Powerful images â€“ what makes them "stick"? Notes of an historian employing and enjoying photographs
Figure 1. Salgado, shipwrecking on the beach of Bangladesh, p. 200-201.
Figure 2. Salgado, shipwrecking on the beach of Bangladesh, p. 216-217.
Figure 3. Salgado, Sulphur mine, Indonesia, p. 284-285.
Figure 4. Salgado, Serra Pelada goldmine, Brazil, p. 302-303.
Figure 5. Schulz-el-Dowy, â€œGummibudeâ€? in Bad Blanckenburg, GDR, c. 1986.
Figure 6. Anonymous, Elly Bungardt, Leinefelde, September 1963, “Für Dich”.
Figure 7. Rehbock, Vorratshalterung, Hanomag. Figure 8. Anonymous, Drehersaal, Hanomag, Historical Museum, Hanover. Figure 9. Anonymous/company picture, VW, Klangprüfung einer Kurbelwelle im Ersatzteiledienst, December 1951.
A talk like this one usuallay sets out with a display of a small number of pictures. Obviously I do follow this pattern. I follow suit also in, then, turning to language and script to add captions and comments. – Here I restrict the latter to the photographs of Sebastiao Salgado. At this point the other photographs just refer to other takes and views; I shall return to some of them in due course.
I. People Working: Salgado´s Perspective The first three photographs were shot by an economist turned documentary photographer, Sebastiao Salgado.1 In his "Workers" he set out to visually map the world of labor in a twofold sense, from the most arduous of manual labor to the supervision of computer– manufacturing and transport systems, from the Brazilian Serra Pelada to the First World.
The pictures collected in this volume were taken in the 1980s and early 1990s. Each of the 28 sequences is devoted to one kind of work, each one is set in one specific area of the globe. Thus, these sequences range from mining in Brazil to handling sugar cane in Cuba, to repairing the Parisian subway, to harvesting flowers for perfume making (Réunion, Indian Ocean), to operating spinning looms in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Another sequence focusses on ship-breakers in Bangladesh: i´ll come back to it. - All of the work presented here is wagelabor or, at least, pertains to the cash-nexus. In other words, these pictures do neither show any kind of forced labor or of prison labor nor do they depict house work or family work.
Salgado reproduces monochrome pictures. But in difference to publications as they have become canonical for documentary photography since the 1920s and 30s Salgado not only gives one or two line captions. Instead, he has added a small booklet collecting succinct descriptions of the respective contexts. For instance, in the case of the Bangladeshi shipbreakers he tells us they "run these ships onto the beach at high speed; then they attack them from all sides, blow torches cut through its steelskin, giant hammers break up its iron and wood structure… Everything from that giant animal lying on the beach has its use. Iron and steel will be melted down and given new roles as utensils. The entire ship will be turned into what it once carried: machines, knives and forks, hoes, shovels, screws, things, bits, pieces... The huge bronze propellers will provide the most elegant of items – bracelets,
Sebastiao Salgado, Arbeiter. Zur Archäologie des Industriezeitalters, (Frankfurt am Main 1993/ engl.: New York 1993).
earrings, necklaces, and rings which will one day adorn the bodies of working women, as well as pots from which men will pour tea".2
What is most obvious in these pictures is the presence of manual work (work meaning the actual activities of people). – For one, this presence refers to the wide array of jobs and tasks that require using and moving one's hands. Hands touch and handle tangible ´things´ - other bodily senses are employed in manual work, too: eyes and ears operate likewise as primary tools to treat and deal with 'stuff' of whatever kind and size. Concretely, these are male miners in a Brazilian gold-mine, or males collecting sulphurous soil from the inner parts of a volcano (Java/ Indonesia). At the same time, these pictures show and represent a wide spectrum and, even more, the dynamics of non-industrial practices of striving for one's survival.
Manual labor appears in these visual accounts of ´people working´ not merely in handling stuff and things. The photographer also presents people operating machines or controlling production chains. In fact, the pictures declare intervention by hand (and hands) necessary – if not pivotal also for mechanized if not automated processes (examples of female operator at spinning automats and repair mechanic of Parisian subway). Both allude to a multitude of jobs and sites at the very centers of industrialization constantly demanding manual labor.
Salgado´s Photographs: An “Elegy” of Manual Work? Critics of Salgado´s study of work and workers have emphasized he employs the “modernist style” of industrial and worker photography; however, they add, he “turned it to elegy” (Stallabrass, 149) At stake is photography aiming at “realistically” capturing people at work. It was this visual modernism or realism that had become dominant in Weimar but also in Nazi German-photography – and, similarly, in both USSR (Boris Ignatovich) and USA (Lewis Hine; Walker Evans; Margaret Bourke-White).
Salgado´s pictures are focused and framed in the same vein. Still, the heroism workers display here is not any longer that of a bright future based on their ´productive work´. To the contrary, these people strive for ´making do´ (M. Burawoy) against the odds of, for instance, slippery ladders or the fumes of the car company´s paint shop, or the smoke of a volcano… Here, confidence and dexterity of those photographed seem mixed with their desperation, at least their exhaustion. And beyond the individual pictures: they seem to radiate an air of futility. 2
Julian Stallabrass, “Sebastiao Salgao and Fine Art Photojournalism”, in: New Left Review (1997), No. 223, pp. 131-161, p. 150.
