Jorge Ribalta is an artist, critic and curator. He has held solo shows in the Zabriskie gallery, New York since 1994; and has also curated exhibitions of Joan Colom, Jo Spence, Manolo Laguillo and others. Most recently he has organised a hugely succesful history of documentary practices – Universal Archive – described by The Guardian as ‘a groundbreaking photographic epic.’
GL: In your writings you have addressed what some critics have called digital photography’s ‘crisis of realism’ Could you expand on the nature of the crisis, and what its effects are?
JR: It is important to observe at least two different but related meanings in my use of the term ‘realism’. Obviously, one is that of the index – that is, a certain direct cause-effect relation between the object and its photographic representation.
© Lewis Hine – Men at Work, 1932 (New York: The Macmillan Company)
The other is the tradition of an art of public issues – a tradition that one can trace as far back as Gustave Courbet, which I believe provides the founding ground for all the modern, materialist notions of an art which is produced politically in order to problematise, or attack, the bourgeois-autonomous public art sphere. It is a tradition with a reformist (Lewis Hine, for example) or a revolutionary (the worker-photography movement, for instance) horizon. I think the foundation of the 20th century filmic and photographic idea of documentary (even if this idea only appears as such circa 1930) belongs to this realist ethos, as do all attempts to link art production to social and revolutionary movements since 1848.
Now, the current debate tends to naturalise an anti-realist discourse concerning photography. The idea that, ‘after Photoshop, photography is dead in the realist-indexical sense’ is a belief that I find both theoretically unproductive and, on a political level, potentially reactionary or anti-democratic in some way. Its effect is to the erase the documentary power of photography, which is precisely the political potential to link art to transformative radical politics.
Dorothea Lange – Destitute Peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children
February, 1936 (© Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
What I defend is not a kind of nostalgic positivist realism, but a negotiated one grounded on a social contract which changes historically. For example, in the 1930s the emergence of the documentary genres was related to the need to visualize the new mass subjects of democratic politics. The documentary poetics based on images of the working class, everyday life, and the common man are the visual translation of the foundation of the welfare state in the West, and the struggles for revolutionary politics. Since then, documentary genres and democracy are historically connected. In the seventies, historian William Stott said that documentary is a “radically democratic genre” – highlighting that there is a structural correspondence between documentary and representative democracy.
Humphrey Spender – Tram Scene: Overhead Conversation, ca1937-38
(© Bolton Museum and Archive Service Collection)
So, even if we know after Photoshop that realism is a construction, I think we cannot simply abandon the claims of photographic realism. It continues to exist and to be necessary in the so-called digital era. If we want democracy to continue, we need some form or idea of documentary.
You have written that amateur photography has ‘turned digital without any kind of trauma’. Might the same be argued with respect to forms of professional – say, photojournalistic – photography too? Do you think it is true that fears about the ‘realistic’ status of digital imagery are more often expressed by academics and curators than by working photographers or consumers?
It is clear that, in what you call professional photography, digital processes involve a qualitative improvement in printed production; and that’s it. The rest remains the same. In the photojournalistic world, there is no meaningful discussion of what has been termed ‘post-photography.’ But the demands for critical practices in the media are radically different from those in museums…and, of course, the work of writers such as Barthes, Krauss, Batchen, Mitchell and Azoulay operates in the academy,
But I also think that photojournalism is not a very exciting field in terms of the critical discourse it generates. And I say this with great admiration and respect for photojournalists. I guess not many photojournalists read Azoulay, for example. Generally – in terms of providing alternative or interrogative models of both theory and practice – I find the media as non-productive as the art-market system. There are of course some exceptions, like Susan Meiselas, even if she can also be very problematic.
Overall though, I see too much plurality in both areas to be able to generalise. I always feel uncomfortable when borders between discursive and social fields are too rigidly established since we know that social dynamics systematically overcome those boundaries.
