My ongoing rant about postmodernist photographic theory


Reading the image in context gives one meaning to the image (why was the author there at that time, making that picture?). Disconnecting the image from the author allows for any number of readings, all of which are valid but most of them are historically incorrect. Image reprinted from The Pittsburgh Survey (The Russell Sage Foundation, 1908-1912).

Can one dismiss postmodernism while writing about photography without devolving into a metaphysical discussion? Must one deal with questions of “the real” when attempting to understand the intellectual position of photographers? After all, most photographers would agree that their output is in no way “real,” accurate to time and place, but not an abstract representation of reality. It has been left to photographic critics to make that claim (albeit some of them also photographers, but they do not write about their own photographs).[i] What do we do with thinkers who do not fit a pattern decided by later critics? Ignore them? Lewis Hine was not, late in his career, a naïve believer in justice; his own poverty may have opened his eyes to the bourgeois fiction of moral society.[ii] But, neither had he given up on the concept, hoping it would be available to the next generation, expressed in the left fidelity of the Photo League, many of whose photographers Hine mentored.

A new school of thought emerges that convincingly ties the heroes of postmodernists, the killers of authors and destroyers of authority, to fascist thought, grounded in the continuing appropriation and counter-appropriation by the left and right of Friedrich Nietzsche. And yes, much of pre-World War II modernism, especially Dadaism and its relatives, can trace its iconoclasm to a Nietzschean “creative destruction” and destructive creativity. Nonetheless, the sociopathic and amoral “Will to Power” cannot be convincingly disconnected from Nietzschean philosophy.[iii]

There are portents. Postmodernism and its moral relativism have run their course. And if there were no greater proof, postmodernists have recently invented a term to identify awareness in the pre-World-War-II ruling classes of the existence and value of subaltern cultures. This term, proto-postmedernism, would stand as evidence of the coming paradigm shift.[iv] Otherwise, modernists who appreciated feminist, avant-garde, and African American culture between the wars must have been slumming or patronizing? Is it possible that some people actually, if naively, believed in cultural pluralism and social justice? The answer is no, if American critical studies scholars who have co-opted French counter-Enlightenment of the 1960s are to be believed. So, what do we do with a white male thinker who might have honestly, and with fidelity, believed that new immigrants and Native Americans were as 100 percent American as was he, who treated women workers as dignified, and who sought to photograph acts of cultural pluralism—in the 1910s? We should not deny the historical fact and impact of such a mind.

[i] Perhaps the best known is Allan Sekula.

[ii] A reference to Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932).

[iii] Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: ‪The Intellectual Romance With Fascism : From Nietzsche to Postmodernism‬ (Princeton Univ. Press, 2004).

[iv] For proto-postmodernism, see Patrick O’Donnell, “Modernism and Protopostmodernism” in John T. Matthews, ed., A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900–1950 (London: Blackwell, 2009), ch. 26.


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Filed under Intellectual History, Lewis Hine, postmodernism, Theory

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