Photography’s Neoliberal Realism

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Some time during this past summer, I was offered the opportunity to expand what originally had been a book review into a longer essay, to be published as part of MACK‘s DISCOURSE series. I had already planned on expanding the piece shortly after I had published it. In fact, the beginnings of what ended up as Photography’s Neoliberal Realism already existed on my computer (alongside a number of other pieces, some finished, some little more than ideas).

I have written extensively about photography, large parts of it for this site. Over the past few years, my thinking has expanded from focusing on what usually is called visual literacy to looking at photography’s superstructure: the very systems that not only maintain it, but that also shape its overall messages. In part, my interest in this has been fed and accelerated by reading writings by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer.

I have come to admire the very wide net cast by Benjamin and Kracauer more and more. They both looked a wide range of phenomena observed during the Weimar Republic, in particular its mass culture (which included photography) and how it actively and passively was tied to larger forces: the democratic republic as much as capitalism itself.

In contrast, I feel that today we look at photography as this practice that somehow manages to record what is in front of the camera without being influenced by any of the many entities it actually is completely dependent upon: the photographer’s society and culture, her or his personal background, the person or entity that hired him to take the pictures, the gallery (or publishing) system that helps her or him to sell them… The list goes on.

To insist on a photographer’s autonomy is both a feel-good exercise and an enormous deception. This is not to say that any of the entities or ideas that have a photographer take certain pictures while not taking others are bad or evil. But they can be. If they’re bad or evil, our insistence on a photographer’s autonomy cuts off a lot of discussions that could and often should be had.

Just to give one example, look at how in the area of photojournalism, it’s always the photographers who get the flak — but never the editors or the owners of the corporations that hire them. While it’s important to talk about the pictures, it’s also important to understand why and how they were taken, and why and how this person took them and not that person. Otherwise, you will not be able to fully address issues such as, for example, representation — whether it’s how how a topic is represented or who is allowed to represent whom.

If photographers are not autonomous, then the discussion of their work ought to incorporate talking about what I called the superstructure above. How do you do that, though, in particular if you only have the pictures? As Benjamin, but especially (Weimar-era) Kracauer and later Roland Barthes (Mythologies) demonstrated, you can infer a lot from pictures about the superstructure.

In a nutshell, that is the idea behind Photography’s Neoliberal Realism. In the book, I look at the work of Annie Leibovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky, and I argue that it can be seen as an expression of neoliberal capitalism’s core beliefs, including for example the infamous (and flawed) trickle-down theory. I could have included a large number of other photographers, but focusing on some of photoland’s biggest stars seemed like a good idea.

I had originally called the idea Capitalist Realism. While working on the book, I realised that I needed a more precise term. There already is a book by Mark Fisher with that very title (in which the term means something different than what I have in mind). But there was another, more pressing problem.

I grew up in West Germany under the country’s social market economy. Much like neoliberal capitalism, that system had relied on certain images. But these images were very different than the ones we are surrounded with now. The West German imagery was very paternalistic, which betrayed the tempering of capitalism’s forces by well-meaning people in power (obviously, the idea of a well-meaning tempering forms the core of the ideology) as much as the sexual politics at the time (people in power meant: exclusively men, except for maybe the family ministry).

West Germany’s economy was capitalist, but it was a different kind than the one we live under now. Thus, I needed to be more precise with my term to account for the differences in the two imageries. Hence the term Neoliberal Realism.

It’s not clear to me whether my biographical background is the reason why what I call Photography’s Neoliberal Realism sticks out so much to me. It might be. After all, what one is very familiar with is a lot harder to look into. Many things are simply taken for granted. In fact, I only started thinking about the imagery around West Germany’s social market economy while writing the book, realising that I had simply taken its messages for granted.

In the book I attempt to show how when you read the works by these three artists, you find expressions of neoliberal capitalist thinking expressed very clearly in the pictures. It’s all right there, hidden, so to speak, in plain sight.

After the book was published, I ran into some very interesting — and telling — reactions. Some people were openly dismissive of even looking more deeply into the work by Leibovitz. This was because, I was told, it is “just” commercial stuff anyway, the implication being that commercial photography could not possibly speak about anything other than what it depicts on a very basic level.

Other people were aghast that I had added Gursky to the mix: his work, they said, is clearly so much deeper. Well, sorry: no, it isn’t.

These reactions confirmed some of my suspicions that had me write the book in the first place: in photoland, we have established hierarchies of photographers and/or categories. One consequence of these hierarchies is that a lot of interesting discussions aren’t being held. Like I mentioned, what is there to discuss in commercial or editorial photography anyway? Quite a lot actually.

My main argument is the following: photography expresses who we think we are. If someone has a photograph made for some specific purpose, whether it’s the cover of a magazine or whatever else, there are many motivations behind that decision. Some of them are more directly tied to who or what is depicted (let’s say some magazine’s Hollywood issue). But there are larger motivations that might not even be acknowledged and that hint at larger beliefs or ideologies. Much like Benjamin, Kracauer, and Barthes did, we need to talk about these as well.