The panorama Salgado presents in his "workers" alludes to a similarity of both labor conditions and attitudes of laboring people worldwide. The patchwork of pictorial sequences cut across the various divides and differences of areas and climates, of cultures and societies of the globe. Not the least, this arrangement sharply contrasts to the conventional foci of the study of the working class and of work more generally whether these emphasize the historical dimension or not. Because, this presentation brings in (at least a large chunk of) the range of non-industrial practices people employ when striving for their survival.
By this token the pictures simultaneously convey another seemingly global similarity: the effort of working, and, thus, toiling people for gaining (or re-gaining) a sense of themselves. It is the plea for recognition from peers and colleagues but also from those high up or farther down on the constructed - or better: experienced scales of inequality in society. To be sure, such pleas appear in the photographs only in a subdued or muffled way. They differ strongly from pictorial appraisals of collective action. Thus, they refrain (almost conspicuously) from any rhetoric of “Taking-back-the-Streets” (or the nights, for that matter).
Salgado's pictures show people who seem in interesting but also strange ways untouched, at least untainted by what they are facing and what thy do to cope with.3 This feature can be read as an appeal to the exotic – some kind of indirect romanticization.
Bodily Energy – and Dexterity Of course, it is by this same token that these pictures contain a documentary richness of enormous depth and range. The perfume of melancholy exuded especially by the large dark spaces in many pictures but also reflected in the almost total lack of smiling faces does not hinder using the pictures for explorations of work - settings of work and people working in different contexts worldwide.
It is in particular the scenery of breaking ships in Bangla-Desh that confronts onlookers not with decay but with determined actions of dissolution. The object of these actions are the mythical carriers of modernity (according to Le Corbusier); they are taken apart on these beaches. However, this is the crucial point: to cut and hack ships into pieces is extremely laborious work. In this case it is manual work in the strictest sense. No one seems to wear 3
Stallabrass, ”Fine Art Photojournalism”, pp. 148-150.
gloves; there are ropes, pincers or tongs, and as the only ´high end´ tool: cutting torches. The hauling and pulling, schlepping and holding of metal pieces which come in many forms and sizes (and weights!) is solely done by muscular strength and stamina. Thus, the young males who populate the site fit both onlooker´s stereotypes on the physicality of working metal and local cultural patterns of the genderedness of that very work.
Figure 10. Salgado, shipwrecking on the beach of Bangladesh, p. 206-207.
Salgado´s images do bring back duress and toil to the presentation (and notion) of work. In almost all pictures hardship is strikingly present; still the pictures do not foreground it. The focus is on bodily energy of working people as on their dexterity in handling a certain tool, cargo, or one´s mates. Thus, ways of coping with ´given´ settings are central here. How people do perform their task seems to intrigue the photographer´s gaze. For instance, when the pictures follow the feet and legs of hundreds who master slippery ladders carrying uphill sulphurous soil in an Indonesian sulphur mine (in fact, an extinct volcano) or – so in another sequence of these pictures – in a gold mine in Brazil.
These pictures convey a matter-of-fact attitude of these young lads: Their endurance may counter and, perhaps, overcome hardship and fatigue. At the same time, however, their postures, looks, and rare gestures show a distinct presence. More precisely, the pictures allude to a certain corporeality people radiated in that very moment the photographer released the shutter. - This presence, however, differs from that ´agency´ as it has informed much of recent 7
labor history. While agency smacked of emancipatory (if not revolutionary) élan, this presence indicates a more passive attentiveness. These people have watchful eyes – they seem to be on the alert, combining caution with the claim to ´stand one´s ground´. It is a presence which indicates people´s sense of themselves. Such Eigensinn implies both sober calculation of interests and vivid expression and pursuit of feelings.
Production – Destruction? On a second tier, however, this sequence of pictures strongly resonates with a focal point that is solidly ingrained into notions and images of work. It is the “fire of labor” which affected, among others, Karl Marx (Capital I). According to the Prometheian myth man re-created himself by appropriating fire for his own purposes. Hence, production would enable working people to improve not only themselves but humanity. At the same time, this imaginary also does provide recognition to all ranks of modern society. Even respectability of ´dirty´ or manual work depends on proper devotion to and engagement in the task. This also holds for ship-breaking although this work means to dismantle products that others had produced. Still, when destroying ships people do employ and move their bodies in ways that are largely identical to what they do when producing them.4
Working: Practices of Appropriation The pictures of ship-wrecking show objects of utterly different sizes on a beach, and people who obviously move and do things. But as with every photograph these are split seconds of reflected light as captured on film (or digitally). Thus, we always have to go beyond that momentary glimpse and connect it with other glimpses we recall or can provide otherwise, thus making the instant to become part of an action and a situation (if not a process).
Studying the pictures it becomes obvious that the label ´ship–wrecking´ is a rather abstract way of rendering what the photographs actually show. The label ´ship-wrecking´ does consume the actual work. What is needed, in contrast, is a much more concrete, detailed and
Notions of fire quite obviously resonate with mythical or magical narratives and images. For instance, In his “The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America” (Chapel Hill, 1988) Michael Taussig has emphasized the importance of magical narratives also for the logic of wage work, here in both mining and agriculture in Colombia. This interpretation necessitates to question this notion also for the "west" (or for lack of a better term: the `First World´). Are Weberian or Marxian notions not composites which imply and at the same time negate the emotional intensity attached to the very claim of `rationality ´? Thus, even notions like "productive labor" and "production" may be informed by very different cultural settings and daily practices then we consider as ´western´ if not purely ´rational´.
nuanced way of rendering what these people actually do. In other words, necessary is an ethnography of work.
