Sunday, November 19, 2017

Colberg's take on Capitalist Realism

I've been chewing on Colberg's recent essay. He's been tweeting about it a lot and has gotten some traction among the titterati. So, I've been thinking about it.

His central claim is that Annie Leibovitz's portraits, and Gregory Crewdson's photography (as a whole?) make up two sides of the same coin, that coin being Capitalist Realism. The latter being, more or less, an analog of Socialist Realism, which was a straight-up propaganda movement which enobled the Socialist Cause with a series of fairly crude tropes that worked pretty well.

What Colberg cannot seem to commit to is just exactly how this works. He's coy but allows for how Leibovitz probably isn't doing it on purpose (and so perhaps we can infer that Crewdson gets the same pass -- notably, Colberg's discussion is wildly asymmetrical, we hear very little about Crewdson, for what I think are excellent reasons.) His claim appears to be that these two present a sort of package. The successful are enobled. Ok, I get that. That would be some great propaganda, and I kind of see the relevant tropes in play. The unsuccessful, Colberg claims, are shown to be hopeless and stuck. The message, Colberg claims, is that "you can't do anything about your shitty lot, so suck it up."

Ok, now, where I sit, this looks like the worst propaganda in the world. This is absolutely how not to do it.

Let's look at Crewdson. His work is pretty depressing. It's extremely mannered. It certainly illustrates the beaten down, the suffering, the miserable. His themes don't seem to be opposition to wealth, particularly, though. While he's certainly done plenty of work that could be construed as about the poor, it strikes me far more as about family trouble, emotional trouble. Crewdson reads as a sort of northern Faulkner, showing us the current link in a chain of inevitable disaster that stretches both back and forward in time. Sex, incest, emotional distance, the crushing weight of aging, all these things are hinted at. But the theme of being a victim of capitalism, much less so.

What makes Crewdson attractive here is the obvious visual similarities to Leibovitz, and I certainly do feel that sense of opposition. They do feel like yin and yang. But if you attempt to hook that yin/yang up to Capitalism, it falls apart. You can hook Leibovitz up, but not Crewdson, and once Leibovitz is viewed as Capitalist Propaganda, Crewdson more or less ceases to be yang to her yin.

If you want a proper yang, well, photographic studies of America's Poor are the hydrogen of photography. Colberg is waist deep in this shit in his MFA program. You'd don't get the cute visual duality, because all that stuff is washed out fake film these days, but at least the subject is right. And, of course, you don't get to cut down Crewdson.

Ok, so I can't figure this out. Let's see if Colberg will just tell us. As far as I can see, the only explicit remark he makes that's relevant is this one:

being able to buy Crewdson’s photographs at a blue-chip gallery helps the wealthy see the role they play, as those providing the concerned pillars of society

Which, to be honest, appears to me to be gibberish. Well, it literally does mean something, but that something makes no sense. He's buried this quote in parenthetical asides and, so be further honest, I think he lost his way halfway through the thought and just dribbled off. It does suggest that perhaps Colberg is claiming Crewdson behaves as propaganda aimed at the rich, further justifying their wealth and power?

Is Colberg claiming that Crewdson is propaganda aimed at the rich, while Leibovitz is propaganda aimed at the poor?

That might make sense, except that one does not traditionally propagandize the entrenched powers, as far as I know.

And, again, why pick on the ambiguous Crewdson when there are probably billions of photos explicitly about how stuck the poor are?

Let's return to Leibovitz.

As a side note, I want to pull out this sentence:

That said, it [the sheer amount of post-processing] also is the one part of Leibovitz’s work that brings her closest to the world of fine-art photography.

To which I respond, what the fuck? Is it 1870 again? Did you forget to take your anti-dipshit pills this morning, Jörg?

And now we come to that damned reference to Riefenstahl. And let us recall that Leibovitz is a Jew. There's absolutely no way Colberg is that tone deaf. Despite his protestations that he's not comparing the two, blah blah blah, there's no doubt that he's digging the fact that he's found a way to jam these two names together. So controversial! Whoo!

As I have noted elsewhere, I will not deny a fellow his impressions. If he saw Riefenstahl in Leibovitz's book, so be it. Having skimmed a bit of this and that, I even sort of see it, although Riefenstahl always had the drama turned up to 11 and Leibovitz is more of a 9. But this connection seems to serve no genuine point, only a rhetorical one. He could have shoved in John Singer Sargent just as well, and the parallel would have been quite a bit more apt. Of course, while it would have been more apt, it would not have led so neatly to his fairly forced discussion of propaganda. He could also have jumped right ahead to Socialist Realism, which would have gotten him where he wanted to go, politically, but, let us be honest, Colberg wants to cut Leibovitz down. Lashing her, however obliquely, to Riefenstahl, accomplishes that, as well as making Colberg look intellectually courageous (to idiots).

Anyways. Colberg's piece sounds pretty good until you actually start to dig and to think, and then it kind of falls apart. I mean, there's some stuff there, and you could probably dig out two or three themes and make some sense of them, but this particular incarnation of the ideas is kind of a mess.

To be honest, I suspect that Colberg saw the Trump picture and recognized Crewdson in it. The emotional distance is right there, and if you look around you see Crewdson did a bunch of pictures with standing automobiles with the driver's side door standing open. Sometimes with a human figure, sometimes not.

I suspect that Colberg noted this similarity, and then spun the rest out of his own fevered imagination, because we wanted to write a "capitalism is terrible" piece, because that's what all the cool kids are doing. He wound up with a sloppy, glib, and in the end kind of foolish piece.

But it's killing it on social media, so he'll probably get tenure.

1 comment:

  1. I am having so much trouble with these off the wall photo discussions, and I don't have enough properly functioning grey cells to comprehend the 'why' of them in the first place. Just go out and make some photographs, for crying out loud.
    Years ago I read one of Annie Leibovitz's book, this was before digital. I was then doing 99 percent of my work with my manual Yashica FX3 with a 50mmZeiss lens on it, and black and white film, which I developed and printed myself. So, I was totally delighted to read Annie say that if she had her way, and didn't have to earn a living, she would just go around with a manual SLR and black and white film and photograph the people and things that interested her. Since that was pretty much what I was doing, I felt very validated.
    So, I am just not comfortable beating up on professional photographers who go around making photographs to delight their clients, but don't really harm anybody else. I don't think it necessarily means that they have sold their soul to the devil. I have a bit more of a problem with 'art photographers' who do the same thing. Todd Hido and his ModelMayhem work come to mind. And I do have difficulty grasping many of the things Colberg says when he says thing like collaborative portrait photography is not art and post-processing somehow brings Leibovitz closer to the world of fine-art photography. Huuh, huh, and huh??!!
    And as I stated in an earlier reply, the Riefenstahl - Leibovitz comparison just troubles and saddens me.