Capitalism and the camera: an exploration of photography’s intrinsic relationship with the economic structure

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Consumerism and imperialism have long been explored and visualised in photography. Indeed, images themselves are a commodity that perpetuate the cycle. But with the dawn of the internet and new technologies, the heightened awareness of the climate crisis, intersectional thought and need for decolonisation, photography’s relationship to capitalism is being reexamined

 

“I had to scout for a job location, so I walked and walked around London and then, pfff! It hit me!” says Daniel Stier. “This whole place is just stuff. It’s just accumulating stuff and people trying to flog it. Everywhere you look it’s about buying and selling. It was a visual experience that I felt I had to get into a body of work.”

The result is A Tale of One City, a photobook Stier published through his imprint, DSPRESS, in 2021. “It portrays the city as an accumulation of capital and goods,” Stier states, adding, “It is our economy that is pushing the city’s infrastructure, physical and social, to its limit.” Stier’s photographs are deliberately seductive, using candy-bright colours to evoke some of the appeal of these items and of consumerism more generally. Some of his shots include other images, such as a photomontage of tourist sites on a suitcase, or a display featuring an image of the sky in a shop window. If he’s using photography to show consumerism, he’s also showing how photography promotes it. 

“The image and the market are intrinsically linked. It’s not random that the history of consumer culture and the democratisation of photography coincide. Historically, photography supported capitalism’s development.”

Audrey Hoareau

Stier isn’t the only one exploring this connection. At the end of last year, Le Centquatre cultural centre in Paris opened an exhibition titled Tout Doit Disparaître: Regard sur la Société de Consommation (Everything Must Go: A Look at the Consumer Society). On show through February 2022, it is a selection of images from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat. Dating from 1880 to 1990, these range from postcards to family photos to publicity shots, but what they have in common is they all track the emergence of mass consumption. There are TVs and cars, tins of food and shopping trolleys. A whole set of images depict people posing with money. “The image and the market are intrinsically linked,” says the exhibition’s curator, Audrey Hoareau. “It’s not random that the history of consumer culture and the democratisation of photography coincide. Historically, photography supported capitalism’s development.”

From the exhibition Tout Doit Disparaitre: Regard sur la Societe de Consommation (Everything Must Go: A Look at the Consumer Society) on show at Centquatre-Paris, images from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat.

“There’s a consistent strand [of the discussion] through histories of photography and amplifications at certain moments, and those certain moments are usually synchronous with wider social and economic and political upheavals. But the directness and explicitness with which it’s being named is of note.”

Ben Burbridge

In the last 18 months, two key books taking a critical look at photography and its role in propagating capitalism have been released. One is Capitalism and the Camera: Essays on Photography and Extraction, edited by Kevin Coleman and Daniel James. It includes a contribution from author and curator Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, in which she states: “Photography should be understood as part and parcel of the imperial world, that is, the transformation of others and their modes of being into lucrative primary resources, the products of which can be owned as private property.” Second, Ben Burbridge’s Photography After Capitalism, which came at the end of 2020. Of course it’s easy to argue this strand of analysis has long existed, both in photography and in cultural studies. Burbridge’s references include Guy Debord, for example, best-known for his book The Society of the Spectacle (1967). But the candour with which these texts and projects like Stier’s approach the relationship between photography and capitalism feels like something new; more like a radical shift. 

“There’s a consistent strand [of the discussion] through histories of photography and amplifications at certain moments, and those certain moments are usually synchronous with wider social and economic and political upheavals,” says Burbridge. “But the directness and explicitness with which it’s being named is of note.” 

A Tale of One City, Daniel Stier
A Tale of One City, Daniel Stier

Looking at capitalism 

Let us consider some recent projects picking out the relationship between photography and consumerism – or more widely, capitalism. Odette England’s Dairy Character, published by Saint Lucy Books in September 2021, teams photographs of cows from an animal husbandry manual with shots of her daughter, for example, to critique the way in which women and cattle were treated as resources in her family’s farming community. Aikaterini Gegisian is creating a series of videos under the title The Manipulator Vlog, which considers her teenage magazine collection and how she was “constructed as a neoliberal subject”. Artist Javier Hirschfeld Moreno’s series Profile teams Victorian cartes-de-visite with images from queer dating apps, and ponders “the logic of ‘emotional capitalism’ and its highly competitive online market”.

