Thursday, November 19, 2020

Crit: Photography's Neoliberal Realism by Jörg Colberg

Dr. Colberg has gifted us with an extended essay based loosely on a blog post he made a couple years ago. The result was published by MACK under their new DISCOURSE collection of books, and you can buy this object here.

It's a MACK product so you know without peeking the margins are going to be weird, and it's no surprise that the paragraph indents are too. Still, they selected a serif font for running text, they printed the text black rather than grey or pink, and there's a refreshing lack of colored paper in play. It's MACK, but only a little. As an object, a perfectly functional, legible, only slightly irritating, book.

Well, what about the content? The thesis, most clearly stated about halfway through, is this:

Taken together, these three prominent photographers [Leibovitz, Crewdson, Gursky] can be seen as the main proponents of a type of photography which has an implicit purpose of propping up global neoliberal capitalism [...]

Colberg proposes to support this thesis by simultaneously arguing that these photographers make propaganda in support of neoliberal capitalism, and that there are direct connections to the art of socialist realism. Not that the artists are influenced by socialist realism, but that their work "functions" in the same way.

In broad strokes he's probably right about the first part. These photographers, and boatloads of others, do make pictures which get used as a kind of marketing/propaganda supporting various ideas around capitalism, and the neoliberal variant of it. That there is an idea cloud, supported by media, which makes it difficult to even imagine alternatives to the present system is not seriously in doubt. This is an idea at least 100 years old, and for a fully worked example of it you can see, for instance, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and no doubt a lot of other sources.

He begins by suggesting that some notional "we" doesn't really believe in a capitalist cultural hegemony, an idea cloud of that sort. This suggests a sort of everyman "we" I guess? Colberg probably actually knows literally nobody who doesn't believe in such a thing. A little later, "we" mostly understand that photographs contain a large degree of fiction, which I guess is a different "we" altogether. This is typical of the sort of lumpiness we'll constantly be stumbling over for the next 9000 words or so.

The connection to socialist realism is, I think, more visual than functional. I think that he's seen in these photographers (mostly Leibovitz and Crewdson) the kind of weird real-not-real business that Stalin's socialist realism is made out of, and also the campiness that appears in it. Whether Stalin's artists meant it or not, there is a kind of overwrought silliness to socialist realism, and also in the photographs of Leibovitz and Crewdson. Colberg seems to be completely unaware of this, and most certainly does not refer to any camp or related ideas. To him this is all serious stuff.

Ultimately, the thing comes off as a mashup of "capitalism does propaganda" and "these photographers are really shitty" rather than an actual argument. It is rather a crowd pleaser, though. If you don't read it very carefully, and you're one of Colberg's colleagues, it affirms a bunch of stuff you approve of, and so it's necessary and important.

And let me be clear: He's not wrong. In broad strokes, he's got hold of a couple things. Capitalist propaganda is real. There is a hegemony of ideas and we can identify them. Leibovitz and Crewdson, and Gursky if you squint real hard, do have something of the same vibe as socialist realism.

Colberg's failure is that he doesn't connect any of it together worth a damn. It's just a feckless word pile with, to be fair, a couple of places where dots are connected. Not necessarily leading anywhere, but there are some short connections made. It's much better than the best of Feuerhelm, he said, damning with faint praise.

Let us examine this thing in more detail.

Firstly, he's mostly interested in Leibovitz. The Crewdson discussion is perhaps half the length of the Leibovitz discussion (and, to be fair, much more on point and lucid) and the Gursky is half that of Crewdson. The second and third photographers are add-ons, sort of thrust in there violently to make up the word count.

He begins, roughly, with a discussion of a magazine cover from which James Franco was removed after some scandal was revealed (about Franco). The magazine had not gone to press, and the cover was a composite, so they dropped him off it. The point Colberg appears to be reaching for is that this reveals why people land on covers — it is because we wish to show them as heroic exemplars of whatever, so no rapists allowed. He does not actually get around to saying that this episode specifically reveals the motives behind putting people on covers, but he leaves breadcrumbs, I guess.

The point, though, is that the Franco deletion reminded him of Stalin's deletions of Trotsky et al from photos, and thence the mental path leads to socialist realism, and at that point Colberg is lost because he can't let go of it.

This sets the trend. Colberg then goes on to talk about several other Leibovitz cover photos which created stirs of one sort of another, without really ever getting around to any kind of point. His audience loves it, because it's the usual "such photo, so problematic" blather they excel at, and getting to some point is, well, not usually the point. Here, though, I think he might have done well to approach this differently. Eventually he does mumble about how women are objectified, men are shown as powerful, and people of color are poorly represented. I guess? He is talking, exclusively, about Leibovitz covers that are exceptional in some way, so it's never clear if these are supposed to be examples of what he means, or exceptions, or what. One photo he specifically notes is an exception, so we're left a bit adrift.

