PHRC seminar, Tuesday October 15th 2013
Seminar review by Duncan Shields
The history of photography has the power to illuminate many different strands of academic inquiry, far beyond the history of photography itself. Photographs seem to have become a visual diary of both world-wide as well as local historical events. However, they can also reveal much more than their superficial appearance may suggest. As such, I have always thought that photographic history requires a dedicated multidisciplinary approach, to cut through the customary surface interpretation of photographs as indexical imprints of reality. Launching this year’s PHRC seminar series, Dr Sarah James’ study of photographic exhibitions in the Cold War period exemplifies this approach. The two exhibitions that she discussed – Steichen’s The Family of Man (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955) and Karl Pawek’s lesser known What is Man? (West Germany, 1964) approached photography’s supposed universalism from strikingly similar poles yet produced very different interpretations.
Taken from her new book, Common Ground (Yale University Press, 2013), Dr James provided an eloquent re-evaluation of what it means to transpose the vision of one exhibition, created for a particular supposed “apolitical” purpose into another. Despite Steichen’s assurance of apolitical universalism, The Family of Man was a thinly disguised attempt at political propaganda. Similarly, Pawek’s exhibition superficially alluded to the universalism Steichen promoted but was directly aimed at the political maelstrom of Cold War Europe.
Bringing to the discussion aspects of context, political science, cultural and social inequalities and theoretical curatorial practices, dubbed “Metaphotography”, Dr James illustrated the issues arising from a refashioning of Steichen’s supposed humanist and apolitical vision in Cold War Germany. Yet as Foucault has described, no image collection can be entirely apolitical, especially in a heated political age. Dr James further argued that despite the apparent one-dimensional similarities between the two touring shows, Pawek’s appropriation of Steichen’s model showed a genuinely more reactionary and political expression. In what appears almost as a “reaction formation”, as Kraus has termed it, Pawek’s What is Man? demonstrated a stronger self-reflective approach to photography than Steichen’s universalist vision. Further to this, What is Man? exhibited a way of seeing photography that is much more multifaceted and complicated than traditional readings allow, regardless of aesthetic similarity. As Dr James explains in her book: “If Steichen’s exhibition drew on empathy and pleasure to eradicate political identification, using the threat of nuclear holocaust as a sublime unifying principle, Pawek’s show grappled with the idea of universals after Auschwitz and the impossibility of securing a sense of apolitical belonging in such explicitly political times.” (p. 100)
Reading this passage one may sense the terms that inspire and frame current scholarship of photographic history and the benefit of cross-subject multidisciplinary study, finally releasing photographic history from the shadow of the so-called canonical history of photography. If the remaining speakers achieve such interesting and thought provoking papers, it promises to be an exciting series of seminars indeed.