January 28: The idea that the camera might be ‘weaponised’ in a class war came about early in the twentieth century as a response to momentous social disruption.
Eugen Heilig (*1892, Neckargroningen), who died on this date in 1975 in East Berlin, was a major contributor to worker photography.
In the Germany the 1920s there were around thirty magazines being issued that used copious photography for illustration and these built on the pioneering candid and dynamic available-light photojournalism of Erich Salomon (1886–1944), Martin Munkacsi (1896–1963), Felix Man (1893–1985), Alfred Eisenstadt (1898–1995) and others who expanded the coverage of the visual media.
While they fed consumer demand, they did little to address the distress that the majority suffered under galloping inflation and crippling unemployment. From such discontent over inequality and exploitation after the disastrous First World War emerged social democratic and communist movements inspired by the Russian Bolshevik revolution.
They were served by the Vereinigung der Arbeiterfotografen Deutschlands (VdAFD, or Association of German Worker Photographers) to supply their leftist publications with photographs. Given that a large part of the workforce were idle and unpaid, encouraging workers to take up the camera to document their plight served a second purpose of giving them a productive and creative outlet.
Connections with the Russian movement were forged through the German aid organisation Intemationale Arbeiterhilfe (lAH, or Workers International Relief) set up in 1921 to assist Russian famine victims whose international monthly publication, founded by Willi Münzenberg (1889–1940), was illustrated profusely with photographs. By 1924 it had become a weekly, and its content became dominated by German working-class culture and politics, reflected in name changes from Sowjet Russland im Bild (‘Soviet Russia in Pictures’) to Sichel und Hammer and finally, to Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ).
In 1931, Münzenberg declared;
Photography has become an indispensable and outstanding means of propaganda in the revolutionary class struggle. Thirty or forty years ago, the bourgeoisie already understood that a photograph has a very special effect on the viewer. For an illustrated book is easier to read and more likely to be bought, and an illustrated paper is a more entertaining read than the lead article of a political daily.
Photography works on the human eye; what is seen is reflected in the brain without forcing the viewer into complicated thought. In this way the bourgeoisie caters for the mental laziness of the masses and also makes a lot of money, for the illustrated magazines often achieve a circulation of millions. That’s not all, however. Much more important, in the end, is the political effect which has achieved by the juxtaposition of several pictures by captions and accompanying texts. That is the decisive point. In this way a skilful editor can falsify every photograph into its opposite, and can influence the politically naïve reader in any way he chooses.
The revolutionary workers of all countries have to realize these facts very clearly. They have to fight the class enemy with all means, have to beat him on all fronts. Just as the workers of the Soviet Union have learnt to make their own machine-tools, to invent things themselves to be put into the service of peaceful socialist construction and just as workers in capitalist countries have learnt to write.
It was AIZ, in its 1926 edition of March 25, that issued the clarion-call for worker photographs:
Pictures of the proletariat are unknown and not produced, since their dissemination does not correspond to the interests of the capitalist customer/employer. This gap must be filled!
The magazine sought visual evidence of the upwelling revolutionary movement of the working class, to show the impact of modern factory ‘efficiencies’ as well as the exploitation of the rural proletariat, as in this double spread (see below).
Eugen Heilig was one who answered the call. Trained in the relatively new industry of electroplating, he took up photography in 1911 and in 1912 traveled in Austria, Switzerland and Italy, where he first came into contact with the labour movement. In subsequent years devoted himself mainly to photography of workers and the homeless.
In 1922 he joined the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD). During the Weimar period, he became, alongside Ernst Thormann (1905 – 1985?) and later Walter Ballhause (1911–1991), a leading member of the movement of worker-photographers and a friend of Willi Münzenberg.
A 1930 sample from AIZ shows Heilig’s imagery of starving rural workers in Frankenwald which opens ironically with a picturesque landscape photograph in the despised ‘bourgeois’ Pictorialist style that is undercut by its caption; The landscape of the Franconian Forest is magnificent and famous for its healthy air – nevertheless the proletarians of the Franconian Forest languish with tuberculosis and malnutrition.
The captions for the pictures give some sense of the article:
Right middle: This worker’s wife from Schwarzenstein is a victim of housing shortages and hunger. She has to share her bed with a deranged man, and despite her tuberculosis with daily night sweats, her 7 1/2-year-old child is sleeping next to her. A bed for the child is not available – their only other furniture is two chairs.
Below left: hand embroiderers from Enchenreuth. Despite strenuous day and night work, they earn little more than 1 mark per day
Below right: Bavarian Forest Worker. He receives 63 Pfg. hourly wage. Since there is only work for a few months of the year, the forest workers are looking for employment abroad.
Captions for page two of the spread read, for above left: The only steam saw in Wallenfels that is still working. The other four saws are almost completely shut down
Above right: Old raftsman from Wallenfels
Bottom left: The only man with a good livelihood is the innkeeper who serves the tourists with traditional Bavarian beer.