There's a whole discussion of the Simone Biles covers that could simply have been removed without losing a bit of meaning. We never do learn if this is a success as propaganda, or a failure, or what. It's simply something Colberg wants to talk about, so he stuffed it in.

He then goes on, without examples, to suggest that the ordinary, unexceptional, photos from Leibovitz make heros of the successful, essentially, with a side of objectifying women and demonizing people of color.

We are supposed to be looking at these things through the lens of the ideas of one Boris Groys, who wrote a book about Stalinist art, that aforementioned socialist realism. This art is, evidently, heavily coded. Colberg, while apparently attempting to write an accessible discussion of these ideas, merely quotes Groys's opaque writing rather than providing a more lucid description. Eventually, though, we do learn that the bits Colberg cares about are entities depicted as heroes and as demons, and that's it.

Call me nuts, but I think there might be a little more to socialist realism than that. It's possible that if we read on in Groys we might even discover it, but whatever, here we are. It's just heroes and demons for our purposes.

While we're at it, my small exposure to Russians leads me to suspect that socialist realism was thoroughly unsuccessful propoganda. Sure, the Common Man read the codes: The weasel (capitalism) is being bludgeoned to death by the peasant (the proletariat) with his hammer (the Party) or whatever. But I doubt they believed in it for a second. The function of the propaganda was to let the people know what to pretend in order to avoid being murdered, not to actually support a real cultural hegemony. Be that as it may, let us proceed.

Having disposed of Leibovitz as depicting people as heroes (sure, correct), he moves on to demons, and gives us Crewdson.

His discussion of Crewdson is far more lucid. He tells us about typical photos, rather than exceptional ones (one might imagine that this is either because Colberg doesn't have such a hard-on for Crewdson, or possibly that Crewdson simply hasn't had any controversies) and more or less gives us a sensible read of Crewdson's photos as being about unsuccessful sad sacks. Colberg claims that this is the reverse of the Leibovitz hero, and is neoliberal capitalist propaganda illustrating what happens to the economically failed, the not-wealthy.

Colberg seems to be implying that this is the demonization aspect of socialist realism, but honestly I think that's a stretch. These people are, even if we accept Colberg's read, are not the demons of society, they are the victims. I have, to be fair, no idea what Groys is referring to, but it strikes me as unlikely that socialist realism spent a lot of time depicting mere losers. It strikes me that socialist realism probably had a few tropes around The Evil Anti-Revolutionary and maybe The Evil Capitalist, neither of which are loser sad sacks. But, sure, maybe there's a connection here. Stipulated.

Next up, a thoroughly cursory discussion of Gursky which boils down to "the pictures are so big and so busy that they can only be read as resistance is useless" which is, I think, a thoroughly idiosyncratic read. Gursky is normally read as a critique of consumerism, a critique of capitalism (although to be fair there is a very serious irony in Enormous Expensive Prints made by a very well off older white man being the mechanism of such critique.)

I could go on and on, but the fundamental problem Colberg finds himself in is this:

He wants to make a connection between the functioning of socialist realism and the photography of magazine covers and some photographers he doesn't like. There is, however, nothing special about the functioning of socialist realism at all. It functions like all the other propaganda in the world. What makes socialist realism socialist realism is the set of ideas it serves, not its mechanism of functioning.

Colberg even makes this point, when he remarks that Leibovitz magazine covers have a distinct odor of Leni Riefenstahl about them, and nobody claims Leni was doing socialist realism. The operative category is heroic realism, but then you can't work in Crewdson, can you? Not that Groys is actually a lot of help jamming Crewdson is, but at least you can give it a go.

Gursky flatly doesn't fit under Groys's description, or as fake socialist realism or anything. He is, at best, generic pro-neoliberal propaganda, and then only if you read it in exactly the opposite of what the overt meaning is. I have no clear idea what the hell Colberg thought he was doing, here.

It looks to me as if Colberg has noted a similarity in visual flavor, a real-not-real campiness, which speaks to a relationship between the visual character of socialist realism and Leibovitz, and seeks to extend that to a functional similarity. Since both are propaganda, he kind of succeeds, but so what? All propaganda is just as similar. He could have written exactly the same essay connecting Leibovitz to Nazi art, except he would have had to pull a different expert out of the library to replace Groys.

There is a secondary problem, which is that like it or not, Leibovitz is not a particularly good exemplar of the hegemony of magazine covers. Yes, she's more heroic than most, and yes she has that weird flavor that reminds Colberg of socialist realism, but as a propagandist she's a bit of an outlier. Most magazine covers don't have Leibovitz's weird color grading, or weird poses. They're more accessible, less jarring, less interesting, and therefore more insidious.