Even Matt Black’s recent American Geography: A Reckoning With a Dream (Thames & Hudson, 2021) can be viewed in terms of capitalism and imagery. Indeed, Black says one of his aims is to counter the Hollywood illusion of the American Dream and the project comprises documentary shots of areas of concentrated poverty in the US. Eindhovenseweg 56 (The Eriskay Connection, 2021, designed by Jeremy Jansen) can be read in a similar way. Shot by amateur photographer Ton Grote, it meticulously documents every object in his childhood home, creating a kind of Ikea catalogue in reverse.

Kata Geibl’s There is Nothing New Under the Sun (Void, 2021), meanwhile, sets out glossy photographs of athletes, lions and financial centres against a text on economics, the art market, and the concept of capitalist realism – an ideology laid out by British theorist Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zer0 Books, 2009) in which he challenges the issue that capitalism is seen as the only viable political and economic system. 

The theme is taken up by Jörg Colberg in Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, a text-based analysis published in Mack’s Discourse series in November 2020. The title clearly draws on Fisher, and Colberg directly references him, writing: “As Fisher makes clear in his book, there is much to be said for looking into how neoliberal capitalism has created a world in which another world is not only not possible, but cannot even be imagined.” Colberg cites three examples drawn from photography, analysing work by Annie Leibovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky, which he argues show capitalist realism in action.

From the series Eindhovensweg 56 © Ton Grote, courtesy of The Eriksay Connection
From the series Eindhovensweg 56 © Ton Grote, courtesy of The Eriksay Connection
From the series Eindhovensweg 56 © Ton Grote, courtesy of The Eriksay Connection
From the exhibition Tout Doit Disparaitre: Regard sur la Societe de Consommation (Everything Must Go: A Look at the Consumer Society) on show at Centquatre-Paris, images from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat.

Taking stock

So why the focus now? Burbridge picks out a couple of big factors. The first is the 2008 financial crisis and resulting banking bailouts. His book has its roots in “an effort to come to terms with a post-2008 moment and what Alex Williams calls ‘the ideological rubble of neoliberalism’, in that the mythology just doesn’t hold up anymore,” he says. It also draws on the rise of internet culture, on what he argues is a profound change in photography since its integration into network computational systems. He started to write Photography After Capitalism in earnest in 2015 following the protests of the Occupy movement earlier that decade. But this kind of text takes time, he adds, especially alongside academic work (he’s professor of visual culture and head of the department of art history at Sussex University).

He’s not surprised to see other books and projects coming out that explicitly engage with capitalism, consumerism and imperialism, and adds it’s interesting to see concerns such as feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, anti-racism, and the environment also engaging with these terms. It’s a trend that can be seen in photography. Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong’s Tree and Soil (Hartmann Books, 2020) combines photographs of Fukushima following the 2011 nuclear disaster with images of plant specimens and botanical illustrations to suggest how colonialism, capitalism and the “instrumental view of nature” are driving ecological collapse. Meanwhile, Nona Faustine’s White Shoes (Mack, 2021), shows the artist in sites across New York historically connected to slavery; Faustine states: “Human beings were the first commodity of the greatest finance capital in the world.” 

From the exhibition Tout Doit Disparaitre: Regard sur la Societe de Consommation (Everything Must Go: A Look at the Consumer Society) on show at Centquatre-Paris, images from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat.

“It’s not a war, there’s nothing overt, it’s far more subtle. What shifted was we saw the biggest banking crisis in the history of the planet. Prior to that a lot of people didn’t want to know.”

Mark Curran

Next generation

There is the notion that the tide may be turning, that a new generation are questioning the existing structures. “There is what feels like a fundamental re-examination of the current social order and the structures that operate within it,” Burbridge says. “Initially this felt kind of factional, maybe it’s coalescing around certain identities, but it is beginning to feel like a genuinely generational push against a corrupt system.”

He puts the move down to the experiences of young people in particular, who (in the UK) face high university fees and expensive rent, and are much less likely to own their own home than ever before. In addition, he points out, they will feel the effects of the climate crisis most severely. Daniel Stier puts the renewed interest in the economy down to the fact that “life becomes so shit for so many people, basically it’s been too hard.” 

