The face of the masses, the gaze of the masses

New matrixes of historical consciousness in inter-war Europe

15 February 2012
Only in en
The objectively perceived mass with its collective "face", formless and thus formable? Or the mass as a subjective entity, endowed with a perceptual apparatus of its own? The drama of the Weimar Republic unfolded between these two poles, writes Stefan Jonsson.

“Power struggle has assumed new forms,” wrote Ernst Jünger in his introduction to a compilation of photographs published in 1933. Jünger and his editor Edmund Schultz were groping for the zeitgeist with this impressive selection of thematically arranged images, accompanied by striking captions. They called the book “The transformed world: A picture album of our time” (Die veränderte Welt: Eine Bilderfibel unserer Zeit). Why had the world been transformed? Because photography and mass media had provided a new matrix to which politics and society had to adapt. And politics, according to Jünger in his introduction, was always about power struggle.

Or, as one caption in the book announced, “intensification of optical and acoustic means provides the political will with unexpected possibilities”. Underlying the statement was a conviction that current realities would soon be outdone by new “means”. Jünger argued that the advent of photography made a certain kind of politics obsolete. “Today, a reasonable objection against a politician is that he looks ugly in photos.” He went on to imply that the parliamentary system was outdated because its reality could not be captured in a snapshot, and because extended negotiations in the house’s subcommittees made for boring cinema.

Photographic media favoured a different set of political forms. The pictures chosen by Jünger and Schultz left no room for doubt as to the kind of politics that harmonized best with optical and acoustic innovations. The captions, too, were unequivocal. One of them stated: “Disarmament? What the prophets of liberalism have not predicted: the voluntary entry into uniform.” This caption referred to two images, one featuring a “workers’ parade in Moscow”, the other showing SA-militia hailing the swastika. Such were the new forms of mass power nourished by mass media. For Jünger and Schultz, there was an obvious relation between the media through which society was visually represented and the forms in which society was organized politically. In so far as photography was a mass medium, it was also a medium that prompted the masses to emerge as the visible substance of society. According to Jünger, the camera revealed that history had left individuality behind; what was emerging instead were new human types now wearing the masks of various kinds of masses. Their subjective action and facial and bodily appearance were wholly subordinated to a larger collective aim and perspective.

Die veränderte Welt was just one among many similar publications describing inter-war society as being dominated by the masses. The masses that we encounter in these works should be seen as phantasms or allegories expressing the difficulty of providing a coherent representation – be it scholarly, theoretical, political, narrative, visual, or otherwise – of society in a situation of disintegration and conflict. This difficulty was be resolved in two opposing ways, each corresponding to a certain social image or metaphor. In the case of Jünger and Schultz, the metaphor in question was simply “the face of the mass”, indicating that the mass appeared as an object in the field of vision of someone perceiving it from a distance, which corresponds to what German sociologist Theodor Geiger called the “optical mass”. In other texts or works of art, equally preoccupied with the masses, a different idea prevailed: here, the masses were endowed with a perceptual apparatus and subjectivity of their own, sometimes metaphorically expressed as the masses having vision, eye and gaze.

One section of Jünger and Schultz’s album is thus entitled “The changing face of the mass”. Photos display marching masses and working masses, masses in combat, in the factory and on the beach, as well as masses playing sport and masses mourning and parading. In short, they show different types of human mass formation, each with its own pattern of appearance, its own facial traits. But the images also reveal how the camera, far from being a neutral medium, is rather an active force in front of which people form themselves into new designs. What Siegfried Kracauer called “mass ornament” comes across as a product of the camera and related regimes of specular manipulation and expansion. Describing the relation between the camera and the crowd in the inter-war period, Jeffrey Schnapp has shown how illustrated mass media excelled in so-called mass panoramas. The photographer’s angle choreographed the crowd and made it fit “the frame, the grid, the geometry of the page, the edit and cut. Politically disciplined by the leader, the crowd [was] pictorially disciplined through photomontage.” The point was often to render the crowd as an oceanic force of nature, yet one that was contained and controlled, and for this purpose traces of individuality and internal difference were erased. Through the distant camera lens, individual faces vanished and the bodies of the now faceless individuals merged into a new, composite face.

That the mass had a face, and that its face changed as you moved from marching columns of soldiers to workers lined up along the conveyor belt, from the passersby on Kurfürstendamm to spectators in the sports arena, was a discovery of the 1920s. The faces of the masses seen in Jünger and Schultz’s collection vary from the amorphous multitude to the uniformed army. The face of the mass may thus be swarming, anarchic, and uncontrollable. But it may also be obedient and ordered, constituting a social resource prepared to follow any command issued by leaders cunning and competent enough to direct them. Two different faces, one firmly unified, the other with fuzzy contours – yet, both are observed from, if not constituted by, a point of view far away from the men and women in the crowd. When Jünger and Schultz pointed at “the face of the mass”, they referred not to the faces of the individuals in the mass but to the greater collective face, in which the face of the single human being is but a small component.

In a previous era – between, say, the French Revolution and World War One – the mass was usually described as faceless and anonymous, as a changeable horde, herd or swarm. Its most characteristic trait was its lack of traits. Since the mass was described as a phenomenon produced by common affects, governed by passions and instincts, it was also seen as acting without volition or rationality. For the same reason, it was typically described as passive and reactive, owning no inherent principle of formation, no firm definition or identity. Affirming the idea that the mass as such lacks form, Jünger and Schultz at the same time emphasized that it could be given any form. Because of its reactive character, the mass was an ideal object of leadership and visionary guidance. That is to say that, once it is viewed and organized by some external agent, the mass attains form, its face is developed, its identity clarified. In speaking of “the changing face of the mass,” Jünger and Schultz noted that the mass looked different depending on the regime that commanded it and the optical means through which it appeared.

Two years earlier, Schultz had published a similar book of documentary photographs. Interestingly, it was called “The Face of Democracy” (Das Gesicht der Demokratie). The villain in Schultz’s earlier book is liberalism and the system of parliamentary democracy – that is, the Weimar republic as a political project. The hero is the German spirit, embodied above all by the Kampfbünde, militias and paramilitary groups operating in uniform at the fringes of legality and involving an extensive part of the non-unionized male population. A long introductory essay, written by Jünger’s younger brother Friedrich Georg, describes Weimar as an interregnum, a time of “emperorlessness” (Kaiserlosigkeit), a period between rulers. Parliamentary democracy had resulted only in anarchy, Friedrich Georg Jünger claimed. He and Schultz instead promoted that they called “guided democracy”, or Führerdemokratie, by which they understand a form of quasi-mystical sovereignty invested in the nation and its leader. In their view, the face of democracy was of two kinds. The first entailed the politicization of the masses and the organization of the people into parties and voters, a process they thought had weakened the state and the nation in Germany. The second was Führerdemokratie, that is, the unmediated transubstantiation of nation and people into the authority of the state. Photos of chaotic crowd scenes and portraits of individual “traitors” symbolized the first face of democracy in Friedrich Georg Jünger and Schultz’s book. Photos of armed militiamen in columns – groups called Stahlheim, Wehrwolf and Reichsflagge – show the second face of democracy.

It may seem strange that Schultz and the Jüngers, devoting as they did so many pictures and pages to the “face of the masses” and “the face of democracy”, never once asked whether this face also had eyes to see with. Considering that all three endorsed a fascist worldview, however, it is hardly surprising. Those who trusted the mass to have perceptual capacities of its own were usually artists and intellectuals accustomed to viewing society from a point of view level with the asphalt. They recognized that the mass had vision and gaze. They also argued that the mass was able to assume its own perspective on the world, and to judge and act as a political subject.

To look at the face of the mass, or assume the gaze of the mass? These are merely metaphors. Yet, if one would unpack their contents, one would get a measure of the stakes involved in the struggle for a fitting political and aesthetic representation of Weimar’s culture of crowds. To clarify the difference between the two metaphors is to identify the extreme poles between which the discourse of the masses was suspended in this period. Between these options, indeed, the drama of the Weimar republic played out.

Can we picture a seeing collective? A mass equipped with optical gaze, perhaps even a complete apparatus of perception? As a vast laboratory for aesthetic and ideological experiments, the Weimar Republic also fabricated complex designs for the perceptual machinery of the collective. Two historical conditions were necessary for this idea to emerge. The first had to do with the process of production and the division of labour: the factory system had shown how to organize numerous individuals according to a common logic, so that they all contributed to the same end. The second had to do with the new media situation, which made it possible to produce messages and images on a mass scale and to disseminate them to a mass audience whose members received and experienced them simultaneously. The first is a case of collective production of material things, the second a case of collective reception of signs and images.

If these two processes were connected, the outcome would be a comprehensive process of social representation, as envisioned by those who acknowledged that the masses had their own perspective and perceptual apparatus. The result, that is, would be a process in which the collective was author of the media and its contents, and at the same time its recipient or addressee. In this process, we encounter a collective representing itself in a form adapted to its own senses. Whatever the medium employed, it would be configured so as to record and transmit the contents perceived by the gaze of the masses, and to do this in such a way that the masses would apprehend these contents as a truthful representation of their situation. Or, in less technical terms: society represents itself to itself.

