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The image of the World – the World of Images

A slightly uncanny historical staccato in 8 unequal parts. Position by Urs Stahel

Urs Stahel is a freelance writer, curator, lecturer and consultant. Curator of MAST – Manifattura di Arti, Sperimentazione e Tecnologia in Bologna, consultant of the MAST collection of industrial photography, visiting fellow of the University of Arts, London, President Spectrum – Photography in Switzerland. He is the co-founder of Fotomuseum Winterthur and was its director and curator from 1993 to 2013. In 2019, Urs Stahel was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Lucerne. He lives and works in Zurich.


Photo top: Erik Kessels, 2011
Translation: Max Bruinsma

The horror of the Second World War was unfathomable. Together with the First World War, the direct and indirect death toll is estimated today at between eighty and one hundred million. No way to just carry on after that, as if nothing had happened. To just tinker on with the same means as before was not an option, even if society, its institutions and human sluggishness made their best effort to return to normal as soon as possible, to restore themselves and the associated world views to their old forms. Too much, at least in the afflicted countries, the Second World War had thrown back the individual onto themselves. Trust in the State, the institutions, the Church, the entire gamut of moral and legal practices had suffered a fatal blow; the Freudian Über-ich had been deeply disturbed.


Of two quite distinct reactions, the first one, on the side of the victims and losers, was the perhaps weirdest and most painful art movement at the end of the 1950s, the Wiener Aktionismus, which aimed at triggering change in society by means of highly provocative actions. Vienna-style nonetheless, thus with pessimistic eroticism – the game of Eros and Thanatos – and with the gravitas of a chain-saw wielding Schnitzler. At the outset of the 1960s Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muehl, initially Adolf Frohner, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler performed actions at the nexus of art, theatre, political demonstration and religious ritual in public spaces. They questioned traditional notions of art by using their own bodies as artistic medium (from body painting to self injury) and touting extreme realism in such matters as color (blood) or material (alienated commonplace objects, animal cadavers and the like). Their actions can be understood as gestures of a radical, inward-looking and aggressive self-analysis and a thematization if not exorcism of the ghosts of the Second World War – a cleansing and a catharsis.


‘The family of man’ at Clervaux castle in Luxembourg, 2013. Photo: Gorup de Besanez

Secondly, on the victorious side: the exhibition “The Family of Man,” without doubt the most famous photo event of the 1950s, perhaps of all time. Curated by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, it traveled along dozens of museums throughout the world for years. In the end, more than nine million people had visited it and in 2003 it was incorporated as “World Document Heritage” into the UNESCO Memory of the World. With themes such as Love, Faith, Birth, Work, Family, Children, War and Peace, 503 images by 273 photographers from 68 countries aimed at fostering a better world and greater mutual understanding between people after the Second World War. A gigantic humanistic visual endeavor that, from a media technical perspective, was hugely successful.

Sponsored by Coca Cola, accompanied by monthly print publications issued by the soft drink brand and massively endorsed by the USIA, the United States Information Agency, the exhibition became the porte-parole of the US world view. The USIA financed five copies of the exhibition, so that it could be shown at five places in the world simultaneously. Thus, it ideally fulfilled president Eisenhower’s evident assignment: to make propaganda without sounding like propaganda. Here, universal human decency was celebrated and the field for the commercialization of an optimally unified humanity was laid open.


A third, broader and more lasting, reaction was that post-war documentary photography became characterized by an increasing and continuing subjectification. Parameters shifted incrementally, from objectively representing the world to subjectively experiencing it. Objective photographic truth clearly shifted towards the subjective photographer’s authenticity. The photographer revealed himself, bared himself, descended from his command post and entered the field as participant. He became part of the image while the world became part of him. Two central figures in this change are Robert Frank and Ed van der Elsken. The associated philosophy: existentialism. The First and Second World War together drive the intellectual and physical understanding of the world away from a belief in superior, “absolute” authorities towards questioning, searching for one’s own, personal, existence. What remains, when everything collapses and when the high authorities are put out of order? Man is thrown back onto himself. Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir are the centrally associated philosophers and writers. Simone de Beauvoir stated: “Renouncing the thought of seeking the guarantee for his existence outside of himself, man will also refuse to believe in unconditioned values which would set themselves up athwart his freedom like things. […] Only the subject can justify his own existence; no external subject, no object, can bring him salvation from the outside.” Simone de Beauvoir: The Ethics of Ambiguity (1949), translation: Bernard Frechtman


We are, therefore, thrown into the world, convicted to freedom, and have to search for the meaning of life ourselves. Consequently, we ask ourselves from now on: who am I? Who do I want to be? Whence my ‘I’? The start of the 1960s sees the dawn of an era of scrutinizing identity, accompanied by a variety of socially and economically whetted movements – feminist and gay movements and the androgynous in pop culture. It is the era of embodiments, spatializations, temporality in art, of happenings and performances, movements which, like the Wiener Aktionismus, arise by the end of the 1950s. They mark the first steps towards a dissolution of a strict definition of the image, of the idea of art as painting on rectangular canvasses, framed or not, associated with notions of the sublime, like for instance in Abstract Expressionism. In this area, photography was at first a banal minion, providing mere documentation of happenings and performances, but over time it assumed an increasingly important role. Enter photo-performance, which became a central feature of this era of self-scrutiny, with actions exclusively staged for the camera. Valie Export, Carolee Schneemann, Andy Warhol, Urs Lüthi, Jürgen Klauke, Luigi Ontani, and also Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and many others are key examples.


