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.

Jocistes 1937

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.

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.

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.

The Last Rivet (Photographs by Berenice Abbott & Margaret Bourke-White)

Published in 1940, this book of images and text commemorates the completion of the Rockefeller Center in New York, begun at the height of the Depression in 1932. It originally came with a rivet motif dust jacket (which I don’t have) and the cover is even made from green velvet. Classy.

Before looking at the book itself, perhaps a word about these fine captains of industry is in order. The Rockefeller’s fortune was based on the success of Standard Oil, founded by the original patriarch John D. Rockefeller in the 1870s, and whose ruthless business practices ensured that rival oil companies were either taken over or destroyed, until by the 1890s it controlled 88% of all refined oil in the US. Eventually, in 1911, under pressure from the courts and the US government concerned about this monopoly, Standard Oil was broken up into different companies that make up the names that still dominate the globe such as Mobil, Exxon and Chevron. The Rockefellers owned a quarter of all the shares in the new companies, whose value doubled, making John D. the richest man in the world at the time. John D. Junior, son of the founding father, took over and was implicated in the Ludlow Massacre when the National Guard, whose wages were bankrolled by the Rockefeller controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, shot and burned to death between 19 and 25 people during a miners strike in April 1914. I think it’s fair to say that the Rockefeller fortune was not gained by being nice to people. And just as night follows day, immense wealth and power buys respectability for a Medici-like family whose tentacles soon spread throughout much of American commercial, banking and political circles.

But wait, it gets better. At the same time as the Rockefeller Center was being built the family business was keeping some very shady company indeed.  Standard Oil of New Jersey (later renamed Exxon) entered into profitable partnership arrangements with the notorious German company I.G. Farben (infamous producers of Zyklon B poison gas for use in concentration camps and organisers of slave-labour factories in Auschwitz) as well as being instrumental in providing vital fuel additives to the Nazis (tetraethyl lead). This was needed to make aviation fuel in order to fly German planes and drop bombs on much of Europe. They even seem to have gone to great lengths in the cover up, shipping it through the neutral  Spanish Canary Islands (after re-registering all their oil tankers in Panama so as to prevent them being  stopped and searched) where it was then transferred to German ships bound for Hamburg. They also appear to have used their South American depots to supply fuel directly to German tankers. But it wasn’t just the Nazis cash that Standard Oil of NJ was happy to take; they were also engaged in similar practices with Mussolini’s Italy and Japan. It has been argued that through their actions they may have directly assisted in the bombing of Pearl Harbour where a substantial portion of the US Navy was sunk.  But this is not to say that Standard was choosy about its customers; it had no problem selling oil to the Allied side as well. Business is business after all.

And there’s more; another of the Rockefeller cash-cows was Chase National bank, which ran a complicated money laundering scam for the Nazis through the German-American community in which worthless bits of paper issued by the Nazi regime were magically turned into US dollars needed to buy raw materials for desperate German factories. According to documents released by the US Archives, between 1936 and 1941 Chase brought in $20 million for the Fuhrer, while at the same time helping themselves to a substantial amount of the $1.2 billion in commission paid for their services as middleman, which mainly came out of funds taken by the Nazis from their Jewish victims. The bank went to great lengths in order to hide their activities from the US Treasury and Chase is also directly implicated in seizing money from the French bank accounts of its Jewish customers after the German takeover and for being overly helpful with the Nazi regime throughout the entire war. After being investigated for these activities, Chase avoided prosecution using blackmail; they threatened to embarrass the FBI and other government departments if it went to court by spilling the beans about all the dirty tricks they knew about.  Then, just as now, it is virtually impossible to hold powerful corporations to account. And these are only the scandals that have come to the surface; who knows what other skeletons have been quietly buried.

John D. Junior in a rather cynical move considering the company he was keeping at the time, piously expresses his personal hatred of war in the book and presents large corporations as responsible, ethical beings concerned about the welfare of mankind; “War is often laid at the door of business. On its very face such an imputation is as absurd as it is false.” To reinforce the message, there is an image of the Final Abolition of War mural by Jose Maria Sert which was commissioned for the lobby.