Mark Curran, a researcher and educator, agrees. He’s been working on projects related to the flow of global capital since the late 1990s, and says he noticed a major shift in interest after 2008. “[Photographer and theorist] Allan Sekula said the economy was never a sexy subject for the visual arts because there’s no great spectacle,” Curran says. “It’s not a war, there’s nothing overt, it’s far more subtle. What shifted was we saw the biggest banking crisis in the history of the planet. Prior to that a lot of people didn’t want to know.”

Curran says the reaction to his project THE MARKET (2010–ongoing), which hopes to inform viewers about the role of financial capital in our lives, has been overwhelming. He notes that the general public’s economic literacy and critical thinking have rapidly increased. It is the kind of “cognitive mapping” described by Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, perhaps, and referenced by Burbridge as “a means to make immensely complex economic arrangement legible to individual subjects”. Curran emphasises the importance of doing deep research and long-term projects in order to make the links. He picks out the early work of Lewis Hine and his exhaustive documentation of child labour in the US through photographs and text, or Lisa Barnard’s book The Canary and the Hammer (Mack, 2019) as examples. Barnard’s book (also informed by the 2008 banking crisis) details our reverence for gold, its colonial history and contemporary mining conditions, as well as its role in the tech industry and global economy.

From the exhibition Tout Doit Disparaitre: Regard sur la Societe de Consommation (Everything Must Go: A Look at the Consumer Society) on show at Centquatre-Paris, images from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat.
From the exhibition Tout Doit Disparaitre: Regard sur la Societe de Consommation (Everything Must Go: A Look at the Consumer Society) on show at Centquatre-Paris, images from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat.

Working in the material world

Curran has also been a vocal critic of the working conditions within photography, refusing to take part in art fairs on the grounds that, “I cannot create projects which critique capital and then commodify that critique”. He has also openly questioned corporate sponsors, JP Morgan’s support of the National Portrait Gallery, for example, and in this he’s not alone. Nan Goldin has helped spearhead actions against Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company criticised for its role in the opioid crisis. Purdue is owned by the Sackler family, a well-known art sponsor. At the time of writing, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is the latest of many to remove the Sackler name from its galleries. 

At the recent Concerning Photography conference organised by The Photographers’ Gallery and Paul Mellon Centre, a paper by doctoral researcher Rowan Lear on the two-year strike at Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in 1976–78 was included. As Lear points out, this dispute is well-known in histories of labour organising, trade unions, and immigration, but little attention has been paid to it in photography, despite the fact Grunwick was a film-processing centre.

Meanwhile, Coleman and James’ Capitalism and the Camera includes an essay on silver mining – an industry once essential to image-making but rarely linked with it. And Burbridge’s Photography After Capitalism includes discussions of poor working arrangements at Kodak, for Google Street View car drivers, and for those collaborating with image-makers in participatory projects. “The discussion of photography has primarily been about the production and interpretation of images. That ‘production’ has very frequently been [understood as] a matter of romantic notions of artistic labour or heroic documentary photographers or mass consumption,” Burbridge says. “But the actual labour of photography was my route in.” 

Even so, Burbridge says it’s not enough to criticise. His students don’t have that luxury, “because the world is literally burning”. He calls for ideas about how to do things differently in future – a cognitive mapping, perhaps, of alternatives – and is enthused by the concept of Universal Basic Income, and the resurgence of collaborative working. Interestingly, Azoulay’s next book is Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography, a compendium of participatory projects that go some way to redress the power imbalances of photography, put together with Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, Leigh Raiford and Laura Wexler. And when it comes to the future, Curran is on the same page, arguing the climate crisis means there’s an urgent need to “imagine the world we need to build”. “It’s not even a question of left and right anymore,” he says. “The science is telling us the current system is unsustainable.”  

Tout Doit Disparaître: Regard sur la Société de Consommation (Everything Must Go: A Look at the Consumer Society)  is on show through February 2022 at Le Centquatre cultural centre in Paris

 

 

 

JP Morgan (formerly Lehman Brothers) (Access denied), Canary Wharf, London, February 2013, from the series THE MARKET, Mark Curran.
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy