Jörg Colberg on neoliberal realism in photography

In late 2009, British critic Mark Fisher published a book titled Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Fisher’s use of the term capitalist realism is expansive, describing “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”18 In other words, “Capitalist realism is therefore not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism itself.”19

As Fisher makes clear in his book, there is much to be said for looking into how neoliberal capitalism has created a world in which another world is not only not possible, but cannot even be imagined. That said, I disagree with Fisher when he writes that “[i]t is impossible to conceive of fascism or Stalinism without propaganda – but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in ways better, without anyone making a case for it.” 20 Most forms of capitalism – whether the social-democratic one that had its heyday in Western Europe until roughly the end of the 1970s, or the neoliberal globalised capitalism that has become the dominant economic form of our time (and that has worked on destroying the welfare states created in social-democratic countries) – have relied on propaganda in some form. For example, in West Germany (and to some degree even in today’s Germany) the idea of Soziale Marktwirtschaft (social market economy) relied heavily on government propaganda, and very similar things can be said for the Reagan/Thatcher model of capitalism that has now morphed into the neoliberal globalised capitalism we live with. Just think, for example, of the phrase “a rising tide will lift all boats”, which dates back to the 1960s and of late has been used to justify tax cuts for those who are already wealthy. This is pure propaganda: economists have demonstrated that such tax cuts do not in fact lead to the lifting of “all boats”21, so-called trickle-down economics does not actually lead to a trickling down of wealth.

If neoliberal realism is the capitalist equivalent of socialist realism, then one might wonder how photography fulfil this function. How can it work as a “hieroglyphic icon”? How can it not be “a reflection of worldly events in their worldly contexts and motivations”, to instead offer reflections of “hagiographic, demonological, and other such depictions of transcendental events and their worldly consequences”? Photography can do this easily, and Groysian thinking is a useful way to understand this. Ever since digital technology has made the manipulation of photographs so simple and straightforward that James Franco can be made to disappear, a debate has erupted in the world of photography over whether composite images created from a number of source images are indeed photographs. For example, the New York Times would call a Vanity Fair cover image a “photo illustration”, a term that is rather ill-defined. In the context of a newspaper, there is a great deal of merit in discussing the extent of post-production manipulation of photographs. Given its technical nature, there is still a widespread belief that photography ought to remain faithfully indexical, meaning that what is being depicted in a photograph ought to have been in front of the camera’s lens. The main problem here is not the underlying concern of veracity, but rather an insistence on a narrowly defined veracity. A Vanity Fair cover photograph can very clearly be described in the Groysian terms cited above.22 More to the point, Leibovitz’s photographs look like photorealistic court paintings. In contrast, Gregory Crewdson produces work that resembles promotional still photographs for a Netflix psychodrama. Both artists employ considerable amounts of post-production artifice, which might make the world of photography – especially the more conservative parts – wonder whether these images can or should be considered as photographs. But the focus on the at times excessive amount of post-production artifice not only misses the point of what a photograph can be or look like, it also precludes discussing these photographs for what they really are, in particular the functions they serve and the messages they channel. Much like viewers in the Soviet Union would decode socialist realist paintings rather than consider how traditionally realistic they were, most of today’s viewers perform a corresponding decoding in the case of the neoliberal realist photography produced by Annie Leibovitz, Gregory Crewdson, Andreas Gursky, and others. 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.


Having worked for Rolling Stone magazine for a decade, in 1983 Annie Leibovitz joined the staff of Vanity Fair magazine, adding Vogue to her roster in 1998.23 It is the post-1983 photography, often elaborately lit and staged, that I want to consider here. As a group, the photographs in question are relatively easy to describe. To begin with, almost all of them show famous people (actors, athletes, politicians, Wall Street financiers, artists, etc.). For the most part, the photographs are staged, often very elaborately (there are occasional candid photographs). This is especially true for the photographs that regularly make it on to the covers of Vanity Fair or Vogue. They are in colour, somewhat desaturated, typically each with a very specific overall tone. They resemble what we have come to expect from Hollywood movies or TV productions, which often use an overall blueish or greenish atmosphere. As a consequence of these colour choices, skin tones are, for the most part, very far from what real skin looks like. The photograph’s heavy artifice is apparent.

