The Misunderstood 'Universal Language' of Photography

"The Misunderstood 'Universal Language' of Photography: The Fourth FIAP Biennial, 1956."

Paper presented at the conference Art, Institutions, and Internationalism: 1933–1966 in New York City, March 7, 2017.


“Photography is a visual lingua franca understood on all five continents, irrespective of race, creed, culture or social level”—so claimed the leaders of the International Federation of Photographic Art (Fédération internationale de l'art photographique, FIAP). This nongovernmental organization was founded in Switzerland in 1950 and aimed at uniting the world’s photographers. FIAP consisted of national associations of photographers representing 55 countries in Western and Eastern Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Africa.

The FIAP biennials were conceived as world surveys of contemporary creative photography displaying equal number of works from each country. Each of these biennials took place in a different European city. These biennials epitomized the postwar idealism: they transcended the nation-state, advocated the ideals of global civil society, and mobilized photographers in countries emerging from colonial rule.

This idealism experienced a crisis in 1956 when the Fourth FIAP Biennial was featured as the main exhibition among numerous others at the annual photography trade fair Photokina in Cologne. At the opening, officials representing West Germany, the US, UNESCO, and FIAP unanimously praised photography as "universal language."

The audience and critics acclaimed the narrative photo-essays in exhibitions by the leading US magazine photographers and the thematic displays organized by UNESCO. Meanwhile, the FIAP Biennial went unappreciated. Unlike the other shows, it presented lonely images which did not tell stories—the biennials had a strict policy to admit only one image per author. Besides, most of the non-European photographers’ names were unknown to the visitors, and the images lacked a verbal introduction to the cultural context in their countries of origin. This attempt to showcase the cultural diversity of the world through creative photography revealed the limitations and Western-centric bias of the "universal language" of photography, a concept which promoted only one type of photography, excluding all others.

The paper is part of the panel Internationalism in Photography and Print, moderated by Antonella Pelizzari, The Graduate Center, City University of New York. The two other co-panelists and their papers: Maxine Anderson (University of Oregon), "Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Surrealism: Toward a Rhizomatic Periphery," and Naomi Kuromiya, "A conflicted sekai-sei: reconsidering the 'world relevance' of the avant-garde Japanese calligraphy journal Bokubi (1951-1960)" (The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University).

The conference Art, Institutions, and Internationalism: 1933–1966 is organized by Chelsea Haines and Gemma Sharpe together with The Center for Humanities at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, March 7-8, 2017. Here's a brief description of the conference:

This conference examines histories of production, exchange, pedagogy, and publishing that highlight the shifting stakes and definitions of internationalism before and after World War II. Much art historical scholarship of this period has concentrated on questions of universalism, or attempts to transcend the cultural, linguistic, and political boundaries of the nation-state. Instead, this conference takes an interdisciplinary approach focused on internationalism, inviting artists, activists, and scholars to explore instances of material exchange of art and ideas among nations during this period. Presentations and discussions will address cultural nation building during the transition from colonial to post-colonial statehood in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as socio-political changes in the Americas and Europe.

Please see the full program of the conference Art, Institutions, and Internationalism: 1933–1966 here.