The Worker-Photography Movement, 1926-1939. Through more than 1000 works, photographs, magazines, books and films, the show intends to narrate how public spaces were constituted through proletarian documentary photography and the paths that rose it as an antagonistic reply to the bourgeois model.
curated by Jorge Ribalta
Museo Reina Sofía presents a major retrospective exhibition of the worker- photography movement. Through more than 1000 works —photographs, magazines, books and films—, the show intends not only to be a historic anthology of prominent artists and works inside the movement, but also to narrate how public spaces were constituted through proletarian documentary photography, and the paths, with its strong denunciative significance, that rose it as an antagonistic reply to the bourgeois model.
During the second half of the 1920s, a trend of documentary photography, related to the international worker movement, emerged from the Comintern. This tendency culminates with the photographic paradigms and debates about realism, reportage and factography (turning the facts into images, describing them as aseptically as possible— in the Soviet scene under the First Five Year Plan (1928–1932). The Proletarskoe Foto magazine was its official means of expression. The great theorist of factography, Sergei Tretiakov, defended a type of journalistic, descriptive, objective art, immersed in printed media and done by a new sort of author-producer. Soviet factography and productivism carry out a materialist programme of art, circumscribed in industrial production.
One of the main aims of the show is to relocate the worker-photography movement as a key moment in the History of Photography, since it has often been postponed, put back, marginalized, forgotten, even repressed. Thus, ithe exhibition intends to resituate it in the centre of the Interwar period photographic debates, and suggest another view to the canonical narrative of photography on the appearance of modernity in the 20’s photo tendencies. This would favour a new approach in photography historiography, and give the movement the importance it deserves inside History of Photography, creating what could be called a photographic public sphere.
Between Germany and the Soviet Union
The first part of the exhibition deals with the dialectics between Germany and the Soviet Union between 1926 and 1932. In 1926, thanks to a call for amateur photographers published by AIZ —Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, the worker’s illustrated magazine—, both the magazine Der Arbeiter-Fotograf and the movement of the Arbeiterfotografie (worker’s photography) were born.
This first part of the show aims to understand that the German response determined the international impact of Soviet photography. Some of the photographers shown in this section are Eugen Heilig, John Heartfield —both members of the editorial team of AIZ—, Erich Rinka, Alexander Rodchenko, Ernst Thormann, Walter Ballhause or Max Alpert, who, with Arkady Shaikhet, among others, signed the ROPF (Russian Association of Proletarian Photo Reporters) manifesto. This manifesto frontally rejected those images that sought, as Jorge Ribalta, curator of the exhibition, asserts, “pure visual effect in favour of conceiving photography as “a weapon for the socialist reconstruction of reality” and advocated coordinated practice between professional photojournalists and the movement of amateur photo correspondents”.
The movement in Europe and North America
The second gallery of the exhibition covers the expansion of the movement through central and northern Europe and North America during the first half of the thirties: in 1929, the first organisation of proletarian photographers arose. In 1930, in the States, both the Worker Film and Photo League were born, and also the Amateur Photographes Ouvriers (APO) organisation in France. A year later, the Dutch organisation Arbeiders-Fotografen (VAF) appeared. Likewise, many illustrated magazines inspired by AIZ and linked to the networks of the Communist and Socialist parties were formed, and several archive and research circles, such as politicised social photography, saw the light in many European cities.
After the fall of the Weimar Republic a displacement, from the revolutionary movement to resistance, took place, as the first USSR’s Five Year Plan came to an end. In this section the public will be able to see works by Hungarian, Czech, Slovakian, Austrian, Swiss, Dutch and British authors, such as Kata Kálmán, Kata Sugár, Irena Bluhova, Willy Kessels, Ferenc Haár, Karel Hajek, Oldrich Straka, Cas Oorthuys, Eva Besnyö, Edith Tudor-Hart, amongst others; and also the American Photo League —with Siskind, Corsini, Engel, Grossman—, Paul Strand and Tina Modotti, one of the most visible photographers in the movement’s publications in Germany.
International commitment in Spain
The final phase of the exhibition tells about the situations experienced in the Popular Front, and includes a vast selection of documents about the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Despite the fact that Spain never got to have a proper worker-photography movement, there actually was a strong presence of foreign photographers that transferred the praxis of the movement to the Peninsula. The emphasis of this part of the show’s discourse is centred in the international dimension of the Civil War and the commitment and presence of photographers attached to the international communist movement, and also some old “arbeiter-fotografen”, such as Walter Reuter, or insigne figures like Joris Ivens or Ilya Ehrenburg, amongst others. Some of the photographers whose work is shown in this last path are Gerda Taro, Robert Capa, Chim, Andre Papillon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Agustí Centelles, Eli Lotar, Margaret Michaelis, José Suárez, Josep Renau, Pere Català Pic, and members of the Misiones Pedagógicas (Pedagogic Missions), among whom was José Val del Omar.
The photographic works on display in the show are, whenever possible, vintage, and have been grouped in series. The exhibition is completed with a vast archive of documents, especially books and magazines. Also, some films by Joris Ivens, Roman Karmen, Piel Jutzi, the American Photo League and the French Popular Front are shown, crudely portraying the extremely tough living conditions of the German and Belgian working class, worker demonstrations in Spain, France and the United States, and the notorious film Las Hurdes, Tierra Sin Pan (“Las Hurdes, Land with No Bread”), by the celebrated filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
The worker-photograph movement: beginning and development
The starting point of the movement is the revolutionary search for an epistemological rupture of perceiving through the image. This rupture aspired to build the new spectator that breaks the autonomous space of bourgeois art and is circumscribes within the coetaneous birth of modern illustrated press.
It is in the Weimar Republic’s Germany where the worker-photography movement sets off. Its development had a major promoter: Willi Münzenberg, main innovator of European left-wing media since 1921, and his editorial empire: the Neue Deutscher Verlag. Münzenberg gave impulse to publications such as the already mentioned Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ), perhaps the most influential publication of the movement at that time, or Der Arbeiter Fotograf (the worker-photographer). In this context, in 1926 AIZ published its famous call for potential amateur photographers from among its readership to send in images depicting proletarian everyday life and the objective conditions of industrial labor, as the curator, Jorge Ribalta, explains. “The call stemmed from the acknowledgement of the new role of the illustrated press in social and ideological reproduction processes; hence the need to create a proletarian media power to counter the dominance of the bourgeois press.” After the call, many groups of photographers saw the light in several German cities, and finally, the Vereinigung der Arbeiter Fotografen Deutschlands (VdAFD) (German Association of Worker-Photographers) was formed, whose seminal influence on the movement was indelible.
The case of the USSR was slightly different. The birth of the worker-photography movement took place simultaneously with the appearance of professional photojournalism, becoming, shortly afterwards, a movement that was promoted from professional organizations of press photographers. Thus, the amateur dimension of the movement shows itself an uncertain and widely debated matter.
The members of the movement promoted a visual education for the new era of the image in printed media, and also self-depiction of workers as a form of emancipation and appropriating means of production and reproduction. Nevertheless, affiliation to the party was not a necessary requirement to become a member of some of the worker-photography groups, which included partners of different political signs. These were mainly middle or working class and were not professional photographers.
On the other hand, the movement of worker correspondents promoted ways of communicating that included the presence of mural newspapers in factories, had its main organ of expression in the Rabochaia Gazeta (the worker’s gazette), and paved the way for the emergence of mass journalism towards the end of the 1920s. As Ribalta states, “the rhetoric of conflict between proletarian and bourgeois photography [...], between objective reportorial photography and more abstract formalist photography”, were a trait of the class war rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution, led by young communists in the late 1920s.
In 1931, AIZ published a groundbreaking report on the worker-photography movement: 24 hours in the life of a Moscow worker family, about the Filippov family. It was elaborated by Max Alpert, Arkady Shaikhet and Semen Tules, and depicted the achievements of socialism in improving living conditions for the working class. This piece remains, as the curator assures, “is the production that best exemplifies the approach to reportage by proletarian photography circles”. It had a strong impact on the German VdAFD members, who made their own version of the reportage. They used the same structure, but avoided to give it the hopeful perspective of believing in a possible prosperity of the proletarian mass. Die deutschen Filippows, made by Erich Rinka, depicts the misery and indignity of the proletariat under capitalism, particularly under the conditions of economic crisis during the Weimar era. In the core of the German movement there was Edwin Hoernle, regular collaborator of Der Arbeiter Fotograf, who stated with clarity and rawness that it was necessary to “proclaim proletarian reality in all its disgusting ugliness, with its indictment of society and its demand for revenge . . . We must present things as they are, in a hard, merciless light”.
Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 obviously determined the German organization of the worker-photography movement: it meant the dissolution of the VdAFD, Der Arbeiter Fotograf was last published early that year and Münzenberg settled in Paris, where he rebuilt his editorial activity, while AIZ was relocated in Prague along with John Heartfield and his publishing company, Malik Verlag.
Many assure that the international worker-photography movement was over after 1933. However, such an affirmation would describe an institutional logic, since it ignores the persistence and dissemination of such practices above and beyond their organized form. Some practices close to this photojournalism, engaged and committed to the social politics of its time, saw continuity in many European cities.
for further information
Milena Ruiz Magaldi
Gabinete de Prensa
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
91 774 10 05
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
Sabatini Building, 3rd Floor (D-E-F)
Santa Isabel, 52 - Madrid
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18 April, 18 May, 12 October
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