Who We Are
Photography changes how nationalism is portrayed
Blake Stimson, professor of art history at the University of California, Davis, discusses how photographic images, as much as or more than language, shape and define a sense of nation.
John Szarkowski, the great aficionado of photography’s unique expressiveness and longtime lord over its artistic value at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, once said that what he most admired about Walker Evans’s style was that it was “puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual.” We can see these qualities in all of Evans’ work, including his photographs taken on assignment in 1933 to illustrate journalist Carleton Beals’ red-decade screed The Crime of Cuba. Note, for example, how Evans has us looking down on a Havana street or shantytown in the manner of the surveillance cameras of our own day. This was photography at its most elemental—photography in the manner of a census taker or property surveyor or tax collector—and as such offers us a fundamental insight into the meaning of all photography. Photography is first and foremost a machine-made art, after all, and that is much of what we like about it. If the ceremonial splendor of paintings and statues made sense to the pilgrims and courtiers of old, the everyday expediency of photography rings true for our own lives now as consumers.
An earlier version of our lifestyle is the subject of Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. By his account, nationalism was made possible by newspapers:
“The significance of this mass ceremony—Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers—is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.”
The distinctive quality of this mass ritual, according to Anderson, is the sense of “community in anonymity” it provides, or the experience of nation before it recognizes itself as such. In the 20th century we came to know this experience from radio and television, too, and now, even more from the internet with its worldwide imagined community.
Photography has long played a similar role. Its heyday as a political medium was in the early years following World War II when the idea of a global “family of man” coincided with a surge in amateur photography. The historical motivations for imagining a postwar human “family” are easy to appreciate, and the reasons for the snapshot boom are mostly mundane, but the promise that photography came to represent is more interesting. In the hands of the United Nations and others, photography momentarily seemed to be a nation-building tool that superseded the limits of newspapers, radio, and even television. There were two key reasons for this: First, photography was a mute medium, little restricted by language barriers (something that still restricts the role of the internet today); and, second, photography (like the internet) was a bottom-up medium that seemed to promise popular self-representation freed from the control of governing authorities.
This big dream for photography—that it would bypass the horizontal containment of language and vertical hierarchies of authorship, that it would be death to both the false collectivism of the nation-state and the false individualism of the author—was inevitably a myth, too, and as such created its own problems: By disassociating its “imagined community” from language, photography distanced itself from the reasoned debate of the public sphere and by assuming that any one picture is more or less as valuable as the next, it undermined the promise of one vision or argument being more meaningful than the rest. In lieu of the muckrakers, parliamentarians, and revolutionaries vying to define “a more perfect union,” photography represented a new kind of imagined community—a nation of independent individuals able to pick and choose their points of view from an endless stream of pictures.
Like any technology, photography has a tendency to have its form follow its function. We see this in Evans’ photographs from the 1930s where the simple formal repetition of one anonymous person or shack after another took on the burden of symbolizing period concepts like the masses or the proletariat or “primitive accumulation,” whether Evans himself wanted it to or not. Repetition in the 1950s took on a different formal role by spanning the everyman genre of the snapshot itself, from one anonymous photograph to the next.
More recently, this method of photographic imagining has taken a new turn. One example is the photography of German artist Andreas Gursky, who routinely works with the same formal motif of repetition, often exaggerating it with Photoshop trickery. Like the earlier examples, repetition in Gursky’s work gives us a sense of something larger than ourselves. However, his photography suggests this latest sense of belonging not only increasingly detaches us from the old nationalisms—by giving us an imagined community that bypasses barriers of language, ethnicity, geography, and the like—but displaces the once-cherished dream of world citizenship with the cold-blooded dreamscape of the global market.
- 99 c., 1999
- Andreas Gursky
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Location: Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France