How did the masses obtain eyes, and what might such a proposition mean? A key person in this context was Willi Münzenberg, the media genius of the German labour movement, perhaps the greatest in all Weimar Germany. In 1924, Münzenberg founded a weekly magazine, the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ). It aimed to break the indoctrination of the labour movement by the bourgeois press. Like all popular media of the period, the AIZ featured the photographic image, which was believed to possess unique and advantageous properties for instruction and propaganda, all the more so if one wanted to reach an audience with poor education and literacy. The AIZ encountered serious problems, however. The editors had to rely on existing commercial photo agencies. The photographs provided by these agencies rarely touched upon the realities of working-class life that the AIZ sought to cover. There was also the risk that agencies would boycott or refuse to do business with the AIZ, since the workers’ magazine deprived commercial magazines of a segment of the market. After all, the AIZ was a successful project – at the end of the 1920s its circulation surpassed half a million copies – and a serious challenger of the hegemony of the bourgeois illustrated press.

The solution to all these problems, Münzenberg concluded, was to create a pool of photographers supplying the magazine with the pictures it needed. In March 1926, the AIZ arranged a competition among its readers for the best photographic depictions of working-class life:

The illustrated magazine is the paper of the future […] today the biggest bourgeois publishers announce that in a few months time there will be no German newspapers without illustrations, that the illustrated papers will soon achieve the circulation of existing dailies. A whole organization of press agencies for photographers has already appeared. Just as the capitalist news agencies shower the dailies with tendentious news about the world, so the bourgeois press photographic agencies create a wealth of pictures to influence the masses with capitalist and bourgeois viewpoints. Pictures from the life of the proletariat are unknown and aren’t produced […]. This gap has to be filled. The workers have to keep abreast of new developments. The big expansion of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung shows the importance of reporting political, social and cultural life with text and pictures. But we openly admit that the AIZ has not always been able to achieve its self-imposed aim, because we found it impossible to obtain the necessary picture material. The Neuer deutscher Verlag [the publishers of AIZ] has therefore decided to call upon its readership, the whole of the working population, to help it achieve this aim.

The editors called for five categories of motif: “1. Photographs typifying the workers’ revolutionary movement; 2) photographs typifying the workers’ social conditions; 3) so-called genre-motifs, which provide good insight into all phases of the workers’ everyday life; 4) photographs from work places which clearly reveal the conditions of labour and its environment; 5) photographs demonstrating modern technology and its ways of functioning; industrial buildings and their construction.” The AIZ concluded the instructions for its competition: “The task is not easy and not to be underestimated. You must courageously capture the beauty in your own work, as well as the terrifying aspects of social misery.”

The response was overwhelming – so much so that the magazine soon founded an amateur organization for the camera-owning part of the working class, Vereinigung der Arbeiter Fotografen Deutschlands, the German Association of Worker Photographers. At its peak in 1931, the organization counted 2412 members, divided into more than a hundred local branches. The association launched its own printed forum, which soon developed into an ambitious magazine in its own right, with the untiring support of Münzenberg. It is this magazine, Der Arbeiter-Fotograf, that, issue by issue, allows us to follow how the mass grows eyes of its own, equipping itself with an apparatus of perception and photographic recording, which brings into being hitherto unexplored ways of representing society, as well as representations of social spaces until then unexplored. The magazine amounts to no less than a new aesthetic education of its readers, who begin to develop their own aesthetics of representation in order to transgress the boundaries of the public arena.

The process may be observed on several levels. When it came to basic practical skills, Der Arbeiter-Fotograf offered education and advice on the technique and equipment needed in order to produce photographs. The association negotiated discounts with camera and film manufacturers for its members and the magazine provided recommendations on which cameras to choose: Leica, Foth-Derby, Korelle, Mentor Drei-Vier, Pupille or Kolibri? The magazine also gave hands-on advice on how to take pictures, develop film, and make copies, as well as on how to repair damaged negatives and store developed film.

On a second level, Der Arbeiter-Fotograf provided its readers with a sociological inventory of the contemporary world, naming obscure parts of society that the worker photographer should approach and capture. Most important were motifs and topics from the life of the working class, for the simple reason that these realities were absent from the worldview of the bourgeois press; yet the magazine did not fail to mention seemingly trivial topics such as the potato harvest and the playground. Of course, this ambition also demonstrated a political tendency: to show the unseen; and to depict what had for long been pushed outside the frame.

