– Spring 2013

Stimulus, Austerity, Economy: Photography and the US Financial Crisis

Andrew Stefan Weiner

Sharon Lockhart, Visalia Livestock Market, Visalia, California, 2011, chromogenic print, 125.7 × 186.7cm (framed). Courtesy the artist, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles and Gladstone Gallery, New York

The ongoing economic crisis in the United States has imposed a double bind upon those who wish to further the legacy of socially engaged photography, whether through art, documentary or any of the other fields that traffic in photographs. Apart from its substantial impact on education, arts funding and individual livelihoods, the so-called Great Recession, which is now thought to be the most severe crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, has induced a parallel crisis of representation. Photography has come under intense pressure to depict the slowdown that has pervaded US public life since 2008, deciding numerous elections and dominating the news cycle.1 As public opposition to the continuing causes of the Recession gathered, crystallising in late 2011 with the emergence of the Occupy movement, photography took on an increasingly central role, most paradigmatically in the images of violent police repression of protesters; the viral distribution of these images helped widen the movement while galvanising its base.2

But while many who work with photography feel compelled to act, this task would also seem impossible in light of the dimensions of the crisis. Consider the collateralised debt obligation (CDO) — the financial derivative whose abuse triggered the meltdown of the US sub-prime mortgage market in 2007. As many have noted, the mechanisms governing CDOs were so intricate that their function often eluded the understanding of the investment bankers who devised and sold them, not to mention the credit agencies and government regulators supposedly supervising such transactions. Much the same is true of the financial crisis on the macroeconomic level, where the links between different domestic sectors, or those joining

  1. My use of the generic term ‘photography’ is meant to refer not only to art photographers, but also to photojournalists, activists and documentary producers, as well as curators and critics who use such images in their work. ‘Photography’ is also meant to refer to photographic images produced and distributed through both analogue and digital technologies, or some combination of the two.

  2. Among the more widely circulated images were those depicting Scott Olsen, an Iraq War veteran injured by police at an Occupy Oakland protest, and those picturing the pepper-spraying of peacefully protesting students at the University of California, Davis.

  3. The best-known advocate of such position is likely Thomas Frank. See, for example, his What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, New York: Henry Holt, 2004. For recent analysis of popular misconceptions regarding economic mobility, see Chapter 2 of Timothy Noah, The Great Divergence, New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

  4. Tom Ang, ‘Seeing the Big Picture’, The Guardian, 23 November 2005, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2005/nov/24/newmedia.guardianweeklytechnologysection (last accessed on 8 October 2012).

  5. The title alludes to the landmark exhibition ‘Walker Evans: American Photographs’, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938.

  6. To the extent that class is discussed at all in US politics, it is often in the pejorative sense, as in the common right-wing claim that discussion of income inequality or tax reform constitutes ‘class warfare’.

  7. Subsequently, Hoffmann staged an exhibition at the CCA Wattis Institute meant as a response to Harald Szeemann’s seminal 1969 show ‘When Attitudes Become Form’: ‘When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes’ (2012).

  8. See Anton Vidokle, ‘Art Without Artists?’, e-flux journal [online journal], issue 16, May 2010, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-without-artists/; and also ‘Letters to the Editors: Eleven Responses to Anton Vidokle’s “Art Without Artists?”’, e-flux journal, issue 18, September 2010, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/letters-to-the-editors-eleven-responses-to-anton-vidokle (both last accessed on 9 November 2012).

  9. The artist William E. Jones has made the cancelled negatives into a powerful film (Killed, 2009), as well as a book: W.E. Jones, Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration, New York: PPP Editions, 2010. For a critique of the FSA as an ideological instrument, see Blake Stimson, ‘Photography’s Method’, in Jens Hoffmann (ed.), More American Photographs (exh. cat.), San Francisco: CCA Wattis Institute, 2011.

  10. Martha Rosler critiques the project on these grounds in her essay ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’, in Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1989, pp.303—42.

  11. Brecht’s remark is best known through its citation in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Little History of Photography’ (1931). See W. Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927—34 (ed. Michael W. Jennings et al., trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p.526.

  12. For critical discussion of these issues, see Barry Schwabsky, ‘Signs of Protest: Occupy’s Guerrilla Semiotics’, The Nation, 2 January 2012, available at http://www.thenation.com/article/165144/ signs-protest-occupys-guerilla-semiotics#; and Yates McKee, ‘The Arts of Occupation,’ The Nation, 11 December 2011, available at http://www.thenation.com/article/165094/arts-occupation (both last accessed on 2 November 2012).

  13. For an overview of these actions, see Nato Thompson, ‘Cultural Producers at the Wild Heart of Occupy Wall Street’, Art Papers, May/June 2012, pp.14—19.

  14. Marco Roth makes this point in his essay ‘Letters of Resignation from the American Dream’, first published in the broadsheet Occupy! Gazette #1; reprinted in Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America (ed. Astra Taylor et al.), London and New York: Verso, 2011, pp.23—30.

  15. Jasper Bernes uses this phrase in an insightful analysis of the Occupy Oakland encampment; see J. Bernes, ‘Square and Circle: The Logic of Occupy’, The New Inquiry [online], 17 September 2012, available at http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/square-and-circle-the-logic-of-occupy (last accessed on 8 October 2012).

  16. For a critique of this ideology, see Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, London: Zero Books, 2009.