The Worker-Photography Movement of the 1920s and 30s remains an unexplored chapter in the history of photography. Starting in Germany and the USSR – and spreading across Europe, and to the United States, central America and beyond – the movement promoted the depiction of proletarian working conditions and everyday life. Communist-affiliated groups of amateur worker-photographers were exhorted to lay bare, in a ‘hard and merciless light’, the iniquities and social ills of capitalism: ‘Photography has become an outstanding and indispensable means of propaganda in the revolutionary class struggle.’

Jorge Ribalta, curator of a ground-breaking survey of the Worker-Photographer Movement of the 1920s, talks to Guy Lane about worker-photography, the origins of documentary, historical amnesia and the movement’s relevance today.

Max Alpert – Young Miners
USSR in Construction, no. 3, 1931 (Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia)

GL: You write that the Worker Photography Movement [WPM] has been largely ignored by historians. Why do you think this is so?

JR: I think there are various reasons. The main is the Communist affiliation of the Movement. Let’s not forget that the dominant narrative about the origins of modernism in the interwar period has been largely built under the Cold War US hegemony, and has been articulated as an anti-Communist move. The anti-Communist unconscious has penetrated deeply in art institutions under the US cultural hegemony since then; and I dare say that it remains influential in major museums today. An example is the American Photo-League: clearly a major force in the US photographic culture in the 1930s, it was dissolved in 1951 under McCarthy and has not been subject of any curatorial attention in that country since. Do not forget that Paul Strand, a communist photographer and a major reference for the Photo League had to leave the country due to McCarthyism, and the political aspect of his work remains largely obscured under his modernist appearance.

Also, you have to understand that in Germany, for example, the WPM was repressed by the Nazi regime after 1933; that some photographers went into exile or to prison; and that their archives were lost or largely destroyed. There are stories of people burying copies of AIZ in their backyard in order to hide them from the Gestapo. This means that a lot of the work has remained unavailable, and all that exists for most authors is virtually what we have in the Madrid exhibition at the moment. This fragmentary condition does not fit with the dominant logics of authorship and oeuvre that predetermine what art history and its institutions usually code as artwork.

John Heartfield
AIZ, no 44, 1934

There is also the fact that the genealogy of documentary discourses and practices in the West has been largely articulated around the Lewis Hine-FSA-Life magazine paradigm, which involves a reformist social-democrat narrative of the role of documentary as a paternalistic depiction of the working class and the dispossessed. This is the classic Griersonian documentary discourse. As you know, John Grierson was the leader of the British film Documentary Movement from the later 1920s. Griersonian documentary is conceptually developed around a “tradition of the victim”, a specific rhetoric of victimisation in the depiction of the underclasses designed to legitimate a specific counter-revolutionary welfare state ideology.

I have nothing against the Griersonian documentary paradigm, but I think its hegemony has had the effect of hiding that there was also – probably originally – a revolutionary claim in the birth of the 1930s documentary culture, and that the liberal-reformist version was most likely a response to revolutionary documentary. The WPM is articulated around a critique of paternalism, and a claim for self-representation and for insurgence. Let me add here that not many museums would take an exhibition like this. And the proof is that it didn’t get to travel to other venues.

GL: Is it possible to generalise about attitudes within the WPM towards other forms of photography? How did the WPM regard the avant-garde for example? Or ‘art photography’?

JR: The “enemy” of the German WPM was Moholy and the New Vision discourse. Abstraction, so to speak. Also Photomontage was seen in the late 1920s in the magazine Der Arbeiter Fotograf, organ of the WPM, as a bourgeois formalist practice and rejected as such. But later photomontage was accepted as a visual weapon for class struggle, largely due to Heartfield’s success in AIZ. But in practice these antagonisms have to be relativised to some extent. Even if the WPM belongs to the tradition of Realism, you find that in the exhibitions many of these supposed antagonisms towards the New Vision didn’t translate. The 1933 and 1934 Lubomir Linhart Social Photography exhibitions in Prague included many works which we would label as New Vision.

In the USSR there was also the antagonism between the photoreporters (ROPF) from the magazines Ogonëk and Sovetskoe Foto, defenders of the photo-correspondents of the WPM, and the October-Lef Group. The 1931 ROPF manifesto is an attack on the Lef group, Rodchenko in particular, who was also attacked in Sovetskoe Foto. But again you find that those supposed antagonistic trends lived together in the USSR in Construction magazine after 1931 with no apparent conflict. In brief, proletarian documentary may be seen as a contradictory and precarious practice.

Irena Bluhova – Beggars, 1930
Bauhaus Archive, Berlin

GL: What conditions were necessary for the WPM to flourish? In Britain and Austria, for example, the WPM appears to have met with little success… why?