Above right: Sixty year old basket weaver, who still has to work despite his illness, so as not to starve to death
Right middle: Potatoes are the main food of the Frankenwalder proletarians. The child poverty is indescribable. From the fifth year, the children have to help weaving before school starts and after the lesson ends until late in the evening
Below right: In this narrow ground-floor chamber of an Echenreuther house three children sleep. Close to the bed is the opening to the cesspool. A ghastly smell penetrates through the hole that pollutes the air day and night
Below right: Uphill, downhill the women haul their loads in baskets on their backs. They are the worst affected by the unemployment of men, because they must endure meagre earnings and household work.
The idea of Der Aarbiter Fotograf was revolutionary not only in its political motivations but also in overturning the conventions of aesthetic appreciation. Here was a photograph of the worker, by the worker often anonymous or credited only to ‘a worker’, and this makes the image different from those made by someone of another class and for artistic purposes.
The relation of Heilig to his subjects is clear; they join with him in a demonstration of the injustice being done them, the honest labourer, the exploited, whose children suffer as they have when the better life they deserve is denied by the bosses, when the state denies them justice and the opportunity to strike back at the oppressor.
His subjects allow Heilig access to their very bedrooms, despite their realising the degradation their state would represent, and in fact because he and his camera represented an opportunity to protest. These are not photographs like those of Walker Evans who in James Agee’s account in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men took his pictures of the bare floors and iron bedsteads of the American mid-western sharecroppers while they were out tending their failing crops, and who even, as the evidence of his negatives proves, rearranged the furniture for a ‘better shot’. The best shot that Heilig could take was one that showed things as they were and as they should not be.
Heilig’s pictures are not even like as the pictorial survey that August Sander (1876–1974) was making for his book Antlitz der Zeit. Sechzig Aufnahmen deutscher Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (‘Face of our Time’) published in 1929, despite his worker origins and association with the movement, because he had by then established himself in a different class as a professional photographer. Heilig is not attempting to make a portrait of society but to protest in sympathy with his subjects; in the text of Hunger Im Frankenwald he pleads with his fellow Arbeiterfotografen;
Go out into the country and study the lives of your classmate! At sunrise, her workday starts and ends late at night. Especially the women and children look at you. How do they eat, how can they eat, how they duck before the priests and landowners. In Bavaria, the reactionary influence of the clergy and the brewer capitalists is particularly disastrous. Fumigated by incense, these workhorses only vaguely recognize their class position. In some areas, hardship and misery are indescribable.
These are eloquent images, speaking pictures, from which the benighted worker protests their conditions…
To call these ‘socially conscious documentary’ photographs is to acknowledge the class from which the photographer comes, not to see them as the result of a benign visit by a more privileged individual, however well-intentioned.
During the rise of the Nazis, Heilig worked in the resistance. After the war he lived in East Germany, where his son Walter Heilig was also a well-known photographer. Heilig wrote several book on photography aimed at children and youth, including We learn photography (1952) and Photographing for all (Berlin 1951)
In the 19 June 1981 issue of The British Journal of Photography Josef Gross reviewed an exhibition Arbeiter Fotografie: Photographs from the German Workers Movement curated by Creative Camera‘s Colin Osman, and held for a month at the Photographers Gallery in London from May Day (appropriately) in 1981. While at the outset he lauds worker photography as “one of the most significant developments in the entire history of photography”, he concludes pessimistically;
I do not believe that historic situations repeat themselves. Too many variables enter into the making of historic confrontations. At the time of the German pre-war political crisis the forces on the left had only their ideology and those on the right all the power. This kind of disposition of social forces has all but disappeared in Europe. ‘Der Arbeiter Fotograf’ will no doubt have its imitators and its followers but, I believe, its language is dead. This exhibition is its ultimate commemoration.
Dead? Could the idea of a worker-photographer still be alive? It is cautionary to remember that New York’s Photo League was also an offshoot of Münzenberg Workers International Relief (WIR), established in 1030 as the Worker’s Camera League in New York City. It soon dropped mention of workers to become merely the Film and Photo League. As Jorge Ribalta points out in his essay The Strand Symptom: A Modernist Disease? the League struggled to reconcile its revolutionary politics and its conservative aesthetics exemplified by their adherence to the use of the large format camera rather than the 35mm instrument Heilig used. Ultimately this equivocation led to a de-politicising of the US movement which bowed to anti-communist pressures.
Much of the current malaise in America is a search by its disaffected working class for representation against the inequalities embedded in capitalism. How different would things be now if the adherents of the Photo League had been stronger, if workers were encouraged to continue to speak out when their only real protectors, the socialists, were being labelled traitors under McCarthy and since?
In the interim, it was the work of feminist photographers like Jo Spence in the UK, and to a lesser extent Martha Rosler (*1943) in the US, who revived and maintained the worker-photographer ethos (and anger) and put it to the noble purpose of social agitation. But has this kind of image disappeared, is it really a ‘dead’ visual language?
I’d argue that no, it lives on in social media like Instagram or Twitter hashtags #worker #workingconditions #factoryworker #pieceworker and so on, which lead to posts and images that continue the consciousness-raising intended by Heilig. The impulse of the worker victim, whether office worker, or on the factory floor, or in the hospital corridors, to speak out in strong visual language against oppression, inequality and injustice can still be found in their photographs, the more so, now that both camera and publisher are reside in the smart phone that all now carry.