Leibovitz's function, within the cultural hegemony propping up neoliberalism, is as a credibility-adding wildcard. She does weird stuff, so magazines can say "look, we're not just sheep, we do critique! We break taboos, open up new vistas!" which is even a process Colberg mentions except in a different context. If you made a serious study of it, rather than this thing, you'd probably be able to make a good argument that it is the generic pictures of Scarlett Johansson and of Harry Styles and of Taylor Swift that do the heavy lifting for neoliberalism's cultural hegemony, with Leibovitz in a supporting role, and Crewdson and Gursky nowhere to be seen.

To this last: Colberg feints at but does nothing with the fact that there are different audiences in play. Normal humans do not give a shit about Crewdson or Gursky. Gursky, if he exists at all in popular culture, is "that weird guy who makes weirdly expensive photos" and Crewdson doesn't register. Their photographs only exist, culturally, for a few weirdos and the super-rich. The people who receive and "read" whatever is "coded" in these pictures are completely different from the people who "read the codes" in Leibovitz's magazine covers.

There's a whole thing you could probably write about this, but Colberg essentially ignores it, and indeed treats the audiences for these pictures are a singular blob that sees the pictures pretty much the way he does (and if they don't, it's because they're not educated in visual literacy — he makes this point explicit.) He does end with some blather about how different people read pictures differently, which seems to contradict the rest of his book, but they ruins it by suggesting that we ought to teach everyone to read pictures exactly the way he does.

Speaking of cultural hegemony...

Ultimately, this whole thing is a bunch of blather intended to delight his colleagues (who have been duly delighted,) and to baffle his students. A close-ish reading of it causes it to simply fall into a shambles.

If this were a Master's thesis, or the beginnings of one, I would not declare it unsalvageable by any means, but I would return it as rather a sea of red ink and suggestions for deleting more than half the words, and writing something better in their places.

There are some ideas in here which are worth exploring, probably. Most likely the socialist realism thread should be dumped entirely and replaced with a larger idea of propaganda/cultural hegemony, the examples should be clarified. It's not a terrible project to examine the workings of, say, magazine covers in the contemporary cultural hegemony.

As Betty Friedan has shown us, you truly can uncover the workings of a chunk of cultural hegemony, but it's rather a lot of work. You could probably spend a year in the library looking at back issues of "Vogue," "Vanity Fair," and so on, making notes on the cover photos and the cover text, and then spend another year interviewing cover editors and mucking with spreadsheets, and something interesting would probably pop out. This would be actual work, as opposed to sitting around typing words into a document, though.

In the end, probably the argument should be diagrammed or sketched out in bullet points and then turned into text, rather than simply throwing words down and sloshing them hopefully around which is pretty obviously what happened here.


  1. As someone who has lived in a former satellite state of the Soviet Union, I can attest to that there is more than a passing resemblance between socialist realism and Nazi art. The symbols of the approving authority are different, but the message and the purpose of it was the same. Thankfully, I don't see that in anything Leibovitz, Gursky and Crewdson have produced.

  2. Really appreciate making the point about the insularity of photography fans vs how everyone else will have engaged with this. And about the master's thesis -- I'm sure some better thesises are knocking about that deserve this kind of attention more... Do you think Colberg's general points would work better framed as an example of a sort of "toolkit for seeing hegemony" rather than trying to make these grand statements and wavy hand gestures, or do you think it would be too general/a bit weird to focus on these three for doing that?

    1. Yeah, I think you might be on to something.

      Framing it as a series of observations on certain kinds of photographs, and making loose connections to past cultural hegemonies might have worked well. Drop the pretense of an argument, and stick to a loose series of notes.

      There *is* to my eye a visual link from (some of) Leibovotz's photos and heroic realism.

      You might be able to make some hay from linking Crewdson to religious paintings of the damned, with their obvious links to the Catholic hegemony of the past, just off the cuff.

      Gursky still doesn't fit, as far as I can tell. I'm not convinced he plays any substantive role in the current hegemony/ies.

    2. I really enjoy less structured or otherwise semi-aphoristic writing. Not to dismiss the necessity of a solid argument.

      I'm currently working on a kind of "find something about how photography and propaganda work together" with a single picture. But I've been really hesitant to over-work it beyond just being "hey look at this, isn't it cool that...." for exactly the reasons above. I think if I tried to make it a nice system and lay it out like a big philosophical enterprise it'd become army-wavy...

  3. Most Mack books don't seem worth reviewing: you look at the pictures (generally available online), and they either grab you, or they don't. Not really much to say about it. They're picture books, eh?

    If your review of this Mack non-picture book is fair and accurate, and I've no reason to suppose it isn't, it (the book) is consistent with most of JC's literary output that I've ever seen, that is, a pointless and unedifying waste of time.

    This has me wondering: has JC ever posted an unfavourable review of a Mack book on his "cphmag" blog? Symbiosis?

    1. (for those who may wish to emulate this style of writing, and thus potentially though extremely unlikely, let's be honest, get a look-in at Mack, ASX &such, JC is organizing a workshop ... needs must!)