The same can be said for the overall heroism that pervades Leibovitz’s photographs. Most of the photographer’s subjects are posed in such a way that they give the impression of being grandiose, heroic characters. Photographically, this heroism is always turned up to an 11 — pace guitarist Nigel Tufnel, This Is Spinal Tap, 1984. Leibovitz’s preferred level of heroism isn’t just on the nose, it’s always just one step too far. That being said, there are two reasons why I suspect many people will not view it this way. First, many of Leibovitz’s photographs mimic conventions in classical painting, in particular paintings of powerful people, or statues from the classical or post-enlightenment eras that presented idealised versions of their subjects. Leibovitz’s photographs suggest that they are to be seen as part of this art-historical lineage. Second, similar poses can be found in early 20th century photography, in particular coming out of Hollywood and fascist European nations, such as Germany. The visual pathos of Leni Riefenstahl is never far away with Leibovitz. Her subjects are shown displaying highly exaggerated versions of themselves or, rather, of the role they are depicted as playing. Each and every photograph is a visual celebration that is to be admired by its viewers and the photographer almost always succeeds with the task.

As it turns out, the uproar over the Simone Biles cover was not the first time that a photograph by Leibovitz received negative reception. In 2008, basketball player LeBron James became the first Black man to grace the cover of Vogue magazine. In the photograph, James is depicted with a basketball, posed as if mid-flow on court, his mouth open in a clearly aggressive manner. His left arm is wrapped around Gisele Bundchen’s waist. Unlike James, she does not wear sports clothes but a dress reaching for the colour of the Statue of Liberty. James’s pose was quickly identified as playing on racial stereotypes, and matters became a great deal worse when a World War I propaganda poster was discovered that has eerie similarities to the photograph. In the poster, a rabid gorilla wearing a German army helmet and wielding a club emblazoned with the word “Kultur” in its left arm, holds a bare breasted unconscious woman.24 There was no comment from the photographer and doubtless the similarity between the poster and the photograph could have been accidental. However, the depiction of a Black man as a brute is extremely problematic: not only does it demean the athlete’s considerable achievements, it also ties in with a long history of stereotypically racist portrayals in US culture and beyond.

The same year, Leibovitz photographed the then fifteen year old singer Miley Cyrus and again landed in hot water. In the photograph that appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, the singer is seen wearing no clothes and clutching a satin sheet to her chest. The picture shows her bare back, and Cyrus is looking over her right shoulder towards the camera, her hair falling loosely in front of her. At the time, Cyrus apologised, and Leibovitz said she was sorry her photographs had been “misinterpreted”, noting that she had discussed the picture with Cyrus at the time.25 Ten years later, the singer retracted her apology, saying, “there was nothing sexualized about this on set. And it was everyone else’s poisonous thoughts and minds that ended up turning this into something that it wasn’t meant to be.”26 Both photographer and model now claim the photograph was interpreted the wrong way. But a viewer has no access to how this or in fact any other photograph was taken and/or what motivations, ideas, or intentions were involved in its making. Cyrus is correct to note that a young woman ought to be fully in control of how she is being depicted. That said, both Leibovitz’s initial and Cyrus’s later surprise that the photograph was interpreted as showing a fifteen year old woman in a sexualised manner is baffling because it clearly is the photograph’s essence, informed by many years of showing the female body in this manner.

There is a long history of Leibovitz portraying young women in either a sexualised manner or in a way that has them dominated by a man in the photograph. More often than not they’re portrayed as little more than sex objects. A 2008 photograph of Nicole Kidman and Baz Luhrmann shows Kidman draped across a table, while the director stands beside her, his right hand held directly beneath her face. Kidman’s gaze is directed towards some imaginary distance, while Luhrmann’s, somewhat coolly, rests on her. In a visual culture that treats men as actively dominating women who are required to make themselves passively available, the photograph projects a traditional heterosexual power dynamic. Perhaps not surprisingly, a 2006 photograph of Donald Trump dials this idea up to the expected 11. A heavily pregnant Melania Trump is shown on the back steps of an aeroplane. She is wearing a robe or thin coat that has been styled to expose her pregnant body in a gold bikini. Seated in an expensive car at the plane’s side is Donald Trump, one hand on the steering wheel. He is shown in profile, facing away from his wife, whose gaze is directed at the camera. If the viewer had no idea who these people are, the message would still come across. The man is in the driver’s seat and the woman is little more than a sex object. The man is fully dressed, the woman is only wearing a bikini. Given all we now know about Donald Trump, we have ample reason to believe that if he had been able to stage a photograph of himself and his wife, he might very well have created this combination of a display of male power combined with reducing the woman to a fertile sex object.

A 2009 photograph shows Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and COO Gary Cohn in their firm’s boardroom.27 Compared with the stilted depictions of Kidman and Luhrman and the Trumps, this picture looks more natural at first glance. Both men are shown seated in what look like the expensive swivel chairs commonly found in US corporate HQs. They exude confidence, and they look like men who are not only very aware of their power, but who are also not used to being told what to do. In theory, this would be a recipe for disaster for a photographer. But Leibovitz was not given the task of making a good picture. Her job was to take a neoliberal realist photograph of these two men – an ambition it would have been almost impossible not to realise once Blankfein and Cohn entered the boardroom. In a nutshell, the photograph telegraphs the power and wealth of the subjects. The way in which these two men assume what they may well think of as relaxed poses exposes their immense power. It is important to keep in mind that this is not political power. Political power relies on the politician carefully crafting an image, which results in them being very careful to avoid anything that’s not scripted. These two men don’t have that problem. They’re only accountable to a small number of people, and they know it. What might come across as them being very casual gives away the truth – that they can afford to not care what anyone thinks of them.

This ties in with the fact that in the history of photography there has been a correlation between people’s wealth and their ability to craft their own image in a photograph. Poor people, working-class people, and the underclass in general have been fair game for photographers. Rich people, in contrast, can afford both to restrict access and insist on the type of depiction that serves their purposes. In their positions at the top of Goldman Sachs, Blankfein and Cohn embody neoliberal capitalism. In theory, Leibovitz’s photograph provides a look behind the scenes, but the portrait of these men demonstrates how little is actually gained from looking at it in that way. Such a portrait was always going to be a depiction of extreme corporate power, even if Leibovitz had set out to undermine the idea. Blankfein and Cohn don’t need to adopt heroic poses, because they know their power is completely independent of such considerations.

The Blankfein/Cohn photograph is one of a small number of exceptions to the rule. For the most part, heroism is a consistent feature of Leibovitz’s photographs. Once you are rich and/or famous enough, you will be celebrated in a picture, whether you’re Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Viola Davis, Barack Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranada. The problem here is not that some of those depicted in the photographs do not deserve to be treated like heroes. The problem is the ubiquitous heroism, in which often overblown and contrived poses are employed to make everyone look grandiose and deserving of endless admiration. This is not necessarily the photographer’s fault — it’s her job to create photographs that project aspirational success and wealth, embodying the myth on which the United States was founded, that this is available to everybody so long as they just work hard enough. Any actual heroes, such as someone who ran into a burning building to save a child, are completely absent from Leibovitz’s visual world. It’s not an earned heroism on display, it is one that is being inherited or assigned. This is pure ideology, an ideology that cannot be sustained without relying heavily on using photographs to celebrate and re-affirm itself.

The visual heroism is not only assigned it tends to be assigned after the fact. Vanity Fair and Vogue magazine covers fluidly adapt to a new status quo, which might lead to a fallen hero being made to disappear (remember James Franco?), or new heroes being added to the roster – but only if they have been proven to be useful vehicles for the task at hand. That task is not actually to celebrate those people: it is to sell magazines and fuel the consumerism that has come to underlie significant portions of US capitalism. This is why Leibovitz’s visual heroism is all-inclusive. It knows no parties, it has no larger morals than the widest possible ones, and it only knows and celebrates success – much like capitalism itself.

From 'Photography's Neoliberal Realism' by Jörg Colberg, published October 2020.

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