For nearly twenty years, Jörg Colberg has written about photography, and especially photobooks, with an admirable consistency. Through his website, Conscientious Photography Magazine, he has brought attention to scores of little-known artists and emerging publishers. This was a radical proposition in the mid-2000s, when online photography discussion, outside of technical forums, was scarce; and it remains a valuable service today. Over the years, Colberg wrote in a recent post, his “thinking has expanded from focusing on what usually is called visual literacy to looking at photography’s superstructure: the very systems that not only maintain it, but that also shape its overall messages.”

Photography’s Neoliberal Realism (2020) is one result of this expanded framework, blending a plea for visual literacy with a story about “superstructure”; it originated in a review Colberg posted to his website in 2017. That piece discusses a compendium of Annie Leibovitz’s portraits, comparing the look of her photographs to the films of Leni Riefenstahl, and both contrasting and linking their subjects to those of artist Gregory Crewdson. Colberg later expanded that essay, and this pamphlet includes both additional consideration of Leibovitz and Crewdson, and a brief discussion of German photographer Andreas Gursky.

“The approach I am going to take,” Colberg writes near the outset, “is inspired by writers, critics, and theorists Siegfried Kracauer (The Mass Ornament), Roland Barthes (Mythologies), and John Berger (Ways of Seeing): that photographs are evaluated through analysing how they show what they show, given the context in which they are embedded.” Of his main protagonists (Leibovitz, Crewdson, and Gursky), he adds: “Taken together, these three prominent photographers can be seen as the main proponents of a type of photography which has an implicit purpose of propping up global neoliberal capitalism and its consequences, namely vast inequality in increasingly fractured societies.”

This neoliberal realism, Colberg writes, is “a form of visual propaganda whose mechanisms are identical with socialist realism.” (Let the word identical be a warning flag.) The idea of linking these three photographers to socialist realism, rather than, say, expanding on his original comparison of Leibovitz to Riefenstahl, occurred to Colberg when Vanity Fair came under scrutiny for digitally removing actor James Franco from the cover of its January 2018 issue. (Franco had been accused of sexual misconduct.) On reading about the digital manipulation, Colberg “immediately thought” about the “various power struggles and purges of Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union, [when] he had not only his victims . . . physically disappear, they were also made to disappear from archive photographs.” This is quite a leap, both on its face and because, as Colberg notes, these kinds of photographic manipulations have been common for so long that even the debate about them is humdrum. Such editing and compositing are neither the special preserve of Vanity Fair nor of the photographers Colberg criticizes.

That said, what are the “identical” mechanisms Colberg suggests that link these artists to their socialist-realist predecessors? Leibovitz, Crewdson, and Gursky produce a kind of capitalist propaganda that, like socialist realism, “does not aim to depict an actually existing reality but instead presents a code that can be read by its intended spectators.” Colberg derives his description of socialist realism from art historian Boris Groys, who suggests that this code entails stories about heroes, demons, transcendental events, and real-world consequences that serve the messaging needs of the powerful. In this formulation, Colberg’s neoliberal realists make images that perpetuate, or even celebrate, unjust power structures.

Andreas Gursky, Madonna 1, 2001
© CNAC/MNAM and RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/Artist Rights Society (ARS), NY

So what bothers Colberg about these photographers? In part, it comes down to their ignorance of (or willful blindness to) the procapitalist agenda implicit in lionizing the system’s winners and demonizing its losers. But it also has to do with the amount of artifice in their pictures. The tonality of Leibovitz’s photographs, Colberg says, has rendered Black subjects’ skin unnatural, and she has perpetuated racist and sexist stereotypes. (No less an authority than celebrated historian Nell Irvin Painter has argued the opposite, writing in Aperture magazine’s 2016 “Vision & Justice” issue: “Leibovitz has captured the beauty and power within blackness that Frederick Douglass feared nonblack artists, blinded by prejudice, could never reveal.”) If Leibovitz turns to classical painting for her worshipful contrivances, as Colberg suggests, Crewdson uncritically appropriates themes from Hollywood, and his sad-sack men and sexualized-but-powerless women communicate that “regular people are failures.” For his part, Gursky’s pictures are “expressions of neoliberal capitalism’s most completely untethered id,” and insinuate that “resistance [to capitalism] is futile.” By constructing new worlds on the computer—say, of “some Arabian desert”—“it is as if Gursky wants to do even better” than the “rich investors” creating their own islands. I would offer more evidence of Colberg’s argument, but though he claims this book is “an exercise in reading photographs,” he devotes only five pages to Leibovitz, just over three pages to Crewdson, and two pages—with no individual artwork cited by title—to Gursky. These narrow readings leave out a lot, not least that these photographers have undergone some form of creative evolution in their decades-long careers. For example, Gursky only began photographing the spaces of industrial capitalism a decade after his first exhibitions, and only began completely fabricating scenes another fifteen years after that.

What prompted those changes? How has Gursky articulated his development and ambitions? Colberg gives us no evidence that these artists hold the attitudes (or ignorance) he ascribes to them; there is not a single quote by them in this essay. Nor is there a direct quote from Kracauer, Barthes, or Berger, Colberg’s guiding spirits, after invoking them in his introduction. Colberg likewise glosses over the radically different influences these artists have over the popular culture, a fact at least partly related to the primary ways their pictures circulate. Leibovitz reaches millions through her magazine covers, while Crewdson and Gursky’s gallery and museum audiences are rather smaller. This lack of attention to context is telling; it’s as if predatory capitalism is the only condition in which Colberg can see these artists at all.

As magazine covers or limited-edition fine-art objects in galleries and museums, photography is often complicit in the system’s exploitations. People should, as Colberg advocates, “look at who is represented in photographs and how this is being done.” But the level of insight between the covers of Photography’s Neoliberal Realism does not rise above what we might hear when photo fans congregate in a bar. Colberg mentions subjects about which I’d like to know more, for example West Germany’s social-market economy and the propaganda it generated. And Leibovitz, Crewdson, and Gursky are complicated figures whose artworks deserve study. The artifice in their work is perhaps its most salient component. Unfortunately, neither the promising nor the dismaying aspects of Colberg’s pamphlet offer readers enough to chew on, or even indications of where else to look. One suggestion: MACK has done photography enthusiasts a great favor by publishing the more rigorous essays of artist-theorists Allan Sekula and Victor Burgin.

Consistency, one of Colberg’s strengths, is not the same thing as growth. The ideas in Photography’s Neoliberal Realism are no more deeply explored than they were in the 2017 blog post from which they originated. In a post that comments on the book, Colberg hints at the feedback he has received on the publication, some of it pertaining to Leibovitz being “just” a commercial photographer and Gursky too “high art” for his work to be as simple as Colberg claims. “These reactions confirmed some of my suspicions that had me write the book in the first place: in photoland, we have established hierarchies of photographers and/or categories. One consequence of these hierarchies is that a lot of interesting discussions aren’t being held.” But I don’t think it’s those hierarchies that are holding us back. The challenge Photography’s Neoliberal Realism presents is that Colberg has gone out of his way to confirm his suspicions. Exploring the roles photography can play in economic and social arrangements is vital work. It should proceed, however, from photographs, from how their makers describe their intentions, and from how and where those photographs are seen. In this case, as odd as it seems to conclude about so self-serious an essay, Colberg doesn’t take photography seriously enough.

Jörg Colberg’s Photography’s Neoliberal Realism was published by MACK in November 2020.