It took a long time until analysts acknowledged that working people rely on and kindle motives, feelings and needs of their own, notwithstanding the forms of contractual regulation or of forced labor. Studies on the concrete practices of, for instance, slaves or on wageworkers showed how people actively made their respective settings ´their own´. They showed multiple ways of appropriation the world people saw themselves confronted with. In other words: only in recent decades researchers noticed that even those workers who did endure extreme degrees of violence and exploitation were not ´lost to hell´. To the contrary, in microstudies they emerge as complex individuals similar to those in other arenas of work and sociocultural asessement (and their resp. grey zones!).
Only from this vantage point it became an issue that these workers are males and females and relate to each other along gender-lines. Attention focused on the concomitant differentiation between the younger and the older ones and their specific trajectories. Thirdly, researchers tried to take into account how people attribute themselves (or are being attributed) to ethnic groups and "races" on one or the other side of the "color line". Even more, this new perspective has advanced the issue that individuals may and, in fact, do meander in their everyday activities between rational calculations and emotional aspirations (or anxieties, for that matter). Therefore, whatever they do is charged by different intensities of engagement for or distance to one's task or others.
In other words: Putting to rest the fictitious homo oeconomicus allowed to recognize working people's activities and relationships (and their resonances) beyond and outside the cashnexus. In the perspective of the trias of class, gender and race – which ought to be amended by generation and life course – pictures like Salgado´s emerge as richer and more meaningful and, in turn, more "gripping" for viewers.
II. Images – as Texts? Recent emphases on "intertextuality" have re-shaped awareness of the simultaneous presence of distinct but interrelated literal, oral, and visual (re)presentations of both symbols and things (or persons). In the wake of intertextuality, thus, the practice of freely moving between 9
different texts and textualities has retired a mode of analysis that stressed the either-or (and, in turn, assumed a historical sequence of “developments” which allows (or even necessitates) to mark specific degrees of traditionality or modernity as engraved in but also produced by either one of those media. Nevertheless, the massive evidence of longstanding practices of intertextuality, whether they are recorded from academe or vernacular settings, should not blind us. Isn´t the overarching assumption and, in turn, the general metaphor of the "text" poblematic (even if we will not or cannot abandon it)?
Of course, "text" means a product resulting from practices and techniques of connecting threads to a firm although flexible fabric. In our realm of texts this product is not merely the starting point but the material and symbolical resource and reference point for communication and the perceive, act, and make sense of the world in whatever registers we encounter it. Or in more common parlance: reading texts provides information but also enriches and, thus, possibly cofirms or changes the way people perceive of and approaching things as well as other people or symbolic signs.
The reading of a text does follow (and has to follow) a certain pattern. While that seems a truism the specifics are not: the reading reuieres sequence and may need rhythm. Although much research has shown that the letters of a text as well as the page of a book or script but also this particular item (papyrus role; codex; book) operates as a material thing and, even more, in its visual capacity or dimension. Thus, even letters are not just media for "something else" they operate just as such – the distinct form is not only used for learning the alphabet or in children's play.
In other words: the visual may have textual dimensions. But is it identical with any other, in particular with spoken or written/printed text?
Viewing Pictures Let us have a second look on the pictures I showed at the beginning. It seems common knowledge that we "view" our gaze presents us the perception of simultaneity, even if the eye may technically not “see” the whole field that is on view at the very same instant. Rather, the retina notes/ records the stimuli sequentially. Still, the human brain transforms this specific kind of information as an index of simultaneity (or has been trained to do so). In other words: even if physiology may render this as mistake or illusion – it is pivotal for our perceiving of 10
"pictures" that we “see” them not piece by piece but "at once" and “in total”. Hence, individual facets and moments are seen in relationship and resonance with other shapes, forms, shades and colors that are present "at the same time".
In the first picture the individual leg or legs of those straddling upwards on the ladders which the picture capture convey both: the effort of the individual carrier of the obviously heavy load; it also shows (again, at the same time) that these are many who work their way upwards.
Of course, not only the historian does almost in the same instant invoke images and notions which directly speak to this very "fact". Isn't this proof and emblem of communal or perhaps collective condition or, perhaps, perception and action? In other words, the trap of collectivity and solidarity is wide open here. One can reason for quite a while if the photographer aimed at those stereotypes. Did he invoke them determinedly? But if so in which way? Are these pictures from the early 1990s a more ironic take confronting by the very picture and its emotional dimension a sense of the difference between political programs and tons of rhetorical and propagandistic claims of the existence of collectivity and its aspired political results? Or does this possible and actual resonance elude to a different perception and horizon of understanding, at least of those to whom the photographer also or perhaps primarily addressed his pictures?
