationalism, Paul Strand came to incorporate the same ideals: his portraits in Ghana a or Sardinia wouldn't show only portraits of the individual, but also the social relationships.

Paul Strand, Ghana

Paul Strand, Sardinia

In both social relationships jump to the eye. There is no beautification.

In June 1949, Strand left the United States to present Native Land at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia. The remaining 27 years of his life were spent in Orgeval, France where, despite never learning the language, he maintained an impressive creative life, assisted by his third wife, fellow photographer Hazel Kingsbury Strand.
Although Strand is best known for his early abstractions, his return to still photography in this later period produced some of his most significant work in the form of six book ‘portraits’ of place: Time in New England (1950), La France de Profil (1952), Un Paese (featuring photographs of Luzzara and the Po River Valley in Italy, 1955), Tir a'Mhurain / Outer Hebrides[2] (1962), Living Egypt (1969) and Ghana: an African portrait (1976).

portrait by Paul Strand

The timing of Strand’s departure to France is coincident with the first libel trial of his friend Alger Hiss, with whom he maintained a correspondence until his death. Although he was never officially a member of the Communist Party, many of Strand’s collaborators were either Party members (James Aldridge; Cesare Zavattini) or were prominent socialist writers and activists (Basil Davidson). Many of his friends were also Communists or were suspected of being so (MP DN Pritt; film director Joseph Losey; Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid; actor Alex McCrindle). Strand was also closely involved with Frontier Films, one of more than twenty organizations that were identified as "subversive" and "un-American" by the US Attorney General.
Strand also insisted that his books should be printed in Leipzig, East Germany, even if this meant that they were initially prohibited from the American market on account of their Communist provenance. De-classified intelligence files, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and now lodged at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, reveal that Strand’s movements around Europe were closely monitored by the security services.

All This took place under the auspices of the Photo League in New York (wikipedia):
The League’s origins traced back to a project of the Workers International Relief (WIR), which was a Communist association based in Berlin. In 1930 the WIR established the Worker’s Camera League in New York City, which soon came to be known as the Film and Photo League. The goals of the Film and Photo League were to “struggle against and expose reactionary film; to produce documentary films reflecting the lives and struggles of the American workers; and to spread and popularize the great artistic and revolutionary Soviet productions.”[1]
In 1934 the still photographers and the filmmakers in the League began having differences of opinion over social and production interests, and by 1936 they had formed separate groups. Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner established Frontier Films, to continue promoting the original goals, while at the same time Strand and Berenice Abbott renamed the original group to simply “The Photo League”. The two organizations remained friendly, with members from one group often participating in activities of the other. The goal of the newly reformed Photo League was to “put the camera back into the hands of honest photographers who ... use it to photograph America.”
The League quickly became active in the new field of socially conscious photography. Unlike other photography organizations, it did not espouse a particular visual style but instead focused on “integrating formal elements of design and visual aesthetics with the powerful and sympathetic evidence of the human condition.” It also offered basic and advanced classes in photography when there were few such courses in colleges or trade schools. A newsletter, called Photo Notes, was printed on a somewhat random schedule depending upon who was available to do the work and if they could afford the printing costs. More than anything else, though, the League was a gathering place for photographers to share and experience their common artistic and social interests
Among its members were co-founders Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman (director of the Photo League School); Walter Rosenblum, editor of the Photo League Photo Notes; Eliot Elisofon, a LIFE photographer; Morris Engel (since 1936); Jerome Liebling, who joined in 1947; Aaron Siskind; Jack Manning, a member of the Harlem Document Group of the League and a New York Times photographer; Dan Weiner; Bill Witt; Martin Elkort; Lou Bernstein; Arthur Leipzig (since 1942); Sy Kattelson; Louis Stettner; Lester Talkington (from 1947); Lisette Model; and Ruth Orkin, a member from 1947.[4]
In the early 1940s the list of notable photographers who were active in the League or supported their activities also included Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein, Beaumont Newhall, Nancy Newhall, Richard Avedon, Weegee, Robert Frank, Harold Feinstein, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Minor White. The League was the caretaker of the Lewis Hine Memorial Collection, which Hine's son had given the League in recognition of their role in fostering social activism through photography as his father had done.[
Most of the members who joined before the end of World War II were first-generation Americans who strongly believed in progressive political and social causes. Few were aware of the political origins of the movement of the communist "Workers as Photographers" (Arbeiterfotografen) in Berlin. This had in fact little to do with what the organization did as it evolved, but helped its downfall after the war, when it was accused by the FBI of being communist and "subversive and anti-American." In 1947 the League was formally declared subversive and placed on the U.S. Department of Justice blacklist by Attorney General Tom C. Clark. At first the League fought back and mounted an impressive This Is the Photo League exhibition in 1948, but after its member and long-time FBI informer Angela Calomiris had testified in May 1949 that the League was a front organization for the Communist Party, the Photo League was finished. Recruitment dried up and old members left, including one of its founders and former president, Paul Strand, as well as Louis Stettner. The League disbanded in 1951.By chance however I discovered that there was an exhibition at the Jewish Museum of New York, witnessing how much the European migrants had made for the city, between the two WWars.  Robert Frank was one of the most notable, although he would end persecuted himself:

by Robert Frank
Now can witness that in just one century the direction of photography changed completely: From social sensitivity to unbridled fantasy and reprophotography of Postmodernism. The question that matters, methinks, is if there is any advantage in going back to simpler times, where people mattered for what they did,  for the useful work they did, and not the money of the equipment they manipulated.

by Robert Frank

by Robert Frank

PS  check the Paul Strand exhibition just opening at Philadelphia, an anthology not to be missed: