Photomontage and Religion during the 1930s – the J.O.C.

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As part of the general malaise of the 1930s (a decade characterised by uncertainty, political extremism and widespread unemployment) mass political movements sprang up on both the left and right throughout Europe. During periods of social flux there is always an increased tendency for people to affiliate themselves with groups that provide mutual support and direction when confronted by an uncertain environment. But the mass political movements of the 1930s did not emerge in a vacuum; they adopted tried and tested strategies to recruit and bind a diverse range of people to their cause. Indeed, many of the outward rituals, processions and insignia of mass political movements copied the strategies successfully used by the Christian church for thousands of years. This made sense; people would have been familiar and comfortable with such religious symbolism, rituals and concepts due to the high rate of religious observance in Europe during this time. Not to mention the fact that European society is built upon countless references to Christian doctrine that has shaped its evolution. Therefore, it made sense to exploit this familiarity by creating your own versions of the symbols, rituals, processions, martyrs, mass-gatherings, saintly figures and messiahs that people were already comfortable with. All the mass political movements of the 1930s privileged concepts such as discipline, order and the collective good. Individualism was regarded as anathema to their political philosophies. In essence what you saw at this time was the emergence of politics-as-religion. But instead of putting your faith in God in heaven, you were expected to place your trust in the party and the leader who was destined to lead society to a happy future.

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But this blurring of the boundaries and the growth of politics-as-religion was also reflected in new structures emerging from within the Catholic church. Early in the twentieth century, a Belgian Catholic priest, Joseph Cardijn, had founded a movement called the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne, which translates as the Young Christian Workers (or JOC for short with members known as Jocistes). This organisation has a distinctly socialist slant to it, combining trade union and labour activism with ideas of social-justice, alongside Catholic religious teaching. As such, it was remarkably popular and received official Papal blessing in the mid 1920s, before quickly expanding to other countries and is still in existence today. In part, the growth of this organisation can be regarded as the church responding to the changing priorities of those living in a modern, industrial world. Previously, social values based on outward respectability ensured automatic compliance. Deference to authority and outward conformity to religious dogma were the norm in societies heavily influenced by Catholic doctrine. But this was all changing. Social trauma and widespread loss of faith after the horrors of the First World War, industrialisation, urban alienation, mass unemployment and political turmoil all meant that change was in the air. Young people were looking for meaning and purpose. Thus the JOC can be regarded as an attempt to recapture the dissatisfied youth of the 1930s who were slowly drifting out of the orbit of the traditional Catholic church. Here, the anxieties and concerns of the young were framed in a way that was made compatible with Catholic doctrine and an organisational structure created to give meaning and certainty to individuals during a period of uncertainty.

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The first publication, Une Date Dans l’Histoire Ouvriere, was published in 1937. This booklet celebrates the tenth anniversary of the founding of the French branch of the JOC, which saw a mass gathering of 85,000 members in Paris on 18 July of that year. Our familiarity with the mass-rallies of the left and right that occurred during that decade does resonate when looking at these photographs. Lines of uniformed Jocistes, banners and flags being carried, torchlit processions, rows of people standing to attention in stadiums immedately evokes how political ovements of the period presented themselves. Discipline and order was in the air. Individualism is bad. And fun is most definitely not part of the equation. The narrative structure of the book is fairly straightforward: photographs show members at work, then travelling to Paris from all over France, congregating for the mass rally and being addressed by their leaders. This is all designed to showcase the great strides the movement has made in just ten years. Design wise, this publication reflects the influence of this period. There are some nice design touches and the photomontage works well to provide some drama to what could otherwise be a rather static visual narrative.

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Entitled Croisade Ouvriere (The Workers Crusade) this second softcover magazine is a very interesting publication produced by the JOC two years later. This time it commemorates a mass gathering/pilgrimage they made to Rome in 1939. Obviously, that was a momentous year for Europe and the storm clouds had been gathering for some time and the date on the back cover of the book is September of that year, the same month that Germany invaded Poland and World War 2 began in Europe. As can be imagined, peace is an recurring theme of the book. As is solidarity and the unity of mankind, another hot topic of the period. Again, like the previous publication, the basic narrative is a simple story about members of the organisation, from all walks of life, coming together to celebrate their beliefs publically by travelling to Rome. Where it differs from the previous publication is the production quality and the graphic design which produces a real sense of energy and drama in a strong package.

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The book begins with a cloudy seascape which is then followed by a close-up of an apartment block, a black-framed view through a window of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, followed by a montage of male and female industrial workers over a series of train tracks, before finishing with a view of a railway station, with a waiting train belching steam, all viewed through the prison-like bars of a railing. The accompanying text is spread over the five opening pages. Translated (my own – so this is open to correction) from French it reads: “In this troubled world – through our obscured horizons – clarity – people from all industries march to Rome.” This initial image-text combination sets the tone for the rest of the book and clearly sets out the main ideological message promoted by the JOC; that in the midst of turmoil people should can rely on the spiritual guidance offered by the Catholic church.

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A page then offers us a strange cartoon of St Francis of Assisi superimposed upon a photograph of a town (presumably Assisi?). The relevance of this figure here presumably has more to do with his renunciation of his inherited nobility and his concern for the poor and downtrodden rather than animal welfare issues. On the facing page is an image designed to resemble a Roman tablet with an inscription stating that twenty thousand people young people left their factories, workshops, offices and cities to participate in this gathering. Both of these images are designed to reassure viewers that this relatively new mass movement was firmly located at the heart of the traditional, and familiar, structures of the Catholic church. This is reaffirmed by the images on the following pages which depict St Peter’s Basilica and images of a beaming Pope Pius XI engaging with an appropriately deferential and scruffy looking Parisian train engineer, complete with Charlie Chaplin moustache.

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After that we get into some of the strongest visual images in the book which serve as a link between Christian iconography and the workplace. Entitled Who Knows how the Workers Live, this section shows the factories and mills of the young workers who, thanks to adherence to the values espoused by the JOC, are helping to create a better society for all. Bordered by chains, we have a montage of male and female workers in factory settings, linking this work to the slavery of the past. These images are accompanied by quotes from various popes, showing their understanding and concern for those who work in the mechanised world, asserting that they are working to liberate the oppressed from the conditions they toil under. This is followed by a montage of an infant bordered by newspaper cuttings that catalogue the breakdown of social values (as defined by the Catholic church naturally) including such items as divorce, infidelity, suicide, infanticide. The shrill newspaper headlines contrast with the peaceful image of the baby in order to produce the message that the JOC will assist in creating a better society for our children and our children’s children (a standard claim of every social organisation that ever came into being).aJOC07

Reinforcing the message of peace, an image of birds in flight (presumably doves) is juxtaposed against dark images of aeroplanes in an ominous prediction of the death and destruction that would soon be visited from the air. In a family of man moment, a photomontage shows the different people of the world all united by the church while the opposite page shows a seated Pius XII presiding over a religious institution that has, according to the caption, provided 20 centuries of stability. Other images show beaming workers looking to the future superimposed over images of fields, technology and blueprints, demonstrating that the movement had fully embraced the innovations of the modern world in building a better future. The final page, the past and present are linked through pairing a Roman triumphal arch with a modern factory worker. Much of the rest of the book is devoted towards the architectural glories of Rome, including an acetate map showing the highlights. These images serve to bridge the gap between the old and new. The JOC were offering a new version of the church that the young could buy-in to while at the same time reassuring them that their message was firmly rooted in the traditions of the past. This emphasis on continuity was probably also designed to satisfy rivals within the Catholic hierarchy who in the internecine office politics played out within this organisation were undoubtedly heavily resistant to anything that even looked like change. Parallels with the present are evident. A two thousand year old institution carries a lot of baggage.

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The JOC movement of the 1930s can be regarded as an attempt by an old religious institution to come to terms with the pace of social change. Older forms of automatic deference were breaking down during a period of social and political turmoil so they needed to change the way they did business in order to maintain their relevance. The days of simply being able to awe the peasantry with the power and majesty of gold encrusted buildings whilst simultaneously preaching the benefits of passively accepting a life of squalor were over. A key part of getting their message across was the use of modernist graphic-design and photomontage techniques to engage with a younger, media savvy audience who had little time for the stuffy old ways of the past. The JOC needed to tread a fine line between emphasising their coolness and relevance whilst also ensuring that links to the past were maintained. In many ways, this movement can be regarded as a forerunner to the social activism and the ideals of Liberation Theology that emerged amongst the Catholic clergy in Latin America after the second world war. In both cases, the traditional structures and institutions of the church were regarded as remote and irrelevant to the real concerns and injustices experienced in everyday life. A new purpose had to be found that would get people to buy-in to the ideals of the Catholic church. This constant need to reinvent itself in order to remain relevant to its membership at a time of rapid change is something that the Catholic church, and other religious groups, still struggle with to this day.

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Aircraft – Le Corbusier

Aircraft - Le Corbusier
Industrialisation defined the nineteenth century. Country after country first emulated and then surpassed the success of the British in developing sophisticated capitalist economies in which technological progress was hailed for transforming the world. But the carnage of the First World War destroyed the fundamental concepts that underlined this system; it completely shattered the idea that this form of social organisation was inevitably going to bring about a stable world. People suddenly realised that the same machines that had promised unstoppable progress could be used to kill on a scale unimaginable before then. So, industrial societies in the aftermath of this war faced two possible choices; one was an escapist return to an earlier pre-industrial epoch, epitomised by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century(in which the bespoke and handmade was privileged). The other option was to somehow separate the grim realities and the negative consequences of industrialisation (war, pollution, urban poverty etc) from a belief in the inherent good of technology to produce a better future. In this view, the Great War could be regarded as an aberration, an unrepeatable period of collective madness when technological developments had been used for evil rather than for more noble purposes. Unsurprisingly, this was the path chosen. This seductively simple idea thoroughly permeated public discourse during the inter-war decades, influencing everything from art and architecture to politics and science, as traumatised societies attempted to escape the stifling structures of the past by constructing a New Age based upon rational principles derived from apparently objective scientific concepts.

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The influence of Le Corbusier (the pseudonym adopted by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) as the leading prophet of high-modernist urban planning and design cannot be underestimated. Nearly every country with pretentions to modernisation during the twentieth century dabbled, to differing degrees, with the alluring idea that it would be possible to reorder society through planned intervention in the built environment. While Le Corbusier was not alone in advancing these ideas, his charisma, drive and ego made him the best known and most influential of those who put forward such utopian schemes. At the core of the high-modernist architectural philosophy was the idea that through the use of rational, planned design it would be possible to influence human behaviour and so create a perfectly ordered and balanced world of peace and plenty (as outlined in Le Corbusier’s publications Toward an Architecture [1923] and The Radiant City [1935]). In the high-modernist view, the dark, squalid slums and overcrowded tenements of previous centuries, breeding grounds of disease, poverty and crime, were to be eliminated. A new era of progress and civilised order would be ushered in through the construction of new, rational cities based on universally applicable rules that would determine the precise requirements needed by each inhabitant. And just how were these cities to be built? The urban planners and politicians who had permitted the growth of unchecked urban squalor in the cities of old had been corrupted by vested interests and the grubby compromises of representative democracy. They obviously couldn’t be entrusted with such a task. No, this job required somebody new. This needed someone who was far above such tawdry concerns; it required a visionary genius who would act in the best interests of all. (The final sentences of the book state that: “Sometimes in the course of the centuries a man has sprung up here and there instinct with the power of genius, establishing the unity of his time. A man! The flock needs a shepherd.”)

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High-modernist ideas were based on the idea that you needed to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. As can be imagined, this particular view of how humanity should be improved tied in rather neatly with the various political movements, of both right and left, that sprang up in the 1930s. The difference between countries that wholeheartedly embraced high-modernist schemes and those that merely toyed with modernism on a smaller scale has less to do with ambition and a lot more to do with politics – an authoritarian regime is much more likely to indulge in grandiose re/construction projects than a system which has a greater degree of political accountability. It is certainly no surprise that Le Corbusier flirted with both the USSR and Nazi-backed Vichy France in his pursuit of an despotic patron who would be able to bulldoze all opposition to his centrally planned utopia. Interestingly, for all his enthusiasm, Chandigarh in India was the only city Le Corbusier actually managed to see built (even then he wasn’t the first choice – the sudden death of the primary architect Matthew Nowicki provided a sudden opening). Basically, the fundamental flaw with the high-modernist concept is that it is utterly disdainful of the very real cultural, social and human needs of those who actually have to live in these cities. This contempt lies at the heart of their failure.

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This brings us neatly to the book in question. First published in 1935 (my copy is a rather scruffy ex-library book of the 1988 Trefoil reprint), Aircraft was the first in a series published by The Studio under the New Vision banner. In this series, new technologies and ideas were presented to the reader through the combination of short texts and photographs (two other titles in the series looked at Locomotives and Photomicrography). Using images gleaned from a wide range of sources, this book is a celebration of flight, both as a clear demonstration of man’s mastery of the air and for providing a new perspective on the world. From this distance, when we have all become jaded with cheap and nasty airlines making us print out our own boarding cards and trying to flog us overpriced sandwiches, it’s hard to understand just how much of an adventure flight was in those early decades. At the time of publication, the Wright Brothers had made their first flight only 32 years previously. Given impetus by the Great War, powered flight had quickly advanced from the rickety, pioneering days to becoming a mode of travel by the 1930s that was both more reliable and accessible to the public at large (at least in the developed world). Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs are featured in Le Corbusier’s narrative of progress – which can be read as an obvious attempt on his part to bask in the reflected glow of Renaissance genius. Thus aviation is presented as the inevitable pinnacle of human achievement and served as an unequivocal demonstration of how progress could be attained through wholeheartedly embracing new technologies and ideas. Here, photographs of aircraft in flight and abstract close-up images are used to celebrate form. The myriad shapes and types of sleek, gleaming aluminium aeroplanes that were at the pinnacle of 1930s design all serve to underline the rupture between the discredited legacy of the past and a New Age of progress.

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But it is how the aeroplane has changed our perception of the world that is the real subject of this book. The aeroplane, according to Le Corbusier, has liberated mankind from the stifling, narrow point of view that is an inevitable feature of life at ground level. Now, freed from these shackles, we are able to soar high above the earth and, in so doing, look down upon the hellish urban environments we have created. The bird’s eye perspective has revealed what was once kept hidden from view. What Le Corbusier sees is the moral and physical poverty of a former era which he indicts as being the root cause of injustice and conflict. As he asserts in the introduction to the book, “Such are the great cities of the world, those of the nineteenth century, bustling, cruel, heartless, and money-grubbing.” Furthermore, “The city is ruthless to man. Cities are old, decayed, frightening, diseased. They are finished. Pre-Machine civilisation is finished.” Contrasting these images of cities with nature, Le Corbusier also proclaims that their failure is due to a fundamental lack of harmony in the way they grew up piecemeal over the years. But a plan devised by a genius (guess who?) would overcome these flaws and produce a rational urban environment that would be fully in balance with the natural and objectively scientific concepts discovered by man. But the aeroplane does more than just provide a bird’s eye view from which to contemplate the city below; for Le Corbusier, it creates a wholly new and modern conscience which will no longer tolerate the injustices of the past. Thus, new technology is used to discredit everything that has gone before and pave the way for the slate to be wiped clean. By piggy-backing on the widespread public enthusiasm for the new (in the form of aviation), combined with  photographic “proof”, in this book Le Corbusier is attempting to link his particular ideas about urban design with a broader popular mood for change.

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From the trauma of the First World War, which discredited the rigid aspirations of a society based upon nineteenth century values, a new-found optimism in the potential of new technology to create a better world emerged. The 1920s and 30s were defined by ideas and social movements that attempted to use apparently rational and objective principles in an attempt at social engineering, presented as a way of escaping the horrors of the recent past.  The aeroplane was the apex of modern achievement at the time and was held out as a shining example for those who wanted to believe in the future. Up in the air, the aeroplane reveals an old, decrepit urban world that is the root cause of all evils. It is also no coincidence that this perspective mirrors that of the high-modernist planner, who sees all and ceaselessly strives to better mankind as an omnipotent God-like substitute. For an architect salivating at the thought of wiping the urban slate clean and starting afresh (heedless of the direct human consequences) the aeroplane proved to be a very useful tool in pushing this own agenda. Progress is presented as inevitable and natural; an unstoppable force that only needs to be harnessed by someone of vision and genius for the betterment of all. Utopian phrases and comparisons with natural forms are repeatedly used by Le Corbusier in this attempt to impose his very narrow and simplified vision upon the world. As he clearly states in the book, “Cities with their misery, must be torn down. They must be largely destroyed and fresh cities built.”

But as we have discovered to our cost, such cities are the concrete fantasies of a sociopath.

 

The Roosevelt Year – Pare Lorentz

With the re-election of Obama now over, I thought it might be interesting to look at another American president who was presented as a beacon of hope during a period of economic and social crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, occupied the presidency between 1933 and 1945 and oversaw the U.S. response to the Great Depression as well as World War 2. Although he is now widely regarded as the primary architect who helped the U.S. recover from the devastating 1930s, during the early years of his administration he was subject to a huge amount of criticism from his Republican rivals. In a parallel to today, the Republicans under Hoover had been in power during the Roaring Twenties and their policies had inflated the speculative bubble which then burst during the 1930s, sending the world into a decade of economic decline and social unrest.  Roosevelt was left with the unappetising task of picking up the pieces, bringing order to chaos as well as providing some sort of hope to the quickly growing numbers of unemployed and destitute.  Added to his problems were the environmental catastrophe of the Dustbowl conditions in the Mid-West and the festering sore of Jim Crow racism in the Southern States, which when combined with economic collapse, threatened to make a volatile situation much worse.  His response was the New Deal  which sought to provide assistance for the unemployed, kickstart a stagnating economy and restructure the financial system in order to prevent the problem from happening again.  Of course, Roosevelt was a politician like any other with his flaws and foibles – and he was certainly not a saint – but the Republican alternative would have been a lot worse. There’s more than a hint of déjà-vu when you start comparing the thirties with today.

Obviously to the right-leaning Republicans, whose incompetence during the twenties had laid the groundwork for the crash, all this talk of social solidarity and safety nets for the poor sounded a lot like communism, and they weren’t shy about saying so. American society, then as now, has a consistently right leaning and conservative slant, so charges that a president might be un-American (whatever that might mean) were damaging to Roosevelt’s credibility. A wide ranging, officially endorsed political propaganda campaign to convince the middle-classes and wealthier sections of society, who were isolated from the sights of destitution and squalor, was designed to build support for Roosevelt’s reform agenda and to undermine the Republican charges against him. It was also useful to remind these richer sections of American society that doing nothing to help millions of desperate and unemployed people was not in their own self-interest. 

Photographically, this resulted in the establishment of the photographic section within the FSA during 1937 whose impact on documentary practice has been legendary. However, before the establishment of the FSA, Pare Lorentz (a film critic and minor movie maker prior to this point) in this highly charged atmosphere of social crisis became a leading advocate for New Deal policies. Best known for his two documentary films; The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938) – both government funded movies that presented New Deal policies in a very positive fashion – Lorentz also produced this photo-book in 1934 which documented Roosevelt’s achievements during his first year in office. Originally designed to be a movie (the book does have a cinematic quality to it), The Roosevelt Year is a large photo-book that uses images from a wide range of photographers and picture libraries in an attempt to show that things were getting better under the new administration. Its main function is to produce a straightforward narrative of change and hope for the future. As such the book faces a classic political dilemma; the problem (unemployment, strikes, poverty etc.) has to be presented to an audience in a manner that neither diminishes its importance (if it’s not such a big deal then what’s all the fuss about?) nor exaggerates it into a massive crisis that appears completely out of control (if things have got that bad then there’s no point in wasting time and money trying to fix it).  Social problems need to be large enough to influence public opinion while small enough that a solution can appear possible.  The office of US president due to the limitations of the system within which it is placed, according to political theorists, is one in which mastery of the power of persuasion is the only way to prevent political gridlock.

The images themselves are an interesting mixture of news photographs taken from a wide range of sources (as well as at least one Lewis Hine image I recognise). Much of it is fairly unremarkable and is of a quality you’d expect from a newspaper documenting local events that have long since passed into obscurity. Some are presented as explicit successes of the administration – such as the repeal of prohibition, resolving the bank crisis and opening diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union – while others emphasise the lawlessness and violence that seems to have engulfed America (including a little remembered assassination attempt on Roosevelt.)   Now, placed within a broader political narrative of hope over adversity they become evidence of both the social ills that need to be overcome and accomplishments already achieved.  Images of work and industry also appear throughout, designed to show that the productive economy was on the move again. However, the two predominant picture types within the book are crowd-scenes and sober suited political figures. A clearly identified and calm looking political figure, be it Roosevelt or one of his appointees, is contrasted with the anonymity of the crowd who are presented as a ominous, malevolent force. The message is clear; the unruly mob needs to be taken in hand by the guiding hand of a compassionate politician who will steer the country out of this mess and to a brighter future. Only Roosevelt could do this, Lorentz hints, and the Republicans would only stir up social unrest even further.

Although the broad sweep of the Depression era in America is relatively well known, it is interesting to focus on a single year, which can be regarded as the pivot upon which attitudes changed. Certainly the sense of crisis embedded within the fabric of the book comes across even today. Violence, fear, the fracturing of society, extremism, financial collapse, greedy bankers fleecing everybody and mass unemployment; these are the underlying themes of the book. Lorentz’s narration, like a documentary film, comes through in the large sentence fragments that fill the top of the page, guiding the viewer how to read the photographs beneath. It also serves to soothe our anxiety when looking at images of lynchings and stike-breakers with machine guns; the narrator lets us know that Roosevelt has a plan and will put the country back on an even keel once more. The parallels with today are striking.