Still is this note of perceiving pictures and, almost without hesitation relating them to notions and other images we have stored in our minds or can refer to – does this way of going about pictures render properly what they show as pictures? Do the striving or straddling legs (in the pictures of Serra Pelada gold mine) convey any sign of worker´s collectivity or solidarity? On the other hand appear these people to be faced out by the obviously very heavy loads they are carrying upwards? Is it perhaps the impossibility to get beyond the uncertainty and the open questions which seem to vibrate with the picture as a composition of light and dark spots and dots with lines and the distribution of form on a surface but also the perspective which have been caught in the instant the shutter was released?
Similar reflections, resonances, and questions spring up when we turn to each of the other pictures. Whether the images of the Banglash Desh site refer to a desperate situation of those who manually dismantle enormous steel hulks – and whether the individual worker glows
with fury or barely can restrain sadness if not mourning? The pictures allow for these as well as other spin-offs.
III. Photographs - encore “Punctum” (Roland Barthes)? Roland Barthes has emphasized that photographs carry a "kind of natural being-there of objects” (Barthes, Rhetoric of the Image, p. 345). The photograph obviously had not been possible if the specific people or objects had not been "there". Thus the picture certificates presence (of things, of people: but it does so not only by showing the "natural being-there of objects. At the same time it offers visual resemblance – to a particular person, to a ship.
It is well-known that Barthes distinguished two ways that photographs do "exist", studium and punctum.6 The studium denotes the field of its cultural or educational possibilities (CL 48). This "field" is “punctuated” by a second moment, the "punctum"; the latter “shoots out of the scene like an arrow" (CL 26). Even more, Barthes insists that the "punctum" does “prick” him; it may be “poignant” (CL 27) but also may arouse “great sympathy” in him, “almost a kind of tenderness” (CL 43).
Margaret Olin has recently scrutinized Barthes' analysis. In a scathing diatribe she attacks Barthes' argumentation as sloppy: the details he determines as punctum she demonstates as, in fact, absent or displaced. It seems that the focus on the possible or actual identification of objects disguises another practice of identification: that of the user of the photograph with the picture´s specific object (or for that matter, subject).
Thus, Olin joins in underlining one pivotal aspect Barthes put forward emphatically (or claimed as starkly as repeatedly): that the "immense power of the photograph (the one which he [Barthes] uses here) does not come from that which was in front of the camera, it lies elsewhere". Olin shows in which ways Barthes's "identification of specific people" links multiple photographs in a chain of identificatory relationships". 5
Quoted by Margaret Olin, “Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes´s ´Mistaken´ Identification”, in: Representations (2002) No. 80, pp. 99-118, p. 100; the following quote ibid. p. 114. In her essay Olin criticizes the pictures and the accompanying readings Roland Barthes has given to the examples he chose for his "Camera Lucida". She argues he made crucial “mistakes” or misreadings which to her reflect Barthes's identification with "theories of strangers” and incorporating those into his – one might say; imagined – family. 6 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (New York 1981/ French: Paris 1980), henceforth CL.
Her point revolves around the double meaning of "identification". Photographs "amplify" people's capacity to “identify” what they look at or try to see and to recognize. These may be things or people – but also states of minds by capturing, for instance, a landscape that represents what has been culturally coded as allegory or symbol of, for instance, mourning or, for that matter, pleasure and joy. Jubilant people but also sunlit sceneries, preferably in a garden or park, stand for the latter. Corpses, torn faces, and dismembered bodies have come to stand for the first, at least in Western orbits.7 The amplifiying powers of identification resonate, however, with another sort of assuming or claiming a strong relationship. Olin locates here the driving force for and of employing photography: the identification with the subject (or object) that one wants to “identify with”.8 It is here that she posits the center of the dynamics that are at work in both the technical making, that is the shooting of a photograph and the artistic (or journalistic or academic or military) selecting and framing of the specific subject/topic.
Whether it is identification or as Olin has it; "misidentification" with the subjects that the picture depicts does not have much of a bearing. Because she contends that the "most significant indexical power of the photograph may… lie not in the relation between the photograph and its subject but in the relation between the photograph and its beholder, or user” [emphasis added, A.L.]. It is this connection – or in Olin´s term: “performative index” that makes the picture work for the beholder, at least. Thus, he is struck (or touched – or “pricked” as Barthes put it). It is, however, not any “detailed” or “accurate” rendering of a subject9 that is at work here. In difference, as to Olin it she is convinced by her identification with that subject. Hence the identification of the user (or onlooker) does constitute (or may, for that matter, deny) the threshold of plausibility. The “telling” photographs are those with whose subject I do “identify”.
See on the "amplifying powers" of photography as technology Patrick Maynard, The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography (Ithaca/London: 1997), p.77, 81ff.- On particular cultural codes and their usages see as to mourning war dead Reinhart Koselleck and Michael Jeismann, Das Vaterland der Feinde: Kriegerdenkmäler in der Moderne, (München, 1994); to photographic depictions of war victims Ernst Friedrich, Das Gesicht des Krieges, (Berlin: 1925); esp. to the photographic iconography of the Holocaust Habbo Knoch, Die Tat als Bild, (Hamburg, 2002); to the photographic presentation of “joyful” people VVVV, “CCCCC”, in: YYYY (eds.), Bilder und Images, (Cologne: 1998), pp. XX-XX. 8 Olin, “Touching photographs”, p. 99. 9 See Maynard, Engine, pp. 191.
Then, however, are we back to an open-ended multiplicity of possible usages, mis-usages, or non-usages – “everything goes” again? If pictures "stick" in people's mind: is that nothing but a reflection of their own desires?
In this view a dose of "Historismus" is called for: How are these "desires" constructed or, for that matter, repressed, or enticed and charged? Thus, one ought to scrutinize the way people approach their subjects. In other words: what are the practices in and by which observers and interpreters see and recognize what they find a “telling” subject to be photographed? And in a second step: how is it that onlookers of this or another photograph are “taken” by this one (and not by others)? _______________
_______________ _______________ _______________
I will return to this in a moment. But first I want to come back to the challenge Roland Barthes`s "Camera Lucida" has become (or: become again?) to those who deal with photography. Barthes himself called his last work a "little book" (in terms of length and size it certainly is). But at the same time he saw himself obsessed with the wish "to learn at all costs what photography was 'in itself'" and "by what central feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images" (CL, p. 3). It has been shown repeatedly that the text fails in this respect since the claim for universality is from the outset contradicted by the author´s urge to present his “private” point of view as the only one which matters11. Still, the text keeps to occupy the interest of art historians and art critics – one way or the other it is also looming large in usages of photography among historians. They, however, so far have been more mute – perhaps for bad or, at least, insufficient reasons?
I employ the German term of “Historismus” because "historicism" has become so blurred since Karl Poper gave it his beatings in the 1950s and 60s. The aspect of necessarily considering the historicity of the onlooker/interpreter/analyst as well as his or her "objects"/”subjects” and, at the same time, his or her perspectives and methods (and, to conclude, those who perceive, read or make any other usage of what she or he finds and presents in whatever media) is wrongly subsumed under “historicism”. But see for a productive reading of "Historismus" Otto G. Oexle, “Von Fakten und Fiktionen. Zu einigen Grundsatzfragen der historischen Erkenntnis”, in: Johannes Laudage (ed.), Von Fakten und Fiktionen. Mittelalterliche Geschichtsdarstellungen und ihre kritische Aufarbeitung, (Cologne, 2003), pp, 1-42. 11 See his introductory statement: "I decided I like photography in opposition to the cinema…", (CL, p. 3). In general, his “I” – and “his own measure”, p. 33 - conspicuously determines and shapes almost every sentence to follow; in particular, the way he throughout the text sets apart punctum from studium (and at the same time inter-relates both) and underlines this point.
Barthes attributes "polite interest to many if not to most photographs” he has seen or sees. This interest he sees driven by a "general, enthusiastic commitment" – but in his view this interest remains without any "special acuity" (CL 26). While he “likes” many photographs, he does not "love them" (p. 27). In difference, the "punctum" that "pricks" him does not merely trigger a "shock" with the onlooker (or again: with him). The particular “surprise” he feels when hit by “punctum” he takes as a "disturbance", or even more corporeal: Such a photograph not only "shouts" but effectively "wounds" (p. 41). Still, he is not envisioning (or recalling) sensational pictures or subjects – dismembered and massacred corpses for instance. It is not the grand topic – but most often a detail, “a partial object” (p. 43; emphasis A.L.). Certainly this "punctum can be ill-bred" (p. 43) as are the bad teeth of a child captured in a picture of “Little Italy” (William Klein; p. 46). In Barthes's recollection of his viewing "details" that punctuate the latter may even "fill the whole picture" (p. 45). For instance, in a picture of Duane Michals of Andy Warhol it is not the two hands he offers to read. While this is a central part of the image Barthes recalls himself attracted if not "pricked" by Warhols nails, more precisely by the "slightly repellent substance of those spatulate nails, at once soft and hard-edged" (p. 45; this picture is not printed in CL). And in a picture of Nadar (1882) showing two young blacks dressed as French sailors besides the person whom Nadar actually portrayed one of the boy puts his hand on the thighs of the sitter. But Barthes does not mean this slightly odd gesture; he took it as part of the required posturing for a portrait picture. Instead, he is "pricked" by "the other boy's crossed arms" (p. 51). Figure 11. Nadar, Savorgan de Brazza, 1882.
Detail – incidental and “telling”? For Barthes the detail is an element of a photograph that appears to be unnoticed at the time of shooting the picture. Thus, in his view this detail speaks to that what he is – we are? intensely searching for in photographs: the punctum. In Barthes´s view these details show 15
something neither intended nor framed by either one of those involved: the photographer and the onlookers or users of his product. The point being that for Barthes the photographer "[can]not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object".12
Attention to the capacity of photographs to present singularly detailed views of its subjects, whether these are, for instance, people, machines, or landscapes, is by no means a novel point! Patrick Maynard has summed up how from the very beginning of photography (since Talbot's time) the rendering of mostly “trivial” detail and ”unattended background of perceptual experience”, not the least its “incidental" presence13, has stimulated two different reactions. One considers its seeming triviality as disguise of subversive meaning while the other elaborates on distraction and lack of compositional clarity – hence “most often incidental detail… is more muddling than telling”.14 Bridging the gap authors like John Szarkowski have argued that this experience has stimulated "a new sensibility", in a certain way opening one's eyes onto what one might not expect or can only barely recognize. Of course, from here the incidental details is imbued, again, with the potential of possible significance.
