BY Hito Steyerl in Features | 11 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 3

Archive in Motion

What happens to old photojournalism archives? The case of the Black Star archive reveals surprising connections to Germany and histories which foresee the future

BY Hito Steyerl in Features | 11 NOV 11

_AIZ_-Cover (No. 31), Collage: John Heartfield, 1933 (Courtesy: Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, The Heartfield Community of Heirs, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011)

Digitizing an archive tends to be understood as a shift from paper to screen. Yet the new digital order often leaves behind an obsolete and cumbersome material surplus, like the telephone directory or the library card catalogue. An exception is the photojournalism archive, which can accumulate thousands of photographs used to illustrate news stories before digitization. While old telephone books and card catalogues are easily discarded in the recycling bin, defunct photographic prints still have value, although the same images now circulate digitally if they are reprinted. Since the images remain subject to copyright, the old paper prints are doubly defunct: no longer used and no longer allowed to appear in public without permission. Many photojournalism analogue archives are being put out to pasture in public institutions where they can at least be exhibited and studied. To air its archive in occasional exhibitions, Der Spiegel established a cooperation in 2006 with Deichtorhallen Hamburg Haus der Fotografie. The New York photo agency Black Star sold its old prints to an anonymous collector, who donated them in 2005 to Toronto’s Ryerson University, which in turn will make them accessible to the public next year in a new gallery and research centre.

Black Star offers an interesting case study, since the defunct analogue archive’s recent move from New York to Toronto is not its sole displacement. Many people view archives as paper fortresses of the 20th century: physical locations which hold and store historical information. Digitization is associated with greater accessibility, if not the end of the fortress. But archives have always been boundless and in a certain sense even ecstatic: they are set outside of themselves. They do not completely contain their contents but continually spill over their edges and leak out. As information circulates and spreads, this dissemination does not indicate a lack but rather is a defining characteristic, especially for a photo agency, which redistributes photographs for publication. In the case of Black Star, this circulation is extensive and requires rethinking of traditional notions of the archive even before digitization. However still, the photographs have always been on the move: travelling not only along the official paths from photojournalists to the agency and to publications but also far off the beaten track. Furtive displacements destabilize the foundations of the archive but paradoxically give the photographs another life.

Now, now / Come on, let’s get some of that stuff 
It’s there for you and me / For every he and she – 
Lena Horne, ‘Now!’

In 1965, the Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez made a seminal short film Now! The topic: the Civil Rights movement in the United States. In his montage, Álvarez used some newsreel footage but relied predominantly on black and white photographs from American magazines to show white police violence and the non-violent resistance of African Americans. Unlike Chris Marker’s solemn La jetée (The Jetty, 1962), Now! is a dynamic film set to the rousing tunes of Lena Horne’s song ‘Now!’ (1963). The film was honoured with a Golden Dove prize at the 14th International Leipzig Documentary and Short Film Week in 1965 and subsequently praised as a powerful piece of agitprop and, decades later, as the first music video. As the images flow effortlessly, it seems as if none of them could ever again be fixed, captured or immobilized. Through Álvarez’s skilled montage, even still subjects seem to evade arrest, like the middle-aged woman activist who in one scene can be seen losing her shoes, kicking and struggling to resist detention.

All of the material in Now! was pirated, and many of the photographs originated with the Black Star agency and its photographers. Álvarez intercepted many images in the early 1960s as they appeared in the weekly illustrated news magazine Life, one of the agency’s main clients. By appropriating and integrating the photographic prints into his filmic montage, Álvarez made them dynamic – truly moving images – and released them back into the world in a different form. But the photographs also lost a link to their own production history. As Allan Sekula argues in ‘Reading an Archive’, his contribution to The Photography Reader (2003), photographs are severed from their context within capitalist image economies and are left open to any kind of reinterpretation. Reconstructing this context – superimposing the historical context onto the present – provides an alternative genealogy for the practices of both the agency and the filmmaker.

The moment the material from the Black Star photo agency was appropriated, two distinct archival orders became manifest as well as a clash between them. At first glance, the difference could hardly be more pronounced: on the one hand, the capitalist economy of an American photo agency; on the other, the pirate economy of Cuban Third Cinema filmmaking. The initial viewing publics – readers of Life and viewers at the Leipzig film festival – highlight the conflict between capitalist and socialist systems, if not the Cold War itself. But if we take a closer look at the points of contact, the differences become somewhat more mobile and fluid. They become, so to speak, active in themselves, as they reorganize meaning across oppositional fronts. Upon closer inspection, the Black Star photographs in Now! begin to reveal their own histories of displacement and conflict, and this includes the displacement of the archive itself. The paper fortress – a static archeion (literally, a house of the powerful) – turns out to be based on dispersion, circulation, dislocation and conflict.

The Song and the Agency

One of the most recognizable photographs from the Black Star archive appears in Now! when Horne sings ‘I went and took a look / In my old history book’. The image is the late Charles Moore’s iconic shot of police dogs attacking a demonstrator in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963. In this precise moment, several histories are superimposed: not only the event recorded by the photograph but also the history of the song, the film, the photographer, his agency and the archive itself. Each of these stories is located within a different economy of traffic and exchange; together, they provide a powerful glimpse of the present.

The oldest of these histories belongs to Horne’s ‘Now!’, which is based on the traditional Hebrew song ‘Hava Nagila’ (Let us rejoice), itself a wordless Hasidic melody that originated in Bukovina (present-day Ukraine). Avraham Zvi Idelsohn transcribed the score in 1915 when he was a bandmaster in the Ottoman army and added lyrics in 1919 to celebrate the Balfour declaration calling for a Jewish homeland. ‘Hava Nagila’ had universal appeal and by the 1950s was a standard at Harry Belafonte’s concerts. In 1963, the Broadway songwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden penned lyrics for Horne in support of the Civil Rights movement, and Jule Styne set them to ‘Hava Nagila’. In Cuba, the activist Robert F. Williams gave Álvarez ‘Now!’, which inspired his eponymous film. It seems fitting that Álvarez chose not only Horne’s song but also Moore’s Birmingham photograph. After the clashes of May 1963, Horne joined Belafonte, James Baldwin and others in Birmingham to discuss the violence with then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

The Black Star analogue archive holds yet another history of legislated inequality. The archive is comprised of the photographic holdings of the Black Star photo agency founded by Ernest Mayer, Kurt Safranski and Kurt Kornfeld in 1936 in New York. Mauritius, its precursor, was established by Mayer in Berlin in 1929, the year when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression was unleashed. After the Nazi party took power, Mayer and many of his colleagues had to flee Germany because they were Jewish. Since emigration laws prohibited Jews from taking money with them, Mayer took a part of his archive instead when he left the country in 1935. These photographs formed the basis of a new agency, founded from the outset on personal and geographic dislocation.

One defining advantage helped secure a swift integration into professional life in New York: Mayer, Safranski and Kornfeld knew many European émigré photographers and knew how to produce visually appealing photo essays. As Cynthia Zoe Smith writes in Emigré Photography in America (1984), ‘The Black Star photographers, who produced photographs for Life magazine, in turn, applied their knowledge of German photojournalistic practices in their work, thus creating another channel though which these ideas were carried across cultural boundaries.’ Back in Germany, these practices had been influenced by, among other sources, leftist magazines like Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung or AIZ (The Workers Pictorial Newspaper). The charismatic editor Willi Münzenberg (a.k.a. ‘The Red Millionaire’) published photo stories and photomontages by worker-photographers and developed a trademark photographic aesthetic making AIZ the period’s most popular communist picture magazine. According to his own 1931 assessment, Münzenberg established a network of 2,500 worker-photographers active in 96 branches. A most prominent contributor was John Heartfield, whose agitprop photomontages came to define the magazine’s aesthetics. AIZ’s influence on German photojournalism was decisive. As Smith notes, AIZ gradually introduced photography as an element of everyday life through the democratization of the practice.

The avant-garde design also trickled down and influenced the visual design of more commercially oriented publications. In this context, the Black Star founders developed skills, which came to be in high demand in the United States of the 1930s. Thus, a much more mainstream aesthetic – whose ties to German avant-garde positions were no longer evident – found enthusiastic customers at Life, the most important American photo magazine, which was founded in 1936. The overtly communist aesthetics of AIZ were radically rearticulated for the pages of Life. By the 1960s, when Moore’s photograph was printed, Life dedicated half of its available space 
to advertisements for consumer products.

These aesthetics were once again subverted when Álvarez recontextualized the images for Now! He may not have realized that his own strategies were somehow connected to the European origins of the Life spreads, let alone those of Horne’s ‘Now!’ While influenced by Heartfield’s montage aesthetics for AIZ, Álvarez seemed to glimpse the future by combining travelling images with travelling music. Almost by accident, the moving stills in Now! came to provide a template for different visual practices: not only the agitprop short and the music video but also the hybrid copy-and-paste artist video and the DIY YouTube clip whose relevance for our current era cannot be underestimated. It should come as no surprise that Now! circulates today on YouTube, among countless DIY offspring.