You have suggested that a kind of ‘molecular’ realism might offer a way of addressing the artificiality of digital imagery, without returning to exhausted notions of realism or universalism. Could you explain your use of ‘molecular’’ in this context?
I mean attempts to establish a kind of photographic practice which is immersed in other social and political practices and quite outside of the pre-legitimised institutional framework of the art market system. These are practices that focus on the reinvention of what we can call the “documentary contract” - in this respect what is relevant is that the conditions of that contract be relatively transparent and subject to contestation. I take the term (from Deleuze and Guattari) to mean, for me, a fragile, temporary, dialogic, non-essentialist agreement on the conditions of the document. I find examples of this in Jo Spence’s collaborative practices from the 70s and 80s, or in the work of Marc Pataut more recently.
© Marc Pataut – Seat Factory, 2007
I’m aware that what I advocate risks being seen as almost non-existent. The kind of critical, collective, fragile practices I defend have almost no space either in the mainstream media, or in the art institutions. And my examples (Spence, Pataut, Meiselas…) may be seen as marginal ones. But I have worked for years in a contemporary art museum and I still think there is a tremendous potential for what I propose – potential that not many people explore. And It is that potential which I am defending. My experience is that when this field is deepened and brought into the established institutional framework, very interesting and productive situations emerge.
You have referred to art’s ‘cultural confinement’ and its ‘reified condition,’ yet you work within an art institution yourself…
I am critical of bourgeois artistic autonomy, even if simultaneously I defend art institutions like the museum. More precisely what I defend is the unresolved tension between artistic autonomy, social knowledge and politics; and to me the documentary aspect of photography embodies that tension in a singularly intense way which needs to be preserved and radicalized. But I’m not against good art. I’m interested in good art made under strong tensions.
One of your recent talks was entitled ‘Why Photography Matters as Document as Never Before’ – a reference to Michael Fried’s ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’. How do you understand the relationship between your curatorial projects and Fried’s work? Do you think his approach has shortcomings?
I have two main problems with Fried. The first is what he represents, namely the continuation of a strong Anglo-American postwar formalism. That Fried is about to become the major theoretician of photography’s current hegemony in the art market is clearly a symptom of regression. Remember Walter Benjamin’s dictum that photography would transform artistic autonomy. Fried means the inversion of that promise, a return to order: photography’s triumph as art means its complete defeat as document. Let’s not forget that the document is the unresolved tension between art and social knowledge, it is not totally art.
The second is his non-problematic acceptance of the art system as it is. What is missing in Fried is the historic link between the documentary unconscious of photography and the critique of liberal artistic autonomy. I mean the cultural space of the document is a (radically?) different one from that of abstract painting; and if that difference disappears it means two possible things: that the revolution has triumphed or that it has been totally defeated and even forgotten. My impression is that Fried goes for the second option.
Your most recent major work as a curator has been the Universal Archive exhibition. What did you hope to address and achieve in that project?
The dream of a universal archive is the belief that a photographic translation of the unruly contingency of the world can result in a rational-organised-industrialised system (equivalent to money currency) which may function as a perfect means of exchange and commodification within capitalist social relations. Thus it facilitates processes of rationalisation, industrialisation and exploitation; as well as fostering the legitimation of the modern romantic-colonial nation-state system.
Charles Marville – Breaking through L’avenue de l’Opera: roadworks on la Butte des Moulins,
from passage Moliere, ca.1877 (© Charles Marville, Musee Carnavalet, Roger-Viollet)
The first photographic survey in history – the French Mission Heliographique, from 1851 – is one example. Another is the idea of creating photographic archives of monuments (the ancient and medieval buildings in France, the natural sublime landscapes in the United States) which ground the myths of national identities. And the dream of a universal archive continues today with the Internet, but I think it is important to understand that it is precisely in the first public proliferation of reproducible photographic images (when the first negative-positive technologies emerge around 1850) where we can find the earliest attempt to make of this dream a technologically viable reality.
