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ART REVIEW : Photos as Weapons of the People : Exhibit Documents Dark Days of Europe

TIMES ART CRITIC

Photojournalism isn’t what it used to be. What it used to be, long before the ascendancy of television as the principal conduit for newsworthy images, was the only game in town.

As the only game in town, photojournalism was a device that could easily be used to represent to the public only a narrow range of interests, which appealed to those who controlled the press. Because images distributed as news always carry with them the invisible ghosts of those pictures not deemed significant enough for public display, the line between “objective” photojournalism and “subjective” propaganda can never be sharp and defined.

“Camera as Weapon: Worker Photography Between the Wars,” which opened this week at the Museum of Photographic Arts here, examines an early facet of European photojournalism that was born of a desperate frustration with the narrowness of the mainstream press, and of a committed desire to show what was not being shown in the dark and difficult days of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Perhaps for the first time in the United States, this concise gem of an exhibition lays out the story of the so-called worker photography movement of the 1920s and 1930s, including its impact beyond German borders.

If the worker photography movement doesn’t immediately register, that’s because it has long since been overshadowed by two competing developments from the period. One was the extraordinary avant-garde work being generated in exciting profusion, including

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but not exclusively from the Bauhaus, by such artists as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Albert Renger-Patzsch. The other was the photojournalism disseminated through middle-class publications like BIZ--the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (Berlin Illustrated Newspaper)--and MIP--the Munchner Illustrierte Presse (Munich Illustrated Press).

Photojournalism had been transformed by a new, “you are there” intimacy, which was made possible by newly miniaturized cameras, high-speed lenses and fast film. The picture press flourished. BIZ and MIP told exciting photographic stories of powerful politicians and influential businessmen and of big events like the war in Ethiopia, in compelling pictures and photo-essays commissioned from the gifted likes of Albert Eisenstaedt, Felix H. Man and Andre Kertesz.

What BIZ and MIP did not tell was candid stories of exploited child-labor and the unemployed, and of little events like the Populist idealism of the poor and disenfranchised--of whom there were many in the devastated wake of World War I. Instead, BIZ and MIP published the very pictures worker photography was designed to combat, in new and aggressive publications that meant to undermine established power through the simple display of what the mainstream habitually repressed.

And combat it was. The warlike inference of the show’s title, “Camera as Weapon,” is taken from the words of German artists, which are excerpted on the galleries’ walls.

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Eugen Heilig, whose photographs range from images of the demeaning conditions in sweatshop factories to one of a sign forbidding Jews to enter a public park near Berlin, explained of the worker movement: “We learned to use the camera as a weapon in the class struggle.”

And the powerful graphic artist George Grosz, many of whose prints and drawings were published alongside worker photographs (two are included in the show), with which he sympathized, declared: “I considered all art senseless unless it served as a weapon in the political arena.”

Why this artistic rattling of sabers? In the convincing view of the show’s guest curator, Leah Ollman, the two decades between the first and second world wars in Germany did not really represent a period of peace, merely a change in the way certain battles were being fought, and why.

The guns and gas of World War I gave way, in the tenuous coalitions of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism, to the social and cultural fights of the 1920s and 1930s, before sinking back into the guns and missiles of World War II. Worker photography represented one important weapon, wielded in a kind of civil war that raged in the period between the two militaristically expansionist ones.

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It’s important to emphasize that photography was, for most workers, not a tool for making art, but a means by which a self-identified class of people gave themselves a voice. (In spirit, these pictures might best be likened to those that would be produced in the late 1930s by such American artists as Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks for the Farm Security Administration.) One clear indication of the resonant power of that hitherto unheard voice is the rapidity with which it spread beyond Germany: The exhibition includes a substantial section of related work produced in Switzerland, Holland and Czechoslovakia.

To have an idea what that kind of empowerment could mean, today’s equivalent might be the spread of video cameras--thanks once again to miniaturization and portability--from corporate television networks to the hands of artists and, finally, to ordinary citizens. The 1991 videotape showing the unspeakable beating of Rodney King finds its photographic ancestors in Hans Schiff’s remarkable 1931 pictures of police surveillance of citizens on the streets of Cologne, taken from a high vantage point that makes their own surreptitiousness remarkably chilling.

Few of the photographers encountered in the show are familiar. The reason may be that their work was rarely credited in the worker-publications of the day--a concession to group solidarity appropriate to the Communist ideology many embraced--and because vintage prints of their photographs did not, in many cases, survive the Nazi era.

The 122 pictures in the show include many that were recently printed (some expressly for this exhibition, which will travel to three venues nationally) from original negatives that had been stashed away and hidden for years.

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Whatever the case, these pictures of persecuted minorities, of blind and war-crippled beggars, of great masses of the unemployed, of “honest labor” sanctified through allusions to Greek ideals of the human form and so forth, are not always above appeals to the sentimental and melodramatic. Kurt Beck’s “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread,” to cite one egregious example, is a ring of outstretched hands surrounding, like a care-worn crown of thorns, an empty bread-tin.

At the other end of the spectrum are 19 extraordinary photomontages by the great John Heartfield. The Berlin artist, who anglicized his name as a protest against German nationalism, is represented by pages published in issues of the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers Illustrated News), or AIZ, for which he produced more than 200 works.

His brilliantly inventive assaults against the darkening shadow of fascism brought together the social commitment of worker photographers and the aesthetic experiments of the modernist avant-garde. Indeed, the show’s illumination of the long-obscured significance of worker photography to Heartfield’s distinguished practice is the fundamental achievement of “Camera as Weapon.”

The curator’s excellent essay in the catalogue accompanying the show touches every necessary artistic base, and gives a good accounting of events. (In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be said that guest curator and catalogue author Leah Ollman is a regular contributor to the San Diego County edition of The Times.) While the small, pamphlet-like book is certainly appropriate to its subject, a full, copiously illustrated study is plainly warranted, now that worker photography is back from obscurity.

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At the Museum of Photographic Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego, (619) 239-5262, through Oct. 20. Open daily.


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