Now, nobody’s saying that the Rockefeller’s were stuffing suitcases of Reichmarks under their beds or had a safe full of swastika-embossed gold bullion hidden behind the Monet in the sitting room. That’s the kind of thing criminals do. When you’re amongst the super-rich you don’t need to get your hands dirty – the company you control does all that and you get to cream off the massive profits from the rising stock prices. And of course, you have no direct knowledge of any possible wrongdoing because nothing is ever written down or said aloud. These sorts of things are done on a nod and a wink making it almost impossible to prove who knew what. That way, if something does go wrong some middle-management bozo gets to go to jail while the main players are able to feign surprise and shock at what has been uncovered.

Unsurprisingly, the subject of the Rockefeller’s profiteering from their Nazi connections is not an area that the book dwells upon – that kinda thing tends to spoil the feel-good mood.

The spin that the Rockefeller’s are peddling in this publication is that the centre was a happy collaboration between labour and industry, with both sides working harmoniously together in order to build the complex. Indeed within the book we have repeated mention about the gratitude felt by New York to the Rockefeller’s for creating, directly and indirectly, 75,000 jobs during the Depression decade. Certainly in an era of mass unemployment any bit of positive news is seized upon by politicians and the media to say that the future is looking better, but to exhibit such fawning gratitude towards the originator of a commercial project which was designed to further enrich the already super-rich, is, to pardon the pun, a bit rich.  In order to prove their gratitude towards the little people who did the actual work, there is even a photograph of a worker in the book, head raised as if in awestruck wonder at the vision of progress that he was helping to build all thanks to the far-sighted vision and generosity of the Rockefellers. One whole photograph.  Ain’t that nice?

Perhaps a more accurate indication of the Rockefeller’s attitude towards the common man was best expressed in their painting over of the mural commissioned from Diego Rivera for the Center, Man at the Crossroads, whose depiction of the potential power of working class solidarity (and an image of Lenin) didn’t really conform to the way they liked to do business.  This deliberate exercise of immense personal power to obliterate anything that might pose a challenge to them, I think, speaks volumes about the true nature of the Rockefellers. Although they pay lip-service to partnership with the people, their actions and business interests are all really designed to consume and exploit the powerless individual in the name of enriching themselves.  A few bucks thrown at some philanthropic exploit is supposed to paper over what has in reality been a very sordid history of greed, intimidation, amorality, manipulation, as well as the corruption and corrosion of democratic structures, not to mention aiding and abetting totalitarian regimes bent on world conquest.

Now I’m not saying that the photographers who were involved in producing images for The Last Rivet were in any way culpable. A paying gig is a paying gig; I’m sure that an assignment to represent what was seen as an architectural triumph would have been gratefully received by many. The photographs in the book come from a number of photographers, most notably from Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke White, although the individual images are not credited. Architectural images predominate with the main RCA building being presented over and over again. The largest image, presented as a double page spread, shows Fifth Avenue full of hustle and bustle and streets filled with traffic, which is the only image to make reference to the rest of New York city itself. The Rockefeller Center is presented as a world apart, distant from the mundane everyday of the chaos below.

The other main body of images in the book consist of the Last Rivet ceremony itself, consisting of the type of ribbon-cutting photography you’d expect see in the local paper; assorted dignitaries lined up on chairs, pompous stuffed suits and attentive crowds. A full page image at the beginning of the book even shows the man of the people, a be-suited Junior in white-gloves, doing a bit of riveting.

The photography in the book doesn’t work for me; it very much looks like what it is, a compromised mish-mash of safe images designed to flatter.  For a book that has the look of something that a lot of money was pumped into, the net result is pretty poor.  It wasn’t as if they were short of a couple of bucks to hire a graphic designer and really push the boat out and produce something really spectacular.  Some of the architectural images are ok but from the likes of Bourke-White or Berenice Abbott, I’d expect better. Apart from the velvet cover and the rivet motif, the book as a whole is quite unremarkable and, to be frank, boring. You could forgive this in part if the photography was good, but even that is, in the main, as insipid as the contents of this book.