JR: I think the role of the Communist Parties in each country was a determining factor. The strongest WPM organisation outside the USSR was in Germany, where there also was the strongest Communist party and organisations of the period. Also, the German media and publishing industries were the most developed of its time. Berlin was clearly the capital of modern photographic culture in the late 1920s and the birthplace of modern photojournalism. It is not by chance that Film und Foto took place in Germany and that Münzenberg’s publishing and media conglomerate was also there.

By contrast the British Communist Party was a very weak organisation. And in Austria the workers’ movement was centralised by the Social-Democrat Party – the main Austrian photo-magazine, Der Kuckuck, was a social-democrat one. The importance of the Communist Party also explains the absence of a Spanish branch of the WPM, since the Party in Spain did not become central until the time of the Civil War in 1936, relatively late in terms of the evolution of the WPM (which had already dissolved or adopted Popular Front Comintern strategies in 1935). In Spain the Workers Movement was mostly anarchist or socialist.

Ferenc Haar – Hands of a Labourer, 1934.
Hungarian Museum of Photography

GL: To what extent is it true to say that the WPM enabled the (amateur) representation of workers by workers? Is truer to say that the WPM fostered the (professional) representation of workers by the intelligentsia and middle class?

JR: This is a pivotal question in my project and I’d even say the central epistemological question raised by it. It is pretty clear that the core of the German movement members started as amateurs, like Heilig, Rinka or Thormann. But soon they were involved in the publishing networks of the movement. Remember that Heilig was graphic editor of AIZ. The thing is that they maintained a photographic practice over the years, which means that to some extent it is impossible to determine their status as amateurs or as professionals. When did those photographers stop being amateurs and become professionals? Erika Wolf argues that the Soviet organisation was largely constituted by professionals and that the amateurs played a minor role. In her biography of Münzenberg, Babette Gross refers to the poor and useless quality of the work provided by amateurs. Nevertheless in AIZ there are plenty of worker-photographer photo-essays published anonymously from 1926 onwards. This remains quite mysterious. More research from private and family archives will be necessary in order to clarify this point, because – by definition – anonymous amateur production is absent from public archives.

My intention with this project is not to answer this question but rather to raise it and to stimulate further research. Raising the problem of authorship and the conditions of curatorial and historiographical practice exposes certain inclusions and exclusions. This project attempts to de-naturalise and make visible the politics of curatorial practice, and expose the kind of pre-assumptions and possible limits involved.

GL: What is the relationship between Worker Photography and documentary practice?

JR: My point is that the WPM provided a source for the emergence of a documentary photographic culture around 1930. Documentary, I think, is a response to the need to visualise the working class in a new media culture corresponding to the era of mass democracy. Let’s not forget that the conditions of visual culture and visual communication based on the photo-illustrated press emerge mostly from Germany in the 1920s. The British documentary movement and the later FSA project are I think liberal or social-democrat responses to the 1930s awareness of the emergence of the working class as a new and crucial historical subject. The triumph of the Soviet Revolution is of course part of that new awareness. In my opinion there is a constitutive tension between reformism and revolution in the emergence of documentary practices in 1930. This is not an opposition between left and right, or between fascism and revolution, but it is an opposition between two versions of the left, so to speak.

I think the birth of documentary is related to left wing cultural policies and can be compared to the role of Realism in Courbet’s painting after the 1848 revolution. Realism started as an art of civic duty or public service, during the emergence of a new social movement. The birth of documentary in 1930 is I think a sort of reenactment of the birth of Realism, where art and social movement remain structurally attached.

Gustave Courbet – The Stone-Breakers, 1849

GL: What do you consider to be the signal achievements of the WPM?

JR: This is not a history of masters and masterworks. It is tempting to say this is a history of slaves… or let’s say losers. Anyway it is clear that the Filipov family photo-essay constitutes a certain paradigm that reproduces itself in many ways. I’d say the WPM determines the birth of the photo-essay that later will become a norm with LIFE magazine. In other words, I think that the discourses on serial imagery, montage and text-picture combinations that culminate with the Filipov essay are the essential formulation of the printed page as a photographic discursive space for the future.

I also think that the development of an aesthetic of ugliness and abjection has important consequences in the period. For example it penetrates the Paris scene through the work of Germaine Krull, Eli Lotar, Ilya Ehrenburg and Kertesz in complex ways that still need to be reformulated, since Surrealism has become a too imposing framework for a multiplicity of practices.

And of course Heartfield and Ivens produce by themselves specific paradigms that require no further explanation here.

AIZ Magazine, no 38, 1931
’24 Hours in the life of a family working in Moscow (the Filipov family)’

GL: The WPM exhibition and book is of undoubted historical importance. Yet, viewing the photographs as a critic – not a historian – how would you characterise the quality of the pictures?

