Not Yet. On the Reinvention of Documentary and the Critique of Modernism sets out from the re-discovery of the Worker-photography movement of the 1920s and 1930, but within the social and intellectual context after 1968 and the new urban struggles.

The title is a double reference to Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula. At the end of her essay In, Around and Afterthoughs (1981), Rosler’s reference to the unfulfilled historical promise of documentary echoed the 1920s awareness of documentary as an art produced in parallel to social struggles. The incompleteness of documentary referred to the incompleteness of social justice, of a revolution not yet fully accomplished.

Allan Sekula’s programmatic essay Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (1978), can be seen as a generational statement for politicized artists who placed the reshaping of documentary at the centre of their activities. The reinvention of documentary formulated by Rosler, Sekula and others was parallel to a critique of postwar depoliticised and institutionalised photographic modernism. The defence of documentary was also of its epistemic and archival condition and its instrumentality in social struggles, opposed to an autonomous understanding of art practice. It was precisely this historical need to politicise representation that turned the 1930 Worker Photography Movement into a reference for the new struggles against the repression of the working class revolutionary memory in the official history of the upsurge of modernism.

The exhibition is organized in various specific historic-conceptual areas, with the aim of offering a complex understanding of historical temporality. Together with photography and its printed public forms – magazines, books, posters, ephemera – the exhibition includes film and video work. Both in the 1930s and in the 1970s documentary activity has been produced in the complex confluence of photography, film and video.

This exhibition offers an approach to the debates on documentary photography as a critique of modernism and its institutions. These debates proliferated globally in the 1970s and 1980s in a context of rapid structural transformation in photographic culture. Photography acquired a new prominence in the art market and in the burgeoning new cultural policies, as well as in higher education. A new network of photography institutions began to appear, coinciding with the collapse of the prolonged phase of stability and economic growth following the Second World War, for which the turning-point came with May 68 and the economic crisis beginning in 1972.

During the Cold War, documentary art, which first emerged around 1930, had been resignified in a liberal humanist mode. In the 1920s and 1930s documentary practices in film and photography had emerged in order to represent the new political centrality of the working classes in the era of mass democracy. The impulse towards revolutionary working class self-representation produced by the Worker-Photography Movement since 1926, was overshadowed by liberal documentary projects, such as the paradigmatic 1930s Roosevelt era Farm Security Administration survey in the United States, which offered a communal, pious and paternalistic representation of the dispossessed in the emerging welfare state. Building on this basis, a conciliatory photographic discourse of universal brotherhood flourished after the War, fostered by the State and by international organisations. The major exhibition The Family of Man, organised by the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1955, served to institutionalise such humanist documentary culture, blotting out the originary revolutionary ideological aspirations underlying the foundational experience of proletarian documentary.

Liberal humanism ceased to be the hegemonic documentary ethos in the 1970s, when a new generation of politicised artists came on the scene and revived the political origins of documentary practice, initiating its reinvention as a critique of the obsolete, faux-conciliatory forms of modernism inherited from the Cold War.

The exhibition

The first part of the exhibition presents some scenes of the new awareness of the memory of pre-war worker-photography, constitutive of a starting-point for the reinvention of documentary discourse and the links between avant-garde and social movements.

In 1973, in Hamburg, a group of politicised photographers, inspired by the discovery of pre-war German worker-photography, founded a new organisation and began to publish a magazine, Arbeiterfotografie. Within a few years worker-photography groups had sprung up in the main cities of West Germany, where, from 1977, they organised national congresses.

The work of the new German worker-photographers focused on representations of industrial labour, which, in the 1970s, inevitably looked somewhat anachronistic. They also promoted community participative campaigns in support of public services and city planning local causes: children’s playgrounds, green spaces or the preservation of industrial labour and working class culture and neighbourhoods. They encouraged the use of inexpensive, portable photographic panels suitable for installation in public spaces. Exhibitions were seen as spaces for agitation and civic debate.

The second wave of German worker-photography emerged in a context in which other photographic practices were contributing to a politicised reinvention of documentary. In 1976 the Volksfoto group launched a magazine of the same name which pioneered the study of amateur, private and non-conventional uses of photography. Dieter Hacker, a founding member of Volksfoto, had produced one of his first programmatic installations using anonymous photographs collected from rubbish bins, precisely under the slogan “all power to amateurs”.

The journal Ästhetik und Kommunikation (Aesthetics and Communication) was one of the main theoretical forums of the new materialist and socially-oriented theories on the uses of photography. The journal published a special issue on the historical German worker-photography movement precisely the same year the organisation and magazine Arbeiterfotografie (Worker-Photography) emerged in Hamburg. Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt’s critique of bourgeois public life and its contributions on a proletarian public sphere, in their book The Public Sphere and Experience (1972), formed part of the magazine’s intellectual climate. The artist and graphic designer Gunter Rambow, in turn, produced some of the most monumental examples of collaborative photographic practices with his participatory photographic actions, based on methods of self-representation of working-class neighbourhoods in public spaces through appropriation of advertising methods.

In 1967 a group of workers at the Rhodiaceta textile factory in Besançon (France) began making films about work in the factory on a self-taught basis, including first-hand accounts from the workers themselves. The Besançon factory, occupied as a protest over working hours, was one of the first settings for the May 68 series of protests in France. The idea of using cameras was the result of a meeting of the struggling workers with the filmmaker Chris Marker during the making of his film À bientôt, j’espère (Be Seeing You) (1967). When Marker’s film was shown in the factory it provoked a critical reaction over the distance between the filmmaker and the workers, and this prompted them to take up cameras for themselves. This led to the “Medvedkin groups”, so-called in reference to Alexander Medvedkin, whose work aimed to document and represent from the inside the process of worker self-awareness in the context of May 68. The groups were encouraged by Marker, who lent them one of his cameras, as well as his production facilities. Despite his collaboration, Marker remained in the background, not to say completely invisible, throughout the process. Another group, active during the same period from 1967 to 1971, was formed at the Peugeot factory in Sochaux.

The international reception of the German worker-photography experience began in Britain, in the circle of the artists Jo Spence and Terry Dennett. In 1975, a year after founding their Photography Workshop, the two of them took over running the Half Moon Gallery in London, a publicly-funded institution oriented towards community groups and social movements. At the gallery they started the journal Camerawork, one of the fundamental critical forums of the new politicised British documentary culture.

The Half Moon Gallery produced travelling exhibitions using idiosyncratic laminated panels, an inexpensive system that enabled informal presentations of photographic work to be held in social and community spaces of all kinds. Spence and Dennett produced several such series, which established a historical connection between their activity and the worker-photography of the thirties, particularly their series The Thirties and Today (1974) and The Workers’ Film and Photo League (1974). In 1979 they published the anthology Photography/Politics: One, with a section on worker-photography which constitutes the first contribution to the history of the movement to appear in English. In the same period they also brought out the broadsheet The Worker Photographer, which emulated the militant approach of the historical journal Der Arbeiter-Fotograf (1926–1932).

After the departure of Spence and Dennett from Half Moon and Camerawork in 1977, the journal and the gallery continued to be oriented towards what was then called “community photography”. The aim was to promote the use of photography in a range of social processes of experimentation and empowerment and to favour alternative public spaces over dominant artistic spaces. This was happening in a context of expansion in public policies of support for photography, soon to be cut short with the advent of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979. The journal and the gallery were the forum for documentary practices such as those of Nick Hedges and the Exit Photography Group, as well as for the activity of groups like the Docklands Community Poster Project, which took up John Heartfield’s tradition of political photomontage and inserted it into a new advertising idiom to promote a critique of the neoliberal, speculative shift in urban policies in 1980s London.

In 1968 Nick Hedges had begun working with the Shelter organisation for the homeless. His work involved extensively documenting impoverishment and slum housing in working-class areas of several British cities. His images of abject poverty carried powerful echoes of the documentary rhetoric of the 1930s.

In 1974 the artist Martha Rosler returned to New York after several years in San Diego, where she had been part of a small group of artists including Allan Sekula, Fred Lonidier and Phil (later Phel) Steinmetz. In New York she produced her series on the Bowery, and the following year Rosler and Sekula began to publish articles in the journal Artforum. The series of essays produced by Sekula and Rosler is arguably the central theoretical corpus of the debates on documentary photography that took place in the 1970s, culminating in Sekula’s Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (1978), along with Rosler’s In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography) (1981).

This reinvention of documentary proposed by Sekula can be read as a critical response to photographic modernism, in a double sense.

On the one hand, documentary reinstated photography’s condition of social practice. By defending the use-value of documentary, it called into question the place of photography in autonomous art institutions, particularly museums. This amounted to restoring the historical status of documentary as a minor, hybrid art form, whose archival and communicative rationale was in some sense anti-artistic, inseparable from political projects for social transformation. This tradition had been initiated by the pioneering surveys on the living conditions of the urban proletariat compiled by reformist social researchers and activists such as Lewis Hine at the turn of the twentieth century.

On the other hand, despite having adopted this reformist tradition of documentary, it was not simply a matter of repeating it and idealising it, but of critically re-reading it. The critique was directed towards the positivism implicit in the idea of documentary and the ethical and political problems it raised: based on a concept of justice rooted in liberal democracy, it found expression in a victimist, paternalistic mode of representation of the underprivileged and social minorities which masked its own conditions of production. In a sense, it reproduced the very inequalities it condemned. Against this, there was a need for a new type of documentary in which the relationship between the subject and the object of representation would be made explicit and renegotiated. This critical re-reading of documentary made it possible to recover sources of modernism that had been suppressed in the postwar years, particularly the materialist, productivist and factographic practices of the period between the wars, including the Worker-Photography Movement and its American offshoot, the Photo League.