But it’s not all bad; I do like the paper stock they printed it on.

Moi Parizh (My Paris) – Ilya Ehrenburg

Life in the shifting uncertainties of Stalinist Russia, where denunciations, arbitrary arrests and sudden changes in policies meant you could suddenly become an ‘enemy of the people’ overnight, was a nightmare that has left Russian society traumatised to this day. Primarily known as a writer, journalist and poet, the twists and turns of the left-leaning Ehrenburg’s personal history should have meant a one-way trip to the Gulag but he seems to have managed to chart the treacherous waters of Stalinism with aplomb, and, unlike many of his literary contemporaries who tended to end up in a muddy Siberian grave, he was acclaimed and valorised before being allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil in 1967 at the ripe old age (for a Stalinist literary figure) of 76.

His international reputation and the fact that he was living in Paris probably helped to keep Ehrenburg out of the Gulag, but Stalin had a long reach (as Trotsky found out in Mexico) and being a Soviet writer was a dangerous game. To survive well into old age under Stalinism required a certain kind of flexibility and moral dexterity, involving the loss of all sense of personal integrity or morals, an ability to change your opinions in an instant, ratting your colleagues and workmates out before they did the same to you as well as being prepared to snitch on your friends and family to the secret police. Terror and fear poisoned everything.

It was in this context that Ilya Ehrenburg published My Paris, a study in words and images of the underbelly of that great city. Published by the State publisher Izogiz in 1933, and designed by El Lissitzky, (this copy is the faithfully reproduced Steidl reprint of 2005 which helpfully includes an English translation of the Russian text) My Paris is an interesting example of book design and an insight into how the Soviets viewed their proletarian brothers in the West. Ehrenburg’s familiarity with the city made him uniquely qualified to produce a Russian perspective on injustice there for a Soviet audience. This book certainly avoids the pitfalls and clichés that seduce many a chronicler of that iconic metropolis; the Eiffel tower only appears once in the background of a picture of a scruffy building site.

Ehrenburg’s introduction to the book, in which he describes how he used a right angle viewfinder attached to his Leica in order to catch them unawares as he was taking their photograph, does strike me as being rather at odds with his status as a fellow proletarian. As he boasts “I can talk about this without blushing; a writer has his own notions of honesty. Our entire life is spent peeping into windows and listening at the keyhole.”  In his defence we must also admit that he was not a professional photographer used to the rough and tumble of taking photographs on the street and certainly, from personal experience, you soon learn that street-photography can produce some ‘interesting’ reactions from the people you photograph. But this inordinate pride in deception and dishonesty that Ehrenburg displays, in my opinion, speaks volumes about his character.

Ehrenburg used his modified Leica to produce images for a book depicting what he describes as his Paris, the working class areas of the city and the poor that live there. A good portion of the images and text are taken up with depicting the better-off sections of the working class eating, drinking and enjoying themselves, which only serves to heighten the contrast with the homeless and destitute. The result is a procession of images we expect to see from a photographer documenting this kind of subject; dirty streets, comatose men sprawled in the gutter, homeless people huddled on benches, grizzled old women scowling suspiciously, shabby houses and the discarded flotsam and jetsam of material culture picked over by the poor.

Is there any empathy with the people Ehrenburg depicts in this book? I have to say that I can’t see it. Ehrenburg’s work skims over the surface of the human degradation and squalor surrounding him but he doesn’t penetrate beneath the surface of life on the margins. Even the text serves to negate Parisian poverty, describing it in a straightforward manner, showing it as a normal, accepted state of affairs with no solidarity between the different sections of the poor. The individuals in his images are presented as passive and docile. They are browbeaten, broken and selfish people, content to wallow in their bottle of cheap wine after a meal in a restaurant or collapse in the gutter.

In the climate of fear that pervaded Russian society, books just didn’t get printed by State-run publishing houses without layers of bureaucrats being satisfied about the bona fides of the author and the contents. To do otherwise was to shorten your lifespan considerably.  I would imagine that My Paris was regarded as ‘safe’ because it was interpreted by the Soviet authorities as a straightforward representation of systemic problems associated with capitalist society, such as drunkenness, homelessness and unemployment. The individuals he portrays are presented as pitiful downtrodden pawns of capitalism in contrast to the revolutionary fervour of the masses building a bright new future (under Stalin, naturally). This servile attitude is also used to explain why the Russian revolution hadn’t spread westwards across Europe; it was their own fault for being so weak and spineless. The flame lit by the Paris Commune has been passed to the workers of the Soviet Union (led by Stalin of course) who are in the vanguard of progress.

Although Ehrenburg’sbook is ostensibly about Paris, it is really being used to convince a domestic audience about the great strides being made in the Soviet Union.  The formerly revolutionary workers of Paris are no more; that mantle has been assumed by their Soviet counterparts who are now the only hope left for the working masses.

Piatiletka – Michael Farbman & Margaret Bourke White

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

The five year plan, or Piatiletka, instituted by Stalin in 1928 was his grandiose vision of transforming the Soviet Union from a backward, agricultural subsistence economy into a thriving industrial powerhouse that would rival the West. Huge resources were devoted to building up heavy industry, in many cases almost from nothing, in order to show how successful Communism was under Stalin’s leadership. However, in order to create this massive industry, Stalin needed cheap food for the people who were now going to work in the factories and the collectivisation campaign was launched. Collectivisation was designed to get rid of all the small individual farms and create massive State owned, monster farms which it was assumed would be more efficient and produce more food. (The reality was very different.) As can be imagined this traumatic upheaval in the way an entire society was organised cost a lot of people their lives, as well as laying the ground for a horrendous genocidal famine in Ukraine during 1932-33(the Holodomor) which killed millions.

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

Published in New York in 1931, this book is an outside attempt to analyse the five year plan from abroad. Obviously the Soviet authorities were keen to gloss over the negatives that were already beginning to appear in their grand plan and bedazzle gullible outsiders with meaningless statistics about total steel production and increases in productivity which were supposed to prove that everything was rosy.  This copy was an ex-library book that had been rebound in hardcover that I got cheap off the internet and its not exactly a page-turner. German and French editions were also published.

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

The only real interest in this book for me is that this is the first appearance of Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs which would later be published in 1931 as Eyes on Russia. Unfortunately Farbman’s book only reproduces four of these ‘camera studies’ so it hardly provides much of a showcase for Bourke-White’s work. Bourke-White was obviously kept on a tight leash and all the photographs are images that show how progressive the Soviet Union was becoming. Industry features in all the pictures; even the farm landscape has a tractor shown in it.

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

All this tightly controlled propaganda was designed to convince outsiders that under Stalin’s guidance, medieval Russia had been turned into a modern industrial country overnight. This message was all the more effective because this coincided with the 1930s depression and mass unemplyment in the West, making the Soviet alternative appear all the more appealing. With a reputation for her industrial work, Bourke-White would have been a perfect choice for the Soviets; her main interest would have been on factories and industry and not the backward state of the countryside or the negative aspects they wanted to sweep under the carpet. Bourke-White was unlikely to rock the boat. At this stage, she was also an ambitious young woman trying to further her career so she certainly would not have done anything to jeopardise her access to Soviet industry and would have probably been quite happy to conform to the propaganda narrative being presented to her.

Piatiletka Farbman Bourke-White

This coincidence of interests between the outside photographer (who was presented as documenting the truth) and the needs of a state propaganda machine produced a series of images which were ‘marketed’ as showing the truth behind claims of Soviet progress when in reality Bourke-White’s photographs were carefully controlled fictions of a Stalinist fantasy world that was built upon unimaginable cruelty and fear.

Erich Retzlaff – Menschen am Werk and Die von der Scholle

Erich Retzlaff is a largely forgotten German photographer thanks to his involvement with the Nazis which has rather destroyed his reputation and credibility. Retzlaff had taken up photography after returning from the First World War and first came to prominence with his book Das Antlitz Des Alters [The Face of Age] in 1930. However, thanks to the humiliation of defeat in the previous war, economic chaos and the polarisation of society between competing violent political ideologies, Germany was in complete turmoil during the 1920s and Hitler promised to restore both order and national pride when he assumed power in 1933. Like his better known contemporaries, such as Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, Paul Wolff  and Leni Riefenstahl, Retzlaff was one of many German photographers who jumped on to the Nazi bandwagon. Whether this was done for purely personal advantage or if they actually believed in the racist Nazi ideology is open to conjecture, but elements of both probably influenced their decision to throw in their lot with the most monstrous of the 20th century’s evil regimes. Whatever the motivation, in 1933 Retzlaff  nailed his colours to the mast and produced Wegbereiter und Vorkämpfer für das neue Deutschland (Pioneers and Champions of the new Germany), a series of portraits of the Nazi big-wigs who now ran the show. (See here for more information about Retzlaff’s legacy.)

Prior to that, in 1931, Retzlaff published two books, Die von der Scholle (Those who till the soil) and Menschen am Werk (People at work), heavily nationalistic bodies of work, published as part 1 and part 2 of the Deutschen Menschen (German People) series. Even though these books predate the Nazi takeover by a couple of years, Retzlaff’s images were clearly appreciated by Hitler’s cronies and probably indicate that he already shared much of their worldview. Like Lendvai-Dircksen, the ultimate effect of Retzlaff’s photography was to present the Germans as an exceptional race. Racist thinking was not just a product of Nazi rule. Racism has deep roots and it was used throughout the nineteenth century by most European countries to justify colonial rule throughout much of the world. It was the late nineteenth century application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to humanity that appeared to offer a ‘scientific’ excuse for unbelievable levels of cruelty and exploitation that much of European prosperity was based upon.

Like many of Lendvai-Dircksen’s works, in Die von der Scholle, Retzlaff presents us with a vision of timeless agricultural harmony; of peasants living contendly on the land which is clearly in line with the heavily romanticised Volkish sentimentality that the Nazis incorporated into much of their ideological thinking.  This is a pre-industrial landscape and no aspect of twentieth century life is permitted to disturb Retzlaff’s photographs of rugged peasants who clearly belong to a different century. The traditional constumes many of the men and women he depicts places these people as belonging to an exceptional group and provides a stark contrast to the decadent excesses of 1920s Berlin that the Nazis despised.

Backward, rural, conservative society was seen as the repository of the true power of the German people. Retzlaff provides us with a fantasy world populated by racially pure people, or Volk, unsullied by outsiders and living in wholesome communion with the land. Ultimately this was used as justification for murder on a scale that is impossible to comprehend. After all, how else but through genocide could you possibly ensure that the purity of the German race would remain uncontaminated?

Menschen am Werk was published in the same year and in this volume Retzlaff turns his attention to people at work. This was particularly resonant in the context of the 1930s a time of mass unemployment, which ultimately undermined Weimar democracy, and led to the emergence of Hitler. One of the first tasks the Nazis had to do was create the jobs they had promised and restore the pride associated with the mythical German work-ethic both on a personal and national level.

If the countryside was seen as the repository of racial purity, then industry was the ultimate source of power that could restore Germany’s rightful place in the world.  German heavy industry would soon be charged with one task; to produce weapons to reassert German power over Europe and Retzlaff’s heroic workers are the representatives of this racialy pure group, through whose toil the Nazis would soon attempt to conquer the world.

Without the overt signs of Nazism this pictorial propaganda is even more insidious and effective. While both swastikas or pictures of the Fuhrer are absent from the pages of both books it is impossible to separate these images from the twisted ideology that used brutal conquest, the enslavement of both people and countries, as well as mass-murder and genocide, in order to protect and perfect a so-called master race that was supposedly destined to rule the world.