Whatever the (in)significance of ephemeral detail may be: It is that dimension of photographing that is part of the scene “before” and during the operator of the camera does his/her thing focussing on a particular subject. Obviously the photographer cannot “not photograph” such detail whatever his/her intentions, codes, or emotions recommend or warn against – thus, reality seems to “sneak” in. Photography seems to turn into the tool of Hegelian “cunning of reason”: doesn´t the photographic lense open up direct access to past or present "reality” if not its “truth”?15 Even if we do not buy into that reading – photographs of a workshop often reveal a “background” that was by no means "unconscious" but intentional. Workers determinedly concealed their practices and postures from the gaze of superiors (or from cameras, for that matter). Thus, in the foreground of a picture workers attentively focus
James Elkins, “Critical Response: What Do We Want Photography to Be? A Response to Michael Fried”, in: Critical Inquiry 31 (2005) no. 4, pp. 983-956, p. 941. - This point has gotten momentum in recent debates: The discussion of the antitheatrical tradition in painting has been grossly influenced by Michael Fried, see his piece on Barthes: “Barthes's Punctum”, in: Critical Inquiry 31 (2005) no. 3, pp. 539-574. 13 Patrick Maynard, Engine of Visualization, pp. 206 and 208. 14 Maynard, Engine of Visualization, p. 210f. 15 Still, detail at the same time presents and stands for optical clarity which, in turn, fosters any assumption on an immediate relationship between photograph and the "reality" of a subject it does depict; see Maynard, Engine of Visualization , p. 211f.
on their lathe while colleagues farther in the background casually if not leisurely fulfill the same task, some operating their tool with one hand while the other may tend to a cigarette.
Figure 12. Rautert, Porsche AG, Stuttgart, 1968.
Figure 13. Detail
IV. Interlude What do we do with these notions and concepts, debates and proposals? The issue of ´detail´ may be closest to historians (or other analysts of societal settings and transformations) interest for and usage of photography or photographs. And it is, in fact, the very detail which appears or can be shown as "incidental" that alludes to “hidden transcripts” ( J.W. Scott) if not subversion or countervailing practices. At least,such detail stands for contradictions or ambivalences.
At the same time, in this view the “theatrical” dimension of photography looses some of its capacity to undermine reliance on photographs (since they seem nothing but products of this very mechanism). On the other hand, since the “cultural turn” took hold the very codes of performing have become a pivotal topic of research. Thus, most productive investigations of those very ways of and codes for posing have tuned down most of the denunciatory fuzz for discarding pictures (or leave that one perhaps to art critics).
At the same time, though, if one can distinguish different layers in specific pictures and, for instance, demarcate a theatrical "pose" from an "absorptive” mode of being (Michael Fried) in 17
a picture we still have not found any more "immediate" clue to past or present reality. But such distinction is enhancing one´s sensitivity when lookon on peictues and using them – in despising or enjoying them.
It remains: the puzzle with “punctum”. Whatever it is – is it a proprium of pictures (including also its material dimension - that is , for instance, totally ignored by Barthes!) or and to hwhat extent is it “made” by the beholder, or onlooker, or user? Does Olin put the issue to rest in her emphasis on the impact of the onlooker's desire as constitutative of whatever one might consider to “prick” any onlooker? Or is this, still, a dimension of photographs which speaks to a ´nagging´ texture tat at least some photographs seem to display? Does it make sense to search for the stark surprise – in other words, to allow for being "pricked" without always or perhaps ever being sure what it is that irritates our well-fenced "field of study"?
At this point I will return to my "turf" and briefly comment on some of the photographs I use, employ but also enjoy in my work.
V. Photographs, continued – the historian of work takes another look “Gummibude” This black-and-white photograph has at its center a big wheel obviously a device for storing cable or other flexible material. On its left side a person, seemingly a woman, leans against this bif thing and seems to push it on. The thing and the person are surrounded by a dark room: gloomy, no light anywhere. Some small items are barely recognizable, obviously on the ground some meters behind the person
Figure 14. “Gummibude.”
pushing the big wheel.
The big object, the wheel and the person are situated at the center of the picture. The wheel displays a cross, technically these are the spokes of this big wheel. Still, it is a stark graphic element that combines the gravity at the center but keeps it imbalanced due to the person who 18
is obviously at pains moving this thing along. This person is recognizable as one individual; the gender, however, cannot be determined. Non visible is the person´s face. Thus this individual is, at the same time, pictorially de-individualized if not de-humanized: neither a face nor even a profile or any other clue.
I incidentally spotted this picture reproduced on a postcard in a specialized art-shop in Cologne in the mid-1990s. The caption read “series ´work´1985-87” and named its author, Gundula Schulz (the postcard been issued by Verlag Walter König, Cologne; in the meantime it is Gundula Schulz-el Dowy) whom I finally met her for an interview. She told me that in the mid-1980s she had photographed a series of pictures of work focusing not on big companies but scrutinizing small factories and workshops along back-roads in Thuringia (her home state but then living in East-Berlin for several years already). She mentioned that one of her motives had been to break with the cliché she felt being subdued to - as photographer of nudes. In each of the firms she selected she stayed for several weeks. The directors were usually hesitant but basically open. Problems arose in direct contact with those men and women whom she asked to be photographed. Several times people required to photograph them not at work but as nudes (which she declined). It had taken always quite a while and lots of confrontations to become accepted and, perhaps, even go rather unnoticed when taking pictures.