Gross-Japan (Dai Nippon) – Younosuke Natori

As the world edged towards war in the later part of the 1930s, new found alliances were formed between various ambitious powers that had designs on reshaping the world and the Axis countries set about propagandising the virtues of their new found friends. Japan, ruled by a military clique since the early 1930s with a figurehead emperor providing popular legitimacy, decided it wanted part of the action and had already invaded Manchuria during this period (after grabbing Korea earlier in the century) and staked its claims in Asia. For European fascist regimes it was important that propaganda differentiated their new Asian ally (racially, culturally and historically) from other societies in the region, demonstrated that Japan shared certain core values that were compatible with fascism, and generally presented them in a favourable light in the face of outside criticism.

First published in 1937 (this is the 2nd paperback edition missing the dust jacket) Gross-Japan (Greater Japan) is a photobook in the standard country survey style, that uses the time honoured formula to create a picturesque vision of  an exotic land for a distant audience. Here, ancient traditions coexist with the modern world, while historical buildings and unchanging scenes of Arcadian tranquility provide contrast for the progressive new developments and images of industrial might that will lead to a brighter future. Military prowess and images of a disciplined, ordered society show strength of purpose and convery a sense of national destiny that particularly resonated during this time. Looked at from this perspective, this book is quite unremarkable from a wide range of  similar 1930s propaganda publications but what is particularly interesting, from my point of view, is the author, Yônosuke Natori.

Although early Japanese documentary photographers, such as Ken Domon and Ihei Kimura are well known, Natori’s legacy has gone largely unremarked (at least outside Japan). Born in 1910, Natori left for Germany in 1928 where he studied in Munich before starting work as a jobbing photojournalist in 1931. Returning to Japan in 1933 he founded the group Nippon Kobo which is credited with influencing the development of Japanese documentary practice. Thanks to Natori’s exposure to photographic developments in Germany, where he would have undoubtedly become aware of the New Vision techniques that were then in vogue, as well as his adoption of the small format Leica camera, Natori can be regarded as a bridge between East and West, bringing the latest European developments to a Japanese photographic audience who in turn adapted them to their own particular cultural viewpoints.  As well as working with the German Ullstein press machine, Natori was the first Asian photographer to have his work appear in Life magazine (his work appeared in two issues of Life in 1937; an extensive spread on Vermont appeared on 19 July followed by pictures of the Japanese invasion of China on 20 December) before helping establish the propaganda magazine Nippon, also designed for a foreign audience, in 1934

Natori’s use of the Leica and the influence of the new vision style is evident in a number of the images within the book; the neat, ordered lines of prams and rickshaws he depicts upon the streets, Natori’s view through the wheels of the rickshaw in the financial area of Tokyo and the images of massed ranks of military recruits and schoolchildren practicing their martial skills stand out as particularly good examples of the new vision aesthetic applied to Japanese subject matter. These images introduce a dynamic tone the book which, as well as preventing it from becoming another coffee table tome, serves to move the narrative forward as well as informing the viewer that Imperial Japan is on the march.

Like other photographic surveys of distant lands, where the viewer is presented with a vision of the exotic-picturesque designed to emphasise the cultural and national specificity of the country in question, Natori’s book is filled with images that could have come straight out of a 1930s tourist brochure. However, like Nippon magazine, Gross-Japan was clearly designed as a piece of propaganda to disseminate Japanese cultural and national achievements to a foreign audience, in this case Nazi Germany. Undoubtedly assisted by the close contacts Natori had with the German press and his association with Japanese officialdom (the ambassador has written the forward to the book) this book was carefully tailored to present a vision of Japan that would appeal to a heavily politicised audience gearing up for war.

In the specific context and time it appeared, Gross-Japan had a specific political function to serve; it was important that the book not over emphasise the differences between the two countries. The German viewer had to be able to admire the traditional ceremonial and ritual aspects of Japanese culture whilst also being able to appreciate and identify with the disciplined social structure and values that are also presented as an integral part of Imperial Japan. In this way the two aspects are interlinked; present day strength is presented as a function of a long and deep historical tradition, which in turn serves to bolster expansionist claims over other countries and peoples. Concepts of social unity, discipline, a strong work ethic, industrial development, the veneration of tradition in the face of outside forces and a sense of national destiny would have struck a chord with the German viewer of the time.

The Yellow Spot – Anonymous (Victor Gollancz)

In 1936, three years after the Nazis came to power, this book, produced by an anonymous author, was printed by the English publisher Victor Gollancz that laid bare the barbarism and cruelty of the Nazi regime for all to see. Using official Nazi publications and propaganda as evidence, the book clearly demonstrates that anti-Jewish violence wasn’t just some isolated, local phenomenon, but was part of a much larger, systemic, state-sponsored campaign to rid Germany of all its Jewish inhabitants.  (The title itself – the Yellow Spot – refers to the medieval practice of putting a round yellow mark on a black background on the door of a Jewish house or business in order to let people know that they should avoid it.)  Interestingly at the time of publication in 1936 the book was accused of sensationalism; the cover of the paperback version (which I don’t have) stated that it was about ‘the extermination of the Jews in Germany’ while the interior title page stated that it was about the ‘outlawing of half a million human beings’. Whatever the reason for this discrepancy, time has certainly vindicated these initial assertions.