JR: Quality is a very ambiguous category, but I understand you mean that worker photography is bad photography. I also understand you get this feeling from the book, not from the exhibition. I feel you would not ask this question about the exhibition because you would realise for example that Walter Ballhause is an unrecognised major author in the 1930s German photography; that Albert Henning’s depiction of poverty and street life in Leipzig is as complex and sophisticated as a Kafka story; that Kata Kalman’s peasant and worker portratit series parallels August Sander’s, and that her portrait of Erno Weisz is one of the most wonderful portraits in the history of 20th century photography; that Judith Karasz or Eva Besnyö photos are as good as Dorothea Lange’s… just to mention a few examples amongst many many others.

Kata Kalman
– Erno Weisz, 23-year-old worker, 1932
Hungarian Museum of Photography

There is a deep lyricism in the whole exhibition, a poetics of dispossession, which I think has to do with the fact that this poetics is constitutive of our notion of democracy and justice. We are equals because we are all vulnerable and precarious, equally exposed to nakedness, poverty and indignity. I think the WPM has been essential in the (photographic) production of this imaginary which is part of the modern democratic culture.

I also assume you would never doubt of the quality of the work of Tina Modotti, Paul Strand, Aaron Siskind, Robert Capa, Chim, Heartfield, Joris Ivens, Walter Reuter and so on, who were key figures in the WPM and are also in the show. I also think you would agree that AIZ magazine is one of the most inventive, innovative and vibrant photographic discursive spaces of the 1920s, and one of the key sources of the modernist idea of the photo-essay.

Your question may also pose the issue of ugliness. Do not forget the depiction of abjection, indignity and ugliness in proletarian life, particular in Weimar, is one of the programmatic aspects of worker-photography. Their photos are ugly not because they could not do them better, but because they wanted them like that. That ugliness is extremely sophisticated, refined I’d say.

There are presumptions in the modernist notion of quality that this project tries, again, to expose, de-naturalise and make accessible to critique, since they involve consequences in terms of the inclusions and exclusions of history. Quality should be seen in terms of its political consequences, historically, not as a natural and already given condition of art.

But again, I’m aware that the radical poetics involved in the WPM are less well expressed in the book than in the exhibition. The book and the exhibition have different approaches and of course involve different perceptive experiences.

John Heartfield – Cabbage Head, AIZ no 6, 1930
IVAM, Valencia

GL: Do you agree that the tone of much WPM writing is extremely proscriptive and didactic; and that The Worker Photographer’s freedom (from bourgeois conventions) appeared to depend on his ability to adhere to strict, detailed rules. Do you think this is problematic?

JR: Sure. The WPM defends the revolution and promotes class struggle. It is not peaceful. Nor is it liberal. It promotes the proletarian dictatorship as a form of liberation of the oppressed. Do not forget the conditions of the working class in 1930 were very different from today. Contemporary forms of injustice, inequality and precariousness are changed and to a large extent less dramatic, at least in the West, and that’s good news.

I’m not a Stalinist, but I think we should not idealise the liberal democracies in which we live. I’d like to stress that our western societies are not free from forms of totalitarianism, and that liberal representative democracy is far from having provided a final solution to social justice. We face a regression of welfare conditions these days. Everybody seems to agree to condemn communism and totalitarianism but nobody seems so ready to condemn the current totalitarianism of the “markets”.

In Madrid a right wing newspaper attacked the exhibition and the museum for making what the rightist critic considered an apology for communism, and not adopting the necessary “pluralism” any public institution should keep. I have no patience for this reactionary and repressive well-meaning mentality. Even liberal pluralism produces its own forms of totalitarianism.

Irena Bluhova – Lunchtime in the Field, 1930
Bauhaus Archive, Berlin

GL: Do you think the WPM has an importance beyond the specific ‘moments’ of its formation in the 1920s and 30s? Does it have a broader significance? Does it have implications for – say – contemporary practice, do you think?

JR: I think the rediscovery of the WPM was pivotal in the 1970s for the post-’68 generation of photographers and critics. I think of Jo Spence and her group in particular. The problems concerning the politics of representation and self-portraiture raised by the WPM remain open questions that need to be reformulated and renegotiated for each generation. There is thus a structural link between the WPM and what we can call the “postmodern” debate in photography around 1980, which involved a redefinition of the photographic document.

I also think the current crisis of financial capitalism brings actuality to the depictions of dispossession. There is a new actuality of the 1930s. Seeing the exhibition and the responses of the younger people to it I wonder why representations of dramatic poverty are becoming all too familiar for us. In Madrid I had the feeling the show was talking not about only about the past but also and importantly about a kind of feared future for many people.

A Hard, Merciless Light. The Worker-Photography Movement, 1926-1939
Curated by Jorge Ribalta
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
April 6 – August 22 2011

workerscoverThe Worker-Photography Movement (1926-1939): Essays and Documents
Introduction by Jorge Ribalta
publ. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia