From 07 November to 04 February, the Centre Pompidou in Paris is showing a striking exhibition on a little-known aspect of the roots of 20th century social documentary photography, Photographie, arme de classe [which roughly translates as ‘Photography as a weapon in the class struggle’]. Curated by Damarice Amao, Florian Ebner and Christian Joschke, the show deals with a comparatively unknown period in French photo history, from the end of the 1920s to the arrival of the Front populaire government of 1936 – when the socialist, communist and radical parties formed a short-lived coalition to govern France, with the tacit backing of the Soviet Union.
Photographer and activist Henri Tracol (1909-1997) was the first to formulate the idea that photography could be an “arme de classe”, in the tract he wrote for the photographer’s section of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires [‘Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists’ aka the AEAR], formed in 1932. Although this communist front, Moscow-sponsored organisation only lasted a few years, it attracted many of the leading figures of the day from art, theatre, literature, architecture, and particularly photography. Those who joined were either fellow travellers or politically attached to communism, seeing it as a bastion against the twin evils of the time – fascism and capitalism.
“Everyone talks about 1968 as the year of revolution, but America was burning in 1967,” says Mark Sealy. “There were many riots and disturbances that year, but Parks was looking at intimacy, not running across the country shooting riots. He was telling history through these very personal stories.” He’s talking about Gordon Parks, the feted documentary photographer and film-maker (best known for directing Shaft). In particular Sealy is talking about Parks’ work with the Fontenelles, a family living in poverty in Harlem in 1967 that Parks photographed for a 16-page story published in Life in March ’68.
“There are two important things about this show,” says Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA. “First, the quantity of work – more than 300 photographs, quite a large selection, because we were able to get support from most of the big institutions – MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Canada, the Musée du Quai Branly and so on, and private collections from around the world. Second, is the fact that it is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Usually when you look at important retrospectives they are chronological, but we organised by theme because we wanted to organise it around Evans’ passion for the vernacular. He was fascinated with vernacular culture.”
Elliot Erwitt was just 22 years old when he was commissioned to shoot Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by the legendary Roy Stryker in 1950. Stryker had won fame and lasting respect for his work with the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, commissioning photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to shoot America’s rural heartland at the height of the Depression; by 1950 he was working with a new organisation, the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, charged with shooting the formerly industrial, notoriously polluted city as it transformed into a modern metropolis. Stryker had met Erwitt when the youngster was still studying in New York, and had commissioned him to work on a Standard Oil project alongside photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Gordon Parks and Russell Lee. The young image-maker must have impressed him because, when invited to document Pittsburgh by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Stryker commissioned Erwitt and – unusually for him – gave him free reign to shoot what he liked. Erwitt shot on the project for a year, until he was drafted into …