Chapter by chapter, the Yellow Spot, backed up by selections from news-propaganda, steadily builds up a damning indictment of the first three years of Nazi rule in which the early steps to marginalise Jewish economic, social and cultural life within Germany were taken.  As well as the Nuremberg Laws, introduced in 1935, which gave official sanction for discrimination against Jews, the book demonstrates that a creeping culture of violent isolation gradually took root in Germany which served to separate Jews from the rest of society. Gradually all aspects of life in Nazi Germany were absorbed by the racist ideology which left no room for those who did not fit into the ideal of ‘Aryan’ perfection. To name but a few aspects highlighted in this book; Jewish children were separated from others in school and demonised, sports clubs had to exclude Jewish members and were forbidden from playing with teams who weren’t completely ‘Aryan’, while all cultural performances, such as the theatre, concerts and films had to be wholly ‘Aryan’ in nature under the new Nazi rules.

Persecution had reached deep into German society by 1936. The ‘Aryan Paragraph’, brought in to exclude Jews from public sector jobs in 1933, was spread throughout all sectors of employment and professions in order to make it impossible for them to earn a living. Perhaps, in light of what was to come, the most disturbing chapter in the book deals with the early concentration camps where Jews and political opponents were kept in ‘protective custody’. (With breathtaking cynicism this excuse was used by the authorities in order provide legitimacy for the imprisonment of people without trial in brutal camps simply because they might be the subject of attacks by local Nazis, outraged at seeing their enemies walking freely on the streets.) The descriptions of the camps, gleaned from smuggled reports, provide an early insight into what would, within a few short years, evolve into sites of horrific mass-murder and genocide.

As well as the text, The Yellow Spot also reprints a small number of photographs that appeared in Nazi publications, most notably Der Sturmer, a violently anti-Jewish newspaper owned by arch-Nazi Julius Streicher, that was an important means of spreading the new racist dogma to the wider public. Much of the material used in the book comes from Der Sturmer and this newspaper’s all-pervasive and poisonous influence on the Nazi education system is well documented in both words and images within the book. Articles and calls for anti-Jewish actions within Der Sturmer were also used by the regime as a way to excuse the violence of local Nazi groups to the outside world and dismiss them as the isolated actions of hotheads, while at the same time providing official deniability for Hitler and his henchmen. Photography was an important part of the anti-semitic propaganda campaign and what the book calls ‘pillory photographs’ became a means of further isolating the Jewish population within Germany. It would appear that photographs were commonly made of people entering Jewish shops or businesses, or even talking to Jews on the street, which were then published in Der Sturmer accompanied by calls for action to be taken against these ‘traitors’ (a clear signal to any Nazi reader that they could attack them with impunity.)

This form of photography became a weapon to enforce Nazi racial policy; by singling out individuals for punishment who do not conform to the new anti-semitic ideology and are still interacting with Jewish people and businesses it was possible to deter others from doing the same. As can be imagined, the fear of incurring the wrath of local Nazi brutality would be enough for many people to shun contact with Jews. Special hatred appears to have been reserved for what were called ‘race-defilers’ by the Nazis; mixed Jewish-Christian couples who were presented as a threat to the purity of the German race. Photographs of Nazi’s parading such couples on the street, placards tied around their necks, exposing them to both public humiliation and violence were further designed to discourage any contact with Jews in Germany. Also shown in the book are photographs of German towns and villages with signs and banners hung over the streets declaring them to be ‘Jew-free’ or that ‘Jews are not wanted here’.  These images also provide an example of how a photograph taken for an original purpose, can be used for one never intended by the photographer. In this case the original purpose of these photographs was to enforce anti-semitic racial policies and show their widespread support within Germany, but in the Yellow Spot they become damning evidence against the Nazis and those same policies.

This book provides a chilling insight into the early years of Nazi rule in Germany. The immediate years following the takeover of power by the Nazis can often disappear beneath the sheer horror of the Holocaust, yet it was during this time that the foundations of genocide were laid. In these early years of their rule, Nazi racial policies were spread throughout society and were enforced through the use of brutality and violence towards anybody who didn’t conform. Outward agreeement with Nazi dogma was the only way to avoid coming to the attention of these thugs. This fear led to the passive acceptance of anti-Jewish racism within German society, which in turn enabled more and more extreme measures to be adopted by the Nazis, ultimately culminating in genocide. Photography played an important part in the creation of the Nazi state both through valorising its achievements and demonising those it regarded as enemies. Although the images in this book are few in number and of poor quality their impact is strong. The Yellow Spot provided an insight into the Nazi mindset during the 1930s for anybody who chose to learn about it.

Der Staat Ohne Arbeitslose (The Land Without Unemployment) – Ernst Glaeser, F.C. Weiskopf, Alfred Kurella

Photography was an important tool in the consolidation of the Soviet state in the two decades following its establishment. Not only was it a vital tool for the dissemination of propaganda amongst a population that had low literacy levels, it also had the added cachet of being modern, which was something the Soviets keenly promoted to emphasise the contrast between their new egalitarian regime and the backward feudalism of the Tsar. Modernity was synonymous with progress and it was hailed as being the solution for all ills. The equation was simple; everything modern was good (factories, steel production, cars, industrial farming, power plants, aircraft, photography, movies) while everything old was bad (kulaks, exploitation, small farms, illiteracy, peasants, landlords, private property, imperial titles). The new modern USSR was also supposed to usher in the creation of a new ‘Soviet man’ who was destined to inhabit this centrally planned utopia of the future.

This book ostensibly purports to show the great strides made by the Soviet Union during the first three years of the Five-Year plan (1928-1933) during which the collectivisation of agriculture and a drive for industrialisation was supposed to make the country a world power and prove that communism was a viable economic system. The central idea behind this was to make farming more efficient and produce a surplus of food which could then be used to subsidise industrial development, regarded as a true measure of progress and power by Stalin. Having lots of food available meant that wages could be kept low and a lot of people could be freed up to work in factories rather than tilling the land. Industrial development, particularly heavy industry and steel, was seen as the only way for the Soviet Union to become a modern world power as well as build a true communist society. That was the theory; in practice it proved to be a catastrophe.

However we have to look at this book in the context of the time. Communism appeared to offer a serious alternative to capitalism during the 1930s, a time when European and American society was undergoing a deep systemic crisis thanks to the financial meltdown of the Great Depression. Mass unemployment, particularly amongst working class populations, in these countries reached dangerously high levels with the consequent increase in poverty and the ever present threat of social breakdown. Into this mix the Soviets step in with their propaganda which appears to show a working alternative to capitalism in which everybody has a fulfilling job and a decent standard of living because this society is supposedly fair and equal as there is now no exploitation by greedy bosses anymore. Obviously this only works if the flow of information about conditions in the USSR is tightly controlled to stop anything emerging that might tarnish the rose-tinted view being presented abroad. But for many impoverished and desperate unemployed people in Europe and America Soviet propaganda presented a very seductive vision of an alternative system that appeared to offer a real solution to the plight of poverty and destitution that faced so many during that dark decade.

Even the title of this book, The Land Without Unemployment, is ideologically loaded; here the Soviet Union is presented as a land of happiness where harmony reigns and conflict has been abolished. However, as we now know, this was far from the truth. Fear, terror, violence and brutality on a scale that is hard to imagine today was all pervasive.This book dates from the early years of Stalinism when Soviet society had yet to feel the full force of his reign of terror. Everyday life became a nightmare; as the state owned everything it meant that everybody was a public employee so if you were late for work then you could be charged with treason (attempting to wreck the economy and undermine the revolution) and sent to a concentration camp or even shot by the secret police. Denunciations and the threat of violence were everywhere. Soviet society during the 1930s was a nightmare.

Although it has been translated into a number of different languages (French, English and Norwegian are three others I know of – there are probably more) the book appears to have been produced primarily for a German audience; it appears to be an attempt to convince German workers that a better future could be theirs under communism. This has a particular resonance thanks to the life and death struggle between the Nazis and the communists for power in Weimar Germany which was to have profound results. It’s interesting to see what happened to the three authors who contributed to the book when the Nazis took power; Kurella and Weiskopf remained true believers and fled Germany (Kurella became a middling government official in East Germany while Weiskopf ended up as a Czech ambassador and head of the East German writers association after the war). Glaeser’s story appears to be a bit more complicated. He too left Germany after the Nazi takeover and fled to Czechoslovakia but he seems to have engineered a compromise with the new regime and he returned to Germany in 1939 and began to write pro-Nazi propaganda material for German military newspapers and publications during the war. Principles can be very inconvenient at times.

All the great names of Soviet photography in the 30s make an appearance in the book which  consists of a procession of (uncredited) images divided up into chapters depicting the successes made in developing the Soviet Union; oil, coal, industry, agriculture, education, the military, literacy and the modernisation of Central Asia. The sequencing is, to my mind, rather haphazard with images being stuffed into pages with little thought as to how they work together. It’s rather hit and miss; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But overall, the sheer number of smiling proletarian workers, collective farms and factories on these pages convey very effectively the message that the USSR is a happy place to live. However, in terms of 1930s Soviet propaganda design the book is quite restrained; apart from the cover (which may have been the work of John Heartfield) there are no attempts at montage and the images are, for the most part straightforward and unambiguous. (It should be pointed out that this book was printed by a German publisher rather than an official Soviet state agency so that may have influenced the design.) A few constructivist images do make it into the book but these are swamped by the sheer volume of the straight pictures which diminishes their visual power and effect. In many ways the layout and design of this book is quite similar to L’Italia Fascista in Cammino, another 1930s photobook which was meant to whitewash the excesses of another coercive system and delude gullible foreigners.

Women are heavily represented in the images, in depictions of factories, fields and everyday life. Although relatively unremarkable by today’s standards, female participation in areas traditionally regarded as male-dominated occupations was trumpeted by the regime as evidence of true equality in contrast to the grudging granting of votes to women by most of Europe and the US in the early part of the 20th century. The Soviets were also keen to rebut some of the anti-communist propaganda being bandied about which said that sexual relations had also been collectivised, assisted by the fact that on-demand abortion was legal until 1936 in Russia, something that was not going to go down well in conservative societies abroad where traditional family values were held dear. Feminine beauty is also emphasised in a number of the images as another charge made against the Soviet regime was that it produced ugly, brutalised women by forcing them to work in heavy labour (an image of a swimmer is even captioned: “Communism is not a menace to Beauty”).

It appears that this publication is playing it very safe. Interestingly, Stalin himself doesn’t make an appearance in the book (Lenin also only makes a brief appearance through a handwritten note and a statue), which by the standards of the time, is astounding. All of this would indicate to me that the publishers wanted to produce something that would reach as wide an audience as possible and that there would be nothing in the book that could be used to criticise the central message of happiness-through-communism. Although the Stalin cult was all pervasive at home it appeared to be permissible to tone it down for a foreign audience and instead focus on the happy contented lives of ordinary people being led under his benovlent reign.

The overall narrative produced by these images is very simple; life is much better under communism than capitalism. This core message is hammered home to the viewer through the sheer brute force of an overwhelming number of images designed to prevent any alternative reading of this book. It is remarkably effective in doing this.

North of the Danube – Erskine Caldwell & Margaret Bourke-White

This publication was the second collaborative book between Caldwell and Bourke White who had previously produced You Have Seen Their Faces in 1937.  Published in 1939, North of the Danube attempts to recreate the winning formula of Caldwell’s text accompanied by Bourke White’s photographs to produce a documentary narrative of a current event or issue of concern which attempts to explain to the distant reader/viewer the situation in question. (Some of the images were published in the 30 May, 1938 issue of Life Magazine alongside those of John Phillips.)

Following the annexation of Austria within Hitler’s murderous realm, Czechoslovakia was next to fall. Pro-Nazi groups within the ethnic German population were vocal in claims about suffering at the hands of the Czechs which provided a pretext to justify the annexation of certain border regions (the Sudatenland)  in 1938.  Anxious to avoid confrontation with Germany, the main Western European powers compromised with Hitler and cobbled together an agreement at Munich which allowed the Germans a free hand with the areas they claimed. The following spring saw much of what has now become the Czech Republic being fully seized by Germany to become the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia within the Third Reich which lasted until 1945. This is the context within which this book was produced for a primarily American audience.

The book itself can be regarded as a straightforward travelogue; the text consists of a series of separate chapters in which Caldwell describes his experiences and what they saw during their travels in these areas. These take the form of individual stand-alone chapters which when read together,  produce an overall sense of the tension and turmoil bubbling just beneath the surface. Certainly one of the most effective passages, in my opinion, is when Caldwell recounts how a pro-Nazi German couple attacked a fellow train passenger because they suspect she is Jewish. However, in spite of occasional illuminating gems such as this, there is little depth to the text. There is no deeper analysis about the historical context and no serious attempt is made to explain the complexities of the area that were bound up with the existing economic and social structures that produced tensions between the Czech, Slovak and Hungarian populations and ethnic groups.

This is to be expected really; unlike their work in the American South, neither Caldwell nor Bourke-White had any particular knowledge about this geographical region and this is compounded by having to explain the complexities to an audience who is equally ignorant.  Certainly in comparison to You Have Seen Their Faces, this book does not have the emotional resonance or depth of understanding that their first collaborative publication had. Looking at how this book was described by the publisher, this lack of in-depth knowledge is explained away by explicitly positioning Caldwell as an ‘observer’ and stating that this book is neither a piece of reportage nor a political commentary. This would indicate to me that even at the time of publication the limitations of the book were realised.

Turning to Bourke-White’s images, which are positioned as a ‘supplement’ to Caldwell’s text and appear between various chapters on specific regions and cities they visited, they too, in my opinion, suffer from a lack of engagement with the subject. They can be briefly categorised into three broad groups; Arcadian pastoral scenes peopled by peasants whose mode of dress and work appears to be something out of the middle-ages; quaint, picturesque cities whose olde-worlde foreignness is emphasised for an American audience, and the brooding Nazi presence whose appearance threatens to disrupt and destroy this apparently unchanged way of life.  Although the Nazis are ever-present in the background, Bourke-White does not train her camera upon them; a couple of images appear within the book but her focus is primarily upon a sympathetic portrayal of rural harmony epitomised by traditional agrarian society. Similarly, some industrial images are present but they are downplayed in favour of photographs of agriculture.

Unlike You Have Seen Their Faces, there is no serious attempt to represent poverty or the harshness of rural life and the simmering tensions between the peasant and the landlord; this economic system, unlike the American South, is not subject to any serious scrutiny.  Hints are provided that all is not quite so harmonious as it appears, but clearly the priority of both Caldwell and Bourke-White was to focus on the Nazi threat rather than attempt any serious engagement with the region.

The manner in which Bourke White represents the peasants of the area in many ways reflects popular American preconceptions of European ‘mother’ countries from which early immigrants came from in the nineteenth century. Time and distance transforms a backward, impoverished, rural fight for survival into a rose-tinted idealised space where traditional values and morals, lost thanks to the frantic pace of modern urban life, have somehow been preserved.  In this context, the viewer is made perfectly aware that the omnipresent threat of Nazi violence will irrevocably destroy this ancient traditional culture rooted in the past. The peasants in Bourke White’s photographs may be poor but they’re happy.

In contrast, the few photographs of ethnic Germans are immediately Nazi in appearance; crowds with arms raised in salute and serious looking men glaring at the camera dressed in quasi-military attire. By comparison with the peasant who is represented as an inextricable part of the soil, Bourke White represents the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia as a violent force who are bent on racial conquest. Throughout this book, Caldwell’s text and Bourke White’s images combine to produce a straightforward duality between black and white; the good Czechs versus the bad Nazis. Simplicity in this case is essential for a distant audience.

Caldwell and Bourke White’s stance in this book is quite clear; the Nazis are a menacing force who threaten to destroy an traditional culture and a small nation who Americans should sympathise with and protect to a certain degree. However, North of the Danube has the feel of an instant book hurriedly put together by a successful author and a celebrity photographer in order to capitalise on hot news. Caldwell and Bourke-White spent five months in Czechoslovakia, from the end of March to August 1938, at the same time as the crisis was reaching boiling point so it was topical. On a personal note, Bourke White complained of Caldwell’s numerous temper-tantrums throughout the time which caused her some difficulties in making photos. In my opinion, this lack of serious engagement with the subject matter comes through in both the text and images.