Photographers and Pirates

Charles Moore photographed Henry Lee Shambry being attacked by police dogs on 3 May 1963 during the Birmingham Campaign against racial segregation. In total, 16 of his photographs – including the image appropriated by Álvarez – appeared in 17 May issue of Life as part of the 11-page spread ‘Ominous Spectacle of Birmingham’. The dog attack – shown in three shots – looks like a film sequence. As the campaign of non-violent protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. grew in intensity, so did police violence, organized by police commissioner Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, who gave the order to use attack dogs and water hoses against demonstrators. Moore’s photographs of these and other events swayed public opinion in favour of the Civil Rights movement, even though Life published the pictures of Shambry with the biased caption: ‘The Dogs’ Attack is Negroes’ Reward.’ By 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, outlawing segregation in the US. Moore’s photographs have since become historical documents, imprinted upon the American consciousness.

Álvarez was not the only pirate. Andy Warhol noticed Moore’s photographs, although his appropriation had other consequences – at least according to John Kaplan’s online biography ‘Powerful Days: Charles Moore’s Life Photographs 1958-1965’, which is worth quoting in full: ‘One morning in 1964, Howard Chapnick and his wife, Jeanette, were eating breakfast when the Black Star chief noticed a Time magazine article about Warhol’s latest work. Chapnick immediately recognized that one of the featured paintings, Red Race Riot [1963], was a slightly altered silkscreen of Moore’s photograph. “Howard has eagle eyes. He might not remember what he had for breakfast but never forgets a picture,” said his wife. The painting was a clear copyright violation without credit to either Moore or the agency. Chapnick insisted that Moore go personally to Warhol’s studio to confront him. Not comfortable negotiating with the flamboyant artist and his assistant, Moore settled for two flower prints and Warhol’s promise that he would be credited whenever the painting was reproduced. Later it was found that the flower series had itself been appropriated from a photograph in a Burpee seed catalogue. In the years to come, Warhol failed to follow through on his promise of crediting the photograph, and both Black Star and Moore sold their flower prints soon after obtaining them. The Warhol [work] was not considered an appropriate match for the famous news photos adorning the walls at Black Star. “It had no place [there]. We sold it and had a lot of trouble getting rid of it. I think we got $250 for it,” said Jeanette Chapnick.’

Warhol’s ‘Race Riot’ series (1963–4) consists of different collaged reproductions of Moore’s spread in Life. Little Race Riot (1964) is tinted in the colours of the American flag: red, white, blue. While some interpreted this choice as a political comment, Warhol stated that he had found the pictures interesting. In his work, 
they occupy the same position as the appropriated images of car crashes or other arbitrary mass media images of urban violence. Warhol’s versions of Moore’s photographs thus highlight a different aspect of the pictures: their mass reproducibility and circulation. They also address the spectacular aspect of mass media and their exploitation of violence and affect in general. Moore’s series is just one example of the ambivalent coexistence of information, interpellation and shock value within photojournalistic practices. ‘Race Riot’ points to the commodity status of images, as well as to the industrial modes of their production; it speaks about aura in times of mass reproduction.

Lena Horne, Here’s Lena NOW!, Record sleeve, 1963 (Courtesy: 20th Century Fox Records)

Álvarez’s appropriation could not have been more different. His dynamic re-articulation of the pictures became a lasting testimony to the strength and vitality of Third Cinema Newsreel, indeed one of its finest examples. It was able to bridge cultural gaps and travel worldwide because it was predicated equally on the affective reach of rhythm and an ethics of leftist internationalism. Warhol’s version did the same with almost opposite means: by aggressively casting itself as a mass produced item, it reinforced the notion of an American-dominated commodity culture enamoured with aeroplane travel and aggression against Third World countries. Both created travelling icons of lasting value. By unabashedly hijacking original images, one became a global cinematic pamphlet; the other, a high-end copy-and-paste commodity fetish. Both emphasized a new mobility of (sounds and) images, enhanced by mass media, Western imperialism, avant-gardist internationalism and the love of shock and adrenaline-packed action.

