Industrial Photography Performed: The Struggle for Energy from Modernism to the Cold War

 

Our joint presentation drew upon photographic materials produced in the context of the industrial development of energy production in the United States and the GDR. While the photographs discussed in our presentations were produced in distinct political systems, at different points in time—Modernism in the early 20th century and towards the end of the Cold War in the 1970s—from different perspectives and for different audiences, the common ground between both papers is the analysis of the uses of photography and how they performed in the struggle for energy. Therefore, both case studies present different views on how photography was used as a medium through which the exploitation of natural resources for energy production was visually represented and commercially and socially understood.

Using the Ralph Arnold photographic album collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, the first study outlined the use of photography as a key element in the formation of the emerging oil industry in the Western United States in the early twentieth century. Ralph Arnold (1875-1961) was an American geologist and petroleum engineer whose photographs taken during several geological surveys in California, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Texas were part of a collective scientific and financial effort to lobby for appropriate oil taxation and the recognition of the role of the petroleum engineer in oil exploration.

The second study discussed the visual dialogue between Nguyen The Thuc’s Kohle unter Magdeborn (Coal beneath Magdeborn) (1976), a photographic album documenting an open cast coal mining site and the devastation of its inhabitant community in the GDR, and Christiane Eisler’s series of commissioned photographs of the revisited mining site and contemporary Leipzig, produced in the period 2012 to 2014. The album and the new series of works were shown together in the 2014 exhibition Freundschaftsantiqua in Leipzig (Germany). The bodies of work reflect the changes in the industrialised environment through expanding and contracting resource extraction and the effects on its inhabitants. They are also documents of an international cultural production and GDR culture politics. The medium of photography was selected as exhibition focus due to its propensity to visually communicate across different cultures.

wood fossil_Magdeborn

Fossilised tree fragment, entrance area at Zweckverband Abfallwirtschaft Westsachsen waste deposit site, 2015, photograph: Bergit Arends

Freundschaftsantiqua_installation detail

Freundschaftsantiqua 2014, Galerie fuer Zeitgenoessische Kunst Leipzig (Germany), exhibition detail, photography: Sebastian Schroeder

 

Jointly we explored the performativity and fluidity of meaning of photographic images. How is meaning shaped by institutional discourses, disciplinary perspectives, and expertise. How were photographs taken by petroleum engineers used to shape the oil industry in terms of scientific exploration, commercial capabilities and policy reforms in the American West? How did the project from the GDR contribute to, or contravene, a political and environmental discourse in documenting how humans were affected by a visibly polluting energy production? Or did the images in both case studies contribute to a discourse of personal sacrifice towards a collective ‘greater good’ and moral duty for the nation?

Bergit Arends and Noeme Santana

 

Bibliography

+ contextual reading on the international circulation and audiences of photographs of American West taken by Timothy O’Sullivan during the Clarence King Surveys between 1867 and 1872:

Brunet, F., (2012) ‘Showing American Geography Abroad in the Victorian Era: The International Reception of the King Survey Work’, in: Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs, Davis, K. and Aspinwall,J. (ed.), New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 185-195

+ for some insights into GDR photography by a GDR/Germany-based curator. Exhibition catalogue of the first survey exhibition of GDR photography in the UK, curated by Matthew Shaul:

Immisch, T. O. (2007), ‘Appearance and Being: GDR Photography of the 1970s and 1980s’, in: Do Not Refreeze: Photography behind the Berlin Wall, exh. cat., Manchester: Cornerhouse Publications, pp. 24-27

+ one history on the subject of energy in the USA and Germany

Radkau, J., (1996), ‘Energy: Genie or Genius? – How steam, electricity and oil heralded global change’, History Today, vol 46; MNTH 11, pp. 14-19

+ photography theory from 1983 for social and economic discourses on images at the example of images (1948-1968) by a commercial photographer in the coal-mining region of Cape Breton:

Sekula, A. (2003) ‘Reading an Archive. Photography between Labour and Capital’, in: The Photography Reader, Wells, L. (ed.), London: Routledge, pp. 443-452

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