Featured post

Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice: Online Course Starting April 27th 2022

  Sign up to my new series of talks on Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice .  Starts on Ap...

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


Saatchi and Saatchi were the great British propagandists of recent years, using their marketing skills to sell Margaret Thatcher to the UK public.

In the US, I suppose Shepard Fairey springs to mind, even if it's just for the one picture - and I feel kind of bad about having him up there - so I'll put Jill Greenberg's John McCain up as well - a blast from the not-very-distant-past.

The best propaganda is inspired by despotic, all-powerful regimes - Nazis and Communists in other words (but there could be others). They produced  John Heartfield who made his wonderfully savage anti-Nazi collages, while people like  Leni Riefenstahl and Alexander Rodchenko made work that supported the Nazis and Soviet regimes. Rodchenko was perhaps the greatest artist/photographer/propagandist of them all, and the most compromised , as  Peter Schjeldahl so eloquently states.

"How does one assess Rodchenko? By what measure? According to whom? He was among the most zealous of the Russian avant-gardists who identified totally with the policies of triumphant Communism. The policies were horrible from the start. The artists were perhaps understandably blinded to the truth by naïveté and initial privilege.

But Rodchenko, as the nightmare unfolded, proved himself sincere. He capitulated abjectly to each mad turn of Party ideology and willingly abetted epic criminality. He took thousands of propaganda photographs at the White Sea Canal project, gazing through his camera at a slow-motion massacre of 200,000 persons and praising Stalin with every frame. By the mid 1930s, his photographic work was hardly distinguishable from that of his German contemporary Leni Riefenstahl. Both celebrated the totalitarian sublime."

But despite the Rodchenkos and Riefenstahls, relatively few photographers are renowned for propaganda - they remain nameless servants of their political, military and economic patrons -despite every picture of a politician, a businessman or a soldier, every advertisement or fashion picture, every shiny car, environmentally friendly oil company, every luscious burger and thin-hipped model being propaganda in a direct shape or form. 

Nowadays, photographers don't need to celebrate the "totalitarian sublime" because we have the "consumerist sublime" to hold up high - look in any magazine and you will find photographic celebrations of consumption, consumption that photographers fall over themselves to serve at every turn - we celebrate the destruction of the biosphere, the contamination of body image and sexual identity, the commercial and architectural debasement of community and public space and a worship of oil and the automobile that is destructive at personal, local, national, global and universal levels. 

So, just for a little bit of mischief and not saying there is any kind of moral equivalence (though one day there might be, nay perhaps there already is), how do we assess photographers that engage in these "celebrations"? How do we assess people who capitulate abjectly to each mad turn of capitalist society, who identify so thoroughly and cheaply to the bottom line policies of  fin-de-siecle consumerism.

"How does one assess commercial photographers? By what measure? According to whom? They are among the most zealous of photographers who identify totally with the policies of triumphant Capitalism. The policies are horrible from the start. The artists are perhaps understandably blinded to the truth by wilful naïveté, initial privilege and residual greed.

But these photographers, as the nightmare unfolds, prove themselves sincere. They capitulate abjectly to each mad turn of consumerism and willingly abetted epic environmental, social and community destruction. They take thousands of propaganda photographs for Apple, for Mercedes, for Shell, Gucci, British Airways or KFC, gazing through their cameras at a slow-motion degradation of the planet and her inhabitants, praising her destroyers with every frame. By the mid 2000, their photographic work was hardly distinguishable from that of their German and Russian ancestors, Leni Riefenstahl and Alexander Rodchenko. They celebrate the consumerist sublime."

From the Big Freeze UK, over and out.. 


Stan B. said...

How do we assess them? Like we assess anyone else; like we assess ourselves... As I walk out to face the day in my sweatshop clothing passing by the homeless to (thankfully) work in a job that supports a nation (through my tax dollars) that enthusiastically kills innocent women and children in countries throughout the world.

colin pantall said...

Thanks, Stan - wonderful as always!

Stan B. said...

Ha! Now that would be an embarrassing assessment...

robert golden said...

thank you Colin. Well said. I started my career as a photojournalist (Times, Telegraph, Nova, New Your Review of Books, etc) and eventually quite because i believed my allegiance had to be to tell the stories of the people who allowed me into their lives rather than to the editors who wanted me to tow the publisher's (read as party) line. I decided to carry on, on my own and subsequently have produced 13 books and now many documentaries, but always as an independent. But to make a living, i.e., to pay for my moral obsessions, i decided to do something 'innocent, which was to become a still life and then a food photographer. I soon learned it is not possible to live a truly moral life in an immoral world.
None the less, Focal Press recently commissioned me to write three blogs from my forthcoming book called FILLING THE BOX - Why, What and How to make photographs that matter.
You may enjoy them. Kindest regards and keep it up.
robert golden