Construction of Columbus Monument
In my opinion the inscription of photography in modern culture is determined forever by this “universal archive” unconscious, which is also related to the notion of universal citizenship inscribed in the liberal public sphere. The idea of the document and documentary is grounded in this unconscious; as are the 20th century discourses of photography as universal language; and the idea of a “Family of Man” – that is, the notion that photography creates a trans-national, trans-cultural global public sphere. The prevalence of this idea reached a peak between the 1920s and the 1950s, when photography was dominant in the visual mass media, before television, and it continues today in different forms.
So the Universal Archive exhibition sought to contribute to an understanding of the complexity of the notion of a document in the history of photography on the basis of the study and staging of a number of specific debates about the genre at different historical moments of the twentieth century. The difficulty of understanding what the document means is rooted in its historical mobility (it means different things at different times); its presence in different discursive fields (art, communication, social science, law, etc); and in the fact that the document is a precarious construction based on the temporary intersection of at least three different spaces: the museum, the archive and the media. I believe the document is the unresolved tension between these three fields.
Within the exhibition you included a section, Public Photographic Spaces, in which you focused on a history of propagandistic exhibitions – why do you think that these works should be revisited? What, perhaps, do you think is their relevance to current conditions?
I think it is important is that these projects are well-known and understood because they constitute the basic grammar of our current forms and methods of visual communication. It is probably hard for us to understand today the tremendous importance of the innovations of El Lissitzky, Herbert Bayer or Edward Steichen between the wars, for example, because what they invented has become our visual environment: publicity is our common culture and has become totally naturalized for us.
Soviet pavilion designed by El Lissitzky, Pressa, Cologne, 1928
We live in a propagandistic culture – it is a mistake to identify propaganda only with totalitarian regimes. More precisely, analysing propaganda is a way to understand the totalitarian forms and technologies that rule us here and now, even in liberal representative democracies. And it is also important to understand that the document is not an objective translation but a form of public persuasion, it is propaganda. A critique of naturalism in photographic realism has to deal with the propagandistic dimension implicit in any form of public visual communication
Erza Stoller – View of The Family of Man exhibition, MOMA, New York, 1955
(© Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York / Scala, Florence, 2008)
And through the Museu d’Art Contemporani (MACBA) you have been commissioning your own survey projects in Barcelona?
In 2006 we initiated a project adopting the method of a photographic survey of Barcelona. It was an attempt to re-appropriate the classic survey structure and method as an strategy to promote a critical analysis of the situation of the city, which has produced such a successful urban model, rooted in 1980s social-democratic urbanism.
© Allan Sekula – Terrenys de l’antiga fabrica de gas
© Xavier Basiana, Jaume Orpinell – Catalana de Gas
The photographic survey has been, since 1851, a tool for public opinion on a mass scale. And in the twentieth century, the Farm Security Administration survey in the 1930s and the DATAR Mission in the 1980s represented different forms of visualizing government ideologies and methods – both related to the implementation or recomposition of welfare state systems. The issue for us was how to use – critically and polemically – that structure today.
What hopes do you have for the future of documentary photography?
Unfortunately I have no idea what the future will be, which also means that I can be totally wrong. But I can also be right. The issue is what we want. Central to my concerns is how to radicalise the demands for institutional critique and how to reinvent artistic autonomy, in other words – how to contribute to the creation of the cultural and institutional conditions necessary for new transformative practices to emerge.
The obsolescence of the art market system is somewhat equivalent to the obsolescence of (neo)liberal democracy. I said before there is a link between the document and democracy. My impression is that experimentation and innovation on the document side cannot be dissociated from experimentation in the radicalisation of democracy.
Public Photographic Spaces: Exhibitions of Propaganda, from Pressa to The Family of Man, 1928-55
Publ. MACBA $80.
© Guy Lane & Jorge Ribalta, 2009.