Der Arbeiter-Fotograf also contained articles on how the proletarian photographer should try to influence politics in a more direct sense, for instance by documenting police violence and actions of right-wing militias. “The police must be policed,” wrote Walter Nettelbeck in an article that outlined the principles for a new journalism. Nettelbeck explained to worker photographers how to establish proper reporter teams, in order to get out the latest news before anyone else. These teams were to consist of four groups. Group One: a mobile troupe of carefully positioned photographers able to follow a demonstration or some other political event from beginning to end. Group Two: posted on the first floor in houses along the demonstration’s itinerary, making sure to occupy windows with a free view onto the street. Group Three: well-trained darkroom personnel. Group Four: bicycle couriers delivering film rolls from photographers to darkroom, and developed prints from darkroom to the press. And all this in accordance with the slogan: “You tell well, only if you tell fast!”

On yet another level, Der Arbeiter-Fotograf expressed an ethical thrust. An intention to humanize the worker by emphasizing his or her righteousness, beauty, and dignity was explicit on almost every page. The magazine contained an aesthetic didactic, most pertinently revealed in gallery sections featuring photographs taken by famous professionals such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Tina Modotti and John Heartfield, exhibited as so many models to be emulated. Heartfield, it should be added, also did most of the covers for the parent magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung. In addition, the magazine included articles on the principles of photomontage and photograms, and the relation between photography and painting, thereby seeking to explain how modernist techniques should be “functionally transformed” into weapons in the class struggle, while warning that technical experimentation could divert into futile aestheticism.

A recurring section was called “Picture criticism”, which consisted of illustrated analyses of good and bad photographs. In this context, Der Arbeiter-Fotograf also gave instructions on how to photograph crowds and mass demonstrations so as to avoid reducing the participants to anonymous bodies and swarming ants. The worker photographers were encouraged to choose the camera angle, distance, and cropping techniques that reproduced the event and the protesting people in ways that were true to their own perspective. The preferred technique was the close-up. Should the photographer chose a panoramic perspective, he or she was not to look down on the crowd but seek to exalt it.

Der Arbeiter-Fotograf thus offered an entire curriculum for amateur photographers: elementary advice on technical issues and optics, a sociology of German society to help find the proper subjects, a call for political commitment, lessons in the ethics of photography, lessons in aesthetic composition of images, and outlines for efficacious photojournalism. Such were the different steps in what Franz Höllering, editor of Der Arbeiter-Fotograf, called “the conquest of the machines of observation”. Once accomplished, this conquest would yield a new eye, or mode of vision, which no longer observed “the face of the masses” from afar, or transformed the working classes into optical masses, but which was an organ of the masses themselves. After all, the proletarian and the bourgeois have different senses, as Edwin Hoernle argued in one of his articles for the magazine. The world looked different depending on what one’s eyes had been trained to perceive, and this training largely corresponded to one’s class. What the one registers sharply is hazy for the other. Hence the importance of technical and organizational apparatuses able to register, enlarge and disseminate what the worker’s eye was able to see. Attaining its own instrument of visual perception, the mass would then cease being a mass and transform itself into a seeing collective. “We are the eye of our class and we teach our brothers to use their eyes!” Hoernle exhorted. This is how Der Arbeiter-Fotograf invented a collective vision, a social eye, what Hoernle called a class-eye, and what in 1922 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy had called a socialism of vision. The result was a new mode of political and aesthetic representation.

The history of Der Arbeiter-Fotograf has usually been evoked either because of the magazine’s contribution to the development of early documentary aesthetics, or as part of labour history and the emergence of modern working-class culture in Germany, and some have even seen in it the creation of a proletarian counterculture and public sphere. However, the implications and legacy of Der Arbeiter-Fotograf go beyond the history of the documentary and the labour movement. The magazine and its photographic didactics is a concrete example of the process that Walter Benjamin had in mind when he spoke about the work of art as being absorbed by the masses, or about the importance of attaining “literacy” in matters of photography. The magazine contributed to a transformation of what Ernst Jünger had called the forms of the power struggle. Unlike the transformation embraced by Jünger, however, it emerged from below, from people themselves, who, by expanding the field of vision of journalism and culture, succeeded in representing those who had been without representation. This conquest of optical means entailed unexpected possibilities. It enabled an act of representation in which “the appearance of the mass gave way to the reality of class,” as Benjamin would later exhort. Photography had become the new form of power struggle; at stake was no less than the formation of the political consciousness and historical imagination of the German nation.

Published 15 February 2012

Original in English
First published in Ord & Bild 3/2011 (Swedish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Ord&Bild
© Stefan Jonsson / Ord & Bild / Eurozine

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