New York

“Camera As Weapon”

Flies crawl across a sleeping baby’s face; a massive unemployment line unfurls beside a building inscribed with the graffito “Wählt Hitler” (Vote for Hitler; the year is circa 1933, the place, Hannover); a child writes “Streik” (Strike) at the bottom of her exercise book; a sign at the edge of a wood proclaims, “Juden sind in unsern deutschen Wäldern nicht erwünscht” (Jews are not wanted in our German forests); peddlers hawk lemons, shoes, chestnuts, anything they can. Images such as these were being published by workers in their own periodicals long before Walter Benjamin—in his famous 1934 essay, “The Author as Producer”—underlined the revolutionary potential afforded by the mass media to minimize the boundary between the producers and the consumers of information. By the late ’20s the Communist Party’s efforts to bring workers into the fold through photography had given rise to a thriving photojournalist press run by and for workers. Groups like Vereinigung der Arbeiter-fotografen Deutschlands (Association of German worker photographers), which gave members access to darkrooms and to communally purchased equipment, were publishing their photographs in magazines like Der Arbeiter-Fotograf (The worker-photographer, 1926–33) and the Arbeiter Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers illustrated news, 1924–33, known as AIZ). Although many of these photographs were lost or destroyed during the war, “Camera as Weapon: Worker Photography Between the Wars,” a traveling exhibition curated by Leah Ollman, tries to present a survey of the worker-photography movement not only in Germany, where it began, but throughout Europe.

Just what sort of weapon was the camera? Whereas “art” photography was thought to serve only the interests of the bourgeoisie, either as entertainment or as a means of solidifying their power, worker-photography was to serve a radical function in both the class war and the struggle against fascism. “We must proclaim proletarian reality in all its disgusting ugliness, with its indictment of society and its demand for revenge,” declared Edwin Hoernle, a comrade of the worker photographers. “We will have no veils, no retouching, no aestheticism; we must present things as they are, in a hard, merciless light.” Eugen Heilig’s Unemployed Man Living on Refuse, 1932, was precisely the sort of consciousness-raising photograph called for: as the cold invades a poor man’s hovel, he stares into the camera with woeful eyes, holding up his meager meal of garbage (some fruit rinds, and a slab of something that could be either bread or meat).

In spite of the many sharp images created by worker-photographers, the esthetic championed by the ideologues behind the movement was sometimes limited by the party line. Although publications like AIZ made good use of the mordant montages of John Heartfield, generally they frowned upon such “arty” techniques, believing that they detracted from the power of the image to confront the reality of a social situation. At other times, the work descended into the maudlin: Wilhelm Willi’s Untitled (Elite Hotel) Zürich, ca. 1930, which contrasts a destitute woman with the sign for a place called the Elite Hotel, is the sort of picture beginning-photography students take.

This show seems to reiterate another argument put forth by Benjamin: the value of a political work does not depend solely on the “correctness” of its politics, but on the efficacy of its esthetics as well. It is a valuable point, given the political orientation of much contemporary art: the phrase “camera as weapon” does not mean you hurl a Leica at a Nazi, but that you make a threatening image.

Keith Seward