Of course, she never could have been unnoticed (as, in contrast, Walker Evans had been when hiding his camera while taking lots of pictures in the New York subway in the 1930s): All of Schulz´s pictures (she showed me about two dozens) don´t leave any doubt that the people were aware of the photographer being around. In this particular case, however, the person (she mentions that a woman would push the big wheel or thing) might have recognized after the fact - when the flash lit the scene she was already depicted on film.
Gundula Schulz added details about the firm´s production and products: they would blend raw rubber and soot for blacking (both imported!). The woman depicted in the photograph was busy to turn this stuff into flexible water hoses for usage in gardens or parks. The big wheel stored a certain quantity of such hoses, and the working woman was regularly but not permanently moving one full load after another out of her way.
“A photograph of Krupp…”? Uses of Photographs in Industry In 1931 Bertolt Brecht was quoted with his fundamental criticism of photography - more precisely, of what he took as the illusion of photography´s documentary qualities: "The simple reproduction of reality does not reveal anything of this very reality. A photography of Krupp [heavy metal works] or [the electro-concern] AEG will not show anything substantial of these institutions. Reality as it 'really' is, has drifted to the functional. Rectification of social and human relationships as happens with pictures of factories conceals those". Thus, he argued for an explicit constructivism in order to destroy the established and obviously accepted visual representations. However, what Brecht criticised industrial management did appreciate. Pictures of huge ensembles of factory gear would surely impress onlookers. Thus, pictures of working people, as taken at Hanomag [machine construction, esp. locomotives, trucks, and cars; Hanover] or at Krupp (or Porsche, or VW – and other companies, for that matter), should present an ´authentic´ proof: of a well-ordered production site and smooth cooperation between management and workers. Secondly, company photography did not confine itself to a single purpose but entertained a wide array of topics and perspectives. Prominent was the encyclopedic collection of pictures ´re-assembling´ the multitude of workshops and, even more, tasks and working people. At least in some large companies this turned into a constant activity occupying photographers for years of not decades. – Of course, directly related was the constant urge to visualize the products and, thus, to provide for ever more attractive displays of their values and qualities. In this context, people became part of the photographs: mostly to demonstrate sizes or showing satisfaction about such seemingly excellent products. Figure 15. Anonymous/company picture, VW, Karosserien an Kettenförderern in Endmontage Halle 12, November 1961.
Figure 16. Rautert, Porsche AG, Zuffenhausen, 1968. Figure 17. Keetmann, Rheinstahl Wanheim GmbH. Gießereiarbeiterin, 1960. Figure 18. Wolters, Phoenix-Rheinrohr AG, Walzwerk Ruhrort, Fertigstraße 5. Fertigstaffel, Fertigstrang 2, Auslauf 5. Gerüst/Einlauf 6. Gerüst mit Umwalzer Heinz Lücke, um 1960.
Figure 19. Schmieding, VEW Hauptverwaltung, Dortmund, Abteilung Betriebsstatistik, 1955. Figure 20. Anonymous/company picture, VW Telefonzentrale, 1950.
Figure 21. Krupp, Arbeit als Pose. Die fotografische Fixierung von Unfallverhütungvorrichtungen
Thirdly, photographs became one of tools in industry´s campaigns to prevent accidents (also supported by both unions
Pictures – a large section being drawings or cartoons – dominated posters or ads. Those pictures stressing "documentary" precision (for instance, of the “best way” operating ones tools) were photographs or were based on photographic evidence. However, perhaps a longing for shock-value reigned much of the decision-makers: the very moment of accident was at the center of many of such poster. However, never a photograph appeared, always a cartoon captured the very instant -- for instance, when the hand of a worker was caught by running cogwheels while he tried to clean them. The cartoons “overdrew” the respective incident: the posture of the victim revealed not just his pain, but simultaneously alluded to his careless if not reckless behaviour - if not to his foolishness. Thus, the people´s actual practices on the shop-floor were neglected. The (openly) fictitious images distorted, and thus denounced, the way workers tried to combine the fulfillment of orders with "making-out", i.e. how they strove for survival and for exposure of self-reliance and self-will.
“Deviant Cases” - Telling Photographs? Whether one finds photographs of work processes and working people in the large collections of Hanomag or at Krupp´s: like other photographs of this subject they present a fairly monotonous picture. Except for one special album one cannot detect on any of these photographs a worker drinking coffee (let alone beer or schnaps!); almost nowhere is someone talking to a colleague not to mention fooling around; nobody seems to be exhausted, dirty or bored (by, for example, constant noise and dust, or, even more, by accceleration and division of labor, both being vehemently intensified due to the "rationalization" of machine 22
construction since the early 1920s). And nobody seems injured, for that matter. Everyone is pictured as being totally absorbed in his job. The shots expose a stereotype which suggests that working in the factory is identical with the terms of management: constant workflow. But uniformity is not total; there is one "deviant case": as already mentioned, one album contains 293 pictures under the label of "factory accidents". A more precise title would have been "broken pieces" and "inexpert handling of tools". A more precise title would have been "broken pieces" and "inexpert handling of tools". For, none of the shots actually depicts accidents, but many show broken engines or cranes; damaged tools and an exploded dynamo are to be seen, there are lots of photos of loads that have fallen off some cart or waggon. Finally, one section of this album is composed of pictures of posters which display warnings against supposedly careless behaviour which, in turn, may stimulate dangerous reactions of the worker himself or others, and finally cause accidents.
