Contemporary Photography’s Capitalist Realism

Jörg Colberg

In Caspar David Friedrich‘s “Frau vor untergehender Sonne” (“Woman before the Setting Sun”), a young woman is depicted facing the setting sun, which turns her almost completely, but not entirely, into a silhouette. Her arms are slightly raised, in awe of the grandeur of the moment, as the sunrise illuminates the sublime landscape before her.

A contemporary equivalent of such a Romantic moment is provided by Plate 61 of Tor Seidel‘s photography book The Dubai (Hatje Cantz, 2014). Like Friedrich’s painting, the photograph shows a woman contemplating what is in front of her, her back facing the viewer, though, in the almost 200 years that separate Friedrich and Seidel, many things have changed.

Seidel’s woman wears a bikini, and she is standing motionless in a swimming pool. Her long hair falls over her shoulders, and only one arm, the right one, is raised, mirroring Friedrich’s woman, but it is lifted to hold on to the pool’s handrail. The scene in front of this modern woman is quite different as well. There is no sunrise to be admired. What natural landscape there might be is covered in haze, and the only things to be in awe of are three spick-and-span skyscrapers. From the camera’s perspective, the viewer must conclude that the pool is located on top of a fourth tower.

Today’s Romantic movement, in the form of The Dubai, is brought to the viewer courtesy of Deutsche Bank Dubai, Waagner Biro Stahlbau AG (an Austrian steel construction company), and Alexander Brexendorff (a Middle East business and legal consultant), as the credits at the end of the book make clear.

The awe of being in the presence of something bigger, out of humanity’s controls, has been replaced with the awe of being in the presence of something bigger that is very much controlled by humans, in whatever direct or indirect way.

Seidel’s photographs present this new Romanticism to us, photograph after photograph after photograph. His Romantic female observer reappears several times, always depicted from the back, always wearing form-fitting Western clothes (it’s not always the same woman, even though there appears to be some repetition: see Plates 19, 26, 50, 61, 63, 66, and 70). When other people appear, they are dwarfed by the buildings around them, and they’re mostly anonymous, hard to make out. The only people prominently featured are in depictions of advertising.

The Dubai does not appear to be serving as an indictment of the culture it depicts. Its goal is not as lofty as that of the Romantics. Rather, it seems to be a celebration of affluence. Call this Capitalist Realism, contemporary capitalism’s equivalent of Socialist Realism. These days, it is photographers, not painters or sculptors, who are at the forefront of Capitalist Realism. They can do what needs to be done, show what needs to be shown, in a much more convincing, much more awe-inspiring way.

The photographs in The Dubai fit into the contemporary tradition laid out by the likes of Andreas GurskyPeter Bialobrzeski, or Robert Polidori. Much like Socialist Realism, which set out to celebrate the successes of collectivism, which served a tiny fraction of the population, certainly not the masses, Capitalist Realism celebrates the beauty of an economic system that relies on a brutish, brutal political foundation that ultimately benefits the select few, while leaving out the rest.

The crucial difference between Socialist Realism and Capitalist Realism is that while the former explicitly relied on workers as tokens of the power of its underlying ideology, the latter relies on something that only manifests itself indirectly: money. Hence the apparent emptiness of photographs by Gursky, Bialobrzeski, Polidori, et al. People are either entirely absent, or they’re reduced to countless tiny, anonymous entities. People have become redundant, literally and figuratively. It’s only capital (money) that matters.

In other words, those who question why there are often no people present in large swaths of contemporary photography miss the point: what matters is what’s there. What doesn’t matter is absent. Photographic Capitalist Realism faithfully and honestly describes the system we live in.

Given that capitalism does not need an underlying democracy — as China has demonstrated so forcefully — Capitalist Realism can be practiced almost anywhere capitalism rules.

Thus The Dubai celebrates the city for what it is and what it stands for, the purest symbol of an economic system, traces of which can be found all over the world. To expect anything different, say, photos of the city’s countless foreign workers, would be akin to expecting to see overcrowded communal housing in Socialist Realism.

Jörg Colberg in Hyperallergic Magazine, 2015