SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 163 November 2012

Moving pictures

Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s

To 13 January 2013

Barbican Art Gallery, London

Reviewed by Niall Mulholland

SCENES OF tribesmen newly recruited to mine labour, nervously awaiting processing and assignment. Black South African miners in starkly primitive hostels. Families subsisting in tiny Soweto shacks. These images from the mining town of Randfontein during the apartheid-era 1960s and 1970s are part of the Barbican Art Gallery’s major exhibition, Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s.

While recording life some 40 or 50 years ago, these images could pass for today’s mining communities in Rustenburg and elsewhere in South Africa. The old apartheid state may be gone, but the cold-blooded shooting by police of 34 striking Lonmin miners in Marikana on 16 August 2012 showed that a ruthless regime of capitalism remains.

As well as South Africa, the exhibition of over 400 works surveys the various political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s: from the southern United States during the civil rights struggle, to the Vietnam war, to the ‘cultural revolution’ in Mao Zedong’s China. The plight of indigenous people in Mexico is sensitively portrayed by Graciela Iturbide, as is the vibrant social life of the poor in Mali by Malick Sidibe.

Harrowing shots of bear-fighting in Afghanistan indicate how little has changed for the millions of Afghanis who continue to be mired in desperate rural poverty. Raghubir Singh broke from colonial depictions to show a vast India of the teeming multitudes from many perspectives. The Ukrainian-based photographer, Boris Mikailov, deployed a conceptual approach to satirise Stalinist rule and its attendant so-called ‘socialist realism’.

Many photographers regard this as a golden age for their craft, when the medium developed as a modern art form. New technology aided western photographers to work independently of the mainstream press. Some of the works at the Barbican are by those who often secretly and at great personal risk undertook to record life in very repressive societies, such as Li Zhensheng in China, and Ernest Cole in South Africa.

The exhibition curator, Kate Bush, poses the question: "In the early 21st century, are we finally prepared to erase the distinction between art photography and documentary photography?" In her view, "photography does not merely illustrate the world, it articulates it".

But that picture is partial. While the exhibition gives an excellent window on aspects of the post-war neo-colonial world and of civil rights struggles in the US, its main shortcoming is the lack of photographic coverage of mass class struggles during the same period. The May-June 1968 general strike in France, the revolutionary struggles that finished off military dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1970s, the big upsurge in strikes in Britain and other western countries in the same decade: unfortunately, none of these events or aspects of those societies during those tumultuous times are depicted. Even thematically linked events, like the civil rights struggle in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 70s, are missing.

Also absent are periods of ferment in former Stalinist countries, including the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in reaction to the reforms of Alexander Dubcek in 1968, and the 1970-71 uprising by workers in Poland. These events led sections of the working class and intellectuals to consider an alternative to Stalinism, towards the overthrow of the ruling bureaucracy and the introduction of workers’ democracy and management of a planned economy.

Yet, for all these omissions, this is an exhibition that is well worth visiting. It starts with David Goldblatt’s many portraits of mining towns, where poverty and repression saturate everything. He also examines isolated South African white communities in Some Afikaners Photographed.

Alongside Goldblatt’s works, are a fascinating collection of ‘recently discovered’ prints by the black South African, Ernest Cole. During the apartheid regime, many black photographers were persecuted and jailed but Cole was somehow able to convince the Race Classification Board that he was ‘coloured’ and not ‘black’. He photographed the everyday discrimination and brutality of South Africa in House of Bondage (1967), a landmark account of life under apartheid. A railway platform scene, where masses of black people dangerously crowd, waiting to get into packed train carriages, while a small number of whites stroll about in ample space waiting to board the better-class carriages, depicts in microcosm the searing injustice and humiliation of the apartheid system.

Bruce Davidson’s Time of Change (1961-65) depicts the civil rights struggles in the US of black workers and students, joined by radicalised whites, against racial segregation and the racist Jim Crow code. The celebrated bus journey of the ‘Freedom Riders’ from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, honours the activists’ bravery in the teeth of police repression and the attacks of white thugs. The outstanding leaders of the revolt of the oppressed are captured vividly. Malcolm X speaks to ghetto youth and workers in New York and Martin Luther King Junior addresses huge crowds in Washington DC.

While the exhibition cites the introduction of civil rights reforms due to mass struggles, segregation on economic lines continues today, as does police racism. A chasm divides slain leaders like King and Malcolm X, who both questioned the rule of capitalism and the integral part that racism plays within it, and US president, Barack Obama, whose allegiance to capitalism has seen the biggest fall in living conditions for black workers in the US since the 1930s.

The Vietnam war, another hugely radicalising event in the US and globally, is powerfully portrayed by Larry Burrow’s coloured photographs, many of which are lodged into popular consciousness. Harrowing pictures of the human consequences of indiscriminate US army attacks sit beside images of exhausted, wounded and demoralised young American conscripts. The parallels with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are unavoidable.

The ‘black and white aesthetic’ of Shomei Tomatsu relays the terrible physical and psychological consequences of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at the close of the second world war and the US military occupation of Okinawa. The ‘godfather’ of modern Japanese photography rails against the baleful influence of American capitalism on Japanese culture.

The Chinese photographer, Li Zhensheng, provides some of the largest and smallest canvasses in the exhibition, as he catalogues the cultural revolution (1966-76). The exhibition commentary correctly describes this violent and turbulent Maoist ‘revolution’ as representing essentially a struggle between contending factions of the ruling Communist Party and bureaucracy, in which the masses were mere pawns. Li Zhensheng’s wall-sized images of seemingly enthusiastic mass meetings of workers and peasants in the far northeast of China, belie the fact that many were coerced to attend to hear ritual denunciations of ‘revisionists’ by sections of the local ruling bureaucracy.

Around 3,000 negatives, some no bigger than thumb-size, were also secretly buried by Li Zhensheng. Recovered decades later, the photographs convey everyday life in the streets and workplaces in a repressive, one-party state. Most poignant are the personal domestic images of Li Zhensheng and his young family during this fearful time.

The works in Everything Was Moving effectively transmit to the visitor the photographers’ genuine anger at injustice, inequality and oppression. They are mainly direct and personal responses to immediate situations. Yet, taken as a whole, the exhibition captures something of the radical and revolutionary character of the globally-linked events of the 1960s and 1970s. This resonates strongly with today’s world of deepening economic, political and social crisis.

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