The Archive

Moore’s photographs are still travelling – these pages offer proof of their most recent displacement. The permission to print one photograph here – the image Álvarez pirated – was obtained from Black Star in New York. But the reproduction came from a digital scan of a Moore print in the defunct analogue archive in Toronto. Since the archive will move to its new home at the Ryerson Gallery and Research Centre in 2012, it is currently located at an art storage facility: inside a temperature-controlled hall among hundreds of art containers, which emphasize not only the photographs’ mobility but also their imminent future as exhibition pieces.

The archive contains approximately 300,000 paper prints or ‘commercial positives’ which Black Star used before embracing digital technology. Some prints date from WWI and thus the old Mauritius agency, which Mayer took with him when he left Berlin for New York in 1935. In general, the photographic negatives remain with the photographers while Black Star manages the copyright. In the archive, popular photographs, like Moore’s, exist in multiples, mostly reproduced when the photograph was taken. Many commercial positives of the same image were sent out simultaneously to just as many newspapers and magazines, which would return them to Black Star after printing them. The positives can be technically defined as ‘vintage’ prints, but they were never meant to exist as art works, as ‘originals’ invested with power and authority, inspiring fear of loss. They were destined to be mass-reproduced, circulated, cropped, marked and even lost. Printed in the rush proper to journalism, the multiples cannot be numbered. Some are missing because the publications – caught up in the next breaking story – did not always post them back to the agency. In contrast to an original painting, the value of these prints was established by the spread, velocity and reach of their circulation. They had to be new and mobile to be valuable, and most of them lost their value more quickly than a withering flower. Even as historical documents, their value today remains linked to their distribution in coffee table books, online or in retrospective exhibitions.

Far from a paper fortress, this archive not only offers pictures of the 20th century but also preserves shards and fragments revealing its own mode of operation: evidence for the way news was printed before digitization. The archive shows the circulation that defines the visual production of a news event; the different velocities at work behind the transfer; and the reproduction of images, whose value was based on speed and affective impact. Moore took five different pictures of Shambry; only three were printed in Life, and only one was pirated by Álvarez. The archive holds 30 copies in total, including eight of the image that appears in both Life and Now! Each copy has been cropped somewhat differently, showing the editor’s decisions, shifting the viewer’s focus. While the copies are similar, the back of each one holds its own configuration of stamps, captions and markings, specific to its trajectory as an object. The backs of the copies are unique; one seems to indicate the print used by Life – or perhaps simply identifies the image (rather than the object) used in the photo-essay. This archive puts its circulation on display, its inherent exteriority, so to speak, on the blank side of the photograph. Since the images are in copyright, only the backs of them are free to circulate in public.

The archive displaces the concept of memory – original and always already endangered – while raising the question of ownership. The agency’s purpose was to produce and to control authored commodities, yet the dispersed nature of its archive raises the question of property. To whom does Moore’s image belong? Well, ultimately to Moore’s estate, although both Black Star and Ryerson University possess traces of his photographs. But is Moore the sole author? What about Shambry, whose participation in the demonstration enabled Moore to take the picture? And the Civil Rights movement? Or the dogs, arguably the main protagonists in the picture? Could Moore have made his picture without all of these co-authors? And could they have made history without his pictures? The photograph itself turns out to be a complex collective transaction in manufacturing both political reality and its visual history. While the pictures made history, history, so to speak, also made the pictures. The photographs gained their importance, precisely by being dispersed by an agency based on commerce and dissemination. While the agency tries to maintain control over dissemination, it becomes most powerful and efficient when control is lost, when images and meanings roam freely.

Ironically, the legacy of the Black Star agency photographs is preserved today by the people who stole the images. As the news value of Moore’s photograph waned, both Álvarez’s and Warhol’s appropriations became – each in its own way – cultural icons: copies that did not take away from the original but added meaning and interpretation to it. Appropriation proves to be an invaluable technique for preserving and revealing a tradition of archival dislocation. The escaping images and the movement(s) of people open a door onto history.

This text is an excerpt from Steyerl’s essay for the inaugural exhibition catalogue of the Ryerson Gallery and Research Centre, which opens September 2012 at Ryerson University in Toronto. ‘Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection’ will include works by Stephen Andrews, Christina Battle, Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Stan Douglas, Vera Frenkel, Vid Ingelevics, David Rokeby and Michael Snow.

Hito Steyerl is an artist living in Berlin and a professor of New Media at the city’s Universität der Künste. Steyerl participated in ‘Seeing is Believing’ at Kunst-Werke Berlin and ‘The Global Contemporary. Artworlds After 1989’ at Zentrum für Kunst- und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, which continues until February 2012. A compilation of her essays Wretched of the Screen is forthcoming.