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...

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...

Jörg Colberg in Hyperallergic Magazine, 2015