Ironically enough, bosses, foremen, and workers could be united in this respect, although for opposite reasons. A demonstration of non-workmanlike or inexpert performance at work would neither foster better sales nor give the company a better standing with customers or authorities. On the other side, workers had to reckon scornful laughter or mockery by people from their own family or neighbourhood.
Above all, the bosses and supervisors might have sensed in pictorial documents of workers' possible "inexpertise" a more disturbing feature. For instance, the photograph of a cutter showed a string tied around it; this string could have been used for handling the hot tool after usage.
In such perspective the workers' inventiveness could, in fact, turn out as clever for increasing output and productivity. Simultaneously, though, this worker might ridicule and if silently subdue the textbook scheme of "how to handle tools". In turn, he would prove his intimate knowledge of risks when â€œimproving" his tool for daily use. It was clear, however, that using this device also meant considerable danger for the worker himself. Exposing his self-reliance,
as in this case, might cause him a serious accident injuring the actor himself but possibly other workmates on the shop floor. Figure 22. Anonymous, Bohrmeißel, 1920s or 1930s, Hanomag AG, Hanover-Linden, Historical Museum, Hanover.
Nevertheless, couldn´t the cutter as depicted by this photograph stand for practices of reappropriation of work-processes by workers? Thereby they would negate, in their own terms and terrain, the claims of the bosses, to control worker´s practices. By adjusting the respective tool to its use, one worker had made it part of his "living labour" - or, he had extended his "living labour" onto the realms of "dead labour".
Workers Picturing themselves: “Quality Work” again! Did pictures which workers “shot” on their own show different traits or profile? One has to recall that photographing was strictly forbidden inside factories but had to be licensed in each and every case by the management. It was not only the general control of the company's property but also the fear of industrial espionage which was at stake or at least claimed for executing such restrictions.
At the end of the 1920s contemporary estimates had about 30,000 workers as active photographers (at least some of them being members of associations sharing the rather expensive equipment). As one of the journals, the "Arbeiter-Fotograf", shows outings and other activities outside the company gate were at the center of their photographic activity. Here, traces of the organized workers culture of the imperial Reich are obvious. To get rid of the toil and suppression at workl walking in "free nature" was one of the stereotypical projections shared by the parent generation of these workers who in the 1920s devoted much time and energy to photographing.
Occasionally people also took pictures inside the company. The dominant subject was one´s own familiar setting, workplace, and performance at work. One (to my knowledge: very rare) example is the picture of a turner shot by self timer during nightshift while operating his repair lathe at Krupp company, Essen. This worker, Theo Gaudig (born 1904) I could interview in fall of 1985:
Figure 23. Anonymous, Theo Gaudig, Nachtschicht an der Spindeldrehbank, 1927. Gußstahlfabrik Fried. Krupp, Essen, Ruhrlandmuseum, Essen.
"Yes, I did work in the tool-making section of the department constructing switches. This section was located behind a fence in that shed. My lathe directly touched at this fence. There was no problem to bring in the camera. This was during night and there were no problems at all. Flashlight operated with magnesium. This powder I put up [he means the pots containing the powder] at the fence and afterwards I put up the camera everything I did prepare (put in the cassettes with the glass sheets, I set the shutter at self exposure, walked back to my lathe and then woom. The photograph was taken – I then dismantled the camera and took off the pots I had used for the flashlight.
Question: "Nobody noticed or passed by or later on tried interrogated you?”
G.: "No; nobody noticed. There were no difficulties afterwards.”
Question: "Why did you take the pictures?" 25
G.: "I wanted to show my acquaintances and family people what I am doing: while this is what a turner does and this is his tool, his lathe. And just to mention: I was the youngest in the section. Of course I had to operate the biggest lathe and to work at the heaviest and biggest pieces to work at."
Gaudig used his photograph to show it his people. That was the audience he wanted to reach. Some months later the editor of a leftwing but independent illustrated news, "Arbeiter Illustrierte-Zeitung" regularly visited the worker's photo-clubs and so they did with the club at Essen. Here they spotted Gaudig's picture and asked him whether they could take it along. In the issue of January 31, 1929 Gaudig's picture reappeared. However, it reappeared as a different picture: it is just one section of the picture, emphasizing the focused and concentrated worker, fully in command of his job, of his tool and the process of production.
Figure 24. Title page of AIZ, 31, January 1928.
The individual picture and its politicized version both employed overlapping if not identical compositional principles and perspectives. These perspectives, however, strongly resonated with the ones used by photographers whom the companies hired to present “works community” and respective “German quality workers” in action, of course performing just that: “German quality work”.
Figure 25. Cover of Rote Arbeit, 1931. Figure 26. Endmontage in einer Maschinengewehrfertigung, 1941 or 1942. (In: Josef Pöchlinger, ed., Front in der Heimat, Berlin et al., 1943. p. 113)
Published on Nov 30, 2010
Powerful images – what makes them "stick"? Notes of an historian employing and enjoying photographs