The post-war era also saw the end of Modernism in art: for many artists, the 1960s is profoundly a decade of repugnance. A revulsion against the abstract, pure, objectivity-prone principles of art and their intellectual underpinnings, against the artwork as closed unit, against the presumptions of ‘art-worthy’ materials and styles. In the wake of the conceptualization of art, Grand Forms as well as Grand Narratives – in short, any comprehensive truth – were denounced and manifestly replaced by intuition, contemplation, exploration, questioning, searching, probing – a conceptual reflection on the conditions of one’s own acting, of the limitations of expression, and the scrutiny of one’s own personal use of means and methods. All of this embedded within a specific time frame, and therefore without the artistic claim to otherworldliness and eternity. Andy Warhol, Robert Smithson, Hamish Fulton, Klaus Rinke and Ed Ruscha are some of the associated names. Structuralism was the order of the day.


Bernd und Hilla Becher – Anonyme Skulpturen, Eine Typologie technischer Bauten, Art Press Verlag, Düsseldorf, 1970 (video: Buchlabor, Dortmund - www.buchlabor.net)

In photography around this time, in the 1970s, for instance in the famed American tradition of landscape photography, a rupture occurs with the idea of the landscape as something holy, ethereal, with the pantheistic concept of NATURE-as-such. In stead, the 1960s and 1970s witness a move towards a realistic, factual and also economical view to the landscape. Photographers make a 180º turn and start to look, not at, but back from nature toward the suburb, at the city’s excrescences into the landscape. A quintessential insight from the key exhibition “New Topographics” could be: no more is the gaze carried by the strength of the subject, the audaciousness of an author and his vision of utopia, but it has rather become a disenchanted investigation and exploration of what is happening with the city, the suburb and the landscape. Photographers and artists like Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Bernd and Hilla Becher and others employ a visual purism and a parallelism of form and content as critical tool, forcing us – the photos’ viewers and the subjects of viewing – to adopt a new role: we have no choice but to unsentimentally cast our eyes on the actual, present-day world in front of us.


All of these movements were – and still are – more or less directly connected to the devastating experience and disruption of the Second World War and in its wake the rampant development of consumer society. In our staccato dash through the years, we can now conclude and articulate anew: the famous Transformer exhibition in Luzern represented a garden of Eden, upon which before long a shadow was cast. The 1970s are a decade marked by entropy, by the collapse of the political and intellectual utopias of the 1960s. The world revolution was adjourned, the student movement ended in fashion or terrorism. The individual retreated into the “I.” It was the onset of a booming interest in psychology and esotericism, which continued into the 1980s and 1990s. The youth movements of the 1970s and 1980s are Punk and New Wave: short black hair, “No Future,” lust for the apocalypse, frostiness, inwardly anger. A manifestation of society’s coldness and acidity. Politically also, around the turn of the 1970s another wind started to blow. Central political figures are Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher and their dawning neoliberal revolution. The first stock exchange boom followed. The media saw the appearance of the manager type. Design- and life-style culture were rising. Identity ultimately becomes a matter of taste – in short: identity design, essentially by means of fashion, furniture, stuff.

In art one can see matching developments: the return of painting, of Big Painting, and the rise of Big Photography in the art market. Big is beautiful. The object character of art is being emphasized again. And the art market of contemporary art and photography is gaining momentum for the first time. In a kind of neo-classicist way, process-, performance- and conceptual art are snubbed in favor of a return to a large-formatted modernistic formalism, expensively framed but without any utopian impulse. It is the dawn of an era without utopia.

In this period, characterized by Guy Debord in its entirety as soulless Societé du Spectacle, there grew a generation of artists who focused much more on the printed, used, found photograph – that is: on the medium – than on the mundane outside world, so far commonly called reality, the trusty, first reality. After the virtually iconoclastic refusal of the pictorial by Minimal and Concept Art, artists are more or less forced to bring the image, the printed image, back into the realm of art in a discursive relation to the world. They shift the view from an outward-looking stance toward the world to questions such as: who made this image, with which intensions? Which ideology hides within this representation? How stable is its meaning? How easily can the meaning of an image be shifted, enhanced, changed? Just as identity is not experienced anymore as something grown, natural, one fundamentally questions the autocratic image, the affirming point of view, the seemingly questionless appearance of the image’s identity – incisively and often humorously, and then processed further. Robert Heinecken, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman are big names in the field of “Appropriation.” Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Ken Lum, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Katharina Sieverding, Astrid Klein, Balthasar Burkhard are the key contemporary names in Big Photography. Baudrillard’s simulation theory is the media philosophy of the hour. If we can speak of a “linguistic turn” in the conceptualization of art and photography, then there can also be mention of a “pictorial turn” here. A return towards the image, the big image, in the wake of postmodernism and the developing art market.


Mara Vivien Güntensperger, Selfeminity, Camera Arts, Luzern, graduation 2016

Until now, I have related the development of art and of photography in particular to the breaking down of civilization by the Second World War on the one hand (we should take the development of science and economy for granted), and on the other hand to the increasing commercialization and mediatization of society. Now, we are again faced with the aftermath of an epochal rift, another post-war period as it were: photography after the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union and the so-called Eastern Block. In its wake, we could interpret the 1990s and 2000s, with only slight exaggeration, as a post-war period of the second order.

To wit: the internet originally is an American military project dating from the 1960s, called ARPANET, or also DARPANET (with “D” for “Defense”), a decentralized network based on linked American universities who conducted research for the Pentagon, mainly for reasons of storage capacity. Internet is therefore originally a military communication network. Of course, the new network technology was also explored in other, non-military places, such as CERN in Geneva, where its core protocols acquired their definitive form. Common to all of these research programs was to forge research networks and facilitate academic connections within closed intranets. Ultimately around the early 1980s, this new technology was quasi “in the air.”

Although having been around for a while, the “internet technology” was only commercialized at the onset of the 1990s – and then developed at a break-neck speed and very publicly, not in the least because politics (mainly American) did not stand in the way of bringing the technology into the public realm by means of injunctions or other restrictions. The technology had ceased to be a matter of military magnitude and therefore the system could be released for civic and commercial use.

The technologies that were often used in military contexts (as weapons, or tools for camouflage or communication), and which had to remain painstakingly hidden by the spies and secret services of the world during the Cold War, could now be commercialized. The massive technological arms race of the Cold War could now be competed on the market. The commercialization of the internet and the introduction of the first digital cameras available for the mass market went parallel, and immediately caused a stock market high. Some may remember the burst of the first “dotcom” bubble.

This surprisingly rapid development triggered a range of questions, of which I will take on a few, with Florian Rötzer in mind. He described the state of photography at the end of the 1990s as follows:

“Photography, today, suffers the same fate as all analog media, whose autonomy is annulled by the integration into digital code. Photographs or cameras only provide data for digitization, to be processed by computers and then changed at will. The most remarkable property of computer technology is the potential to process anything that can be digitized, i.e. translated into numbers, and connect the outcomes with any output device available. This property of computers, which makes it a veritably universal machine, because it can principally mimic any other machine, deeply affects our understanding of reality.”

Besides, Rötzer wrote already 20 years ago: “Deceit is the fundamental principle of the technical image, and its realism is always self-deception. Digital photography produces images, which are only appearing as realistic, in which all manners of image production can be merged at will, and which can be manically and willfully manipulated: photography as the perfect painting of a digital surrealism; the image a naked canvas for imagination, open to subjective depiction. No more submission to the object, to given lighting conditions, to prevailing colors.” Florian Rötzer, „Betrifft: Fotografie“, in: Hubertus von Amelunxen (Hg.), Fotografie nach der Fotografie, Dresden/Basel: Verlag der Kunst 1995, p. 13–25

Rötzer’s last sentence is decisive: “no more submission to the object, to given lighting conditions, to prevailing colors.” One cannot express more easily the reversal of the modern/modernistic photographic principle to post-modern digital photography. Better would be more complicated. Today, our image of the world is less imprinted by the world outside as by the photographer’s imagination or interest or at least that of his commissioner. Baudrillard, the theoretician of simulation, of the simulacrum, would shout: “Welcome!” Welcome to a world of  images, which severs the ties with any external reference, with reality, and builds its own, self-referential empire: the empire of signs. In a piecemeal abstraction of the real world, we arrive at a field of signs that only reference other signs.

Voilà. Ever since, the industry has wallowed in numbers. In 2012, the amount of photos produced that year exceeded the total photographic production in previous years since photography’s invention in 1839. The speed at which images engulf the world in effortless multiplication makes Speedy Gonzales – the world’s fastest comic mouse – look like a pillar of salt. What is the current function of these images, this explosion of photographically and videographically produced data? What do they want to be, or what should or might they be? A large chunk of photos appearing in social media seems to hardly fulfill aesthetic purposes. Rather, they seem intended to act for a few seconds as social and individual-psychological triggers. Taking pictures in stead of remembering. Taking pictures in stead of experiencing, thinking, knowing, talking, reading, loving. Taking pictures in stead of acting. Taking pictures of the hotel on fire, and only after that call the fire brigade. Taking pictures seems to replace the original experience. But what is ‘original’ anymore, anyway?

Digitalization, in this conceptual context, on the one hand leads to a shift in the perception of photography and on the other to a shift in our agency with, through and triggered by photography. Aesthetical view points are far less important than the perspective of event dynamics, of mnemo-techniques, of archiving the present.

The death of photography is often announced. But photography is like the king: le roi est mort, vive le roi! Photography is dead, long live photography, also with and after the digital turn! But what photographic images (can) mean is now constantly being redefined.

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