BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 12 NOV 04
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Issue 87

Emil Heilborn

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 12 NOV 04

Emil Heilborn was a commercial photographer whose clients, the captains of Swedish industry between the two world wars of the 20th-century, hired him to recount that industry’s rapid expansion. His pictures are of mass production on factory floors – whirling helicopters, whirring machinery and optimistic workers, as heroic as they are confident – and the currency he dealt in was objectivity and functionalism. Heilborn became, in fact, an evangelist for Sweden’s fusion of modern capitalist economics with social democratic ideals, which developed rapidly between 1900 and 1930. It was this powerful federation that would transform the country into one of Europe’s leading industrial nations after World War II.
When the first photographic salon opened in Stockholm in 1926, Heilborn’s most productive period as a photographer had just begun (he left photography for film in the late 1930s). At that time the issue of whether photography was an art form was still an open question. Ferdinand Flodin, photographer to the Swedish royal court, once described the work of László Moholy-Nagy and others as a ‘transitory disease’. Even those sympathetic to the new art were not entirely persuaded.
Heilborn refused to get drawn into the controversy provoked by the work of Moholy-Nagy and Rodchenko. In retrospect, though, his pictures appear to be of a piece with the euphoria that accompanied the Soviet revolution and the transformation of pictorialism into modern photography at the Bauhaus. In the long term he acquired no art-historical kudos, despite the fact that in some instances he made early forays into the ground-breaking styles that Rodchenko is said to have

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.