Photokina 1956: A Revolt Against the Universal Language of Photography

"Photokina 1956: A Revolt Against the Universal Language of Photography," forthcoming in the special thematic edition "The Medium of the Exhibition" of journal The Notebook for Art, Theory and Related Zones. This is an unedited draft. If you would like to cite this article before the journal is published, please get in touch with me at atifentale at gradcenter dot cuny dot edu. Thank you! 

Photography is a universal language, “understood on all five continents, irrespective of race, creed, culture or social level”—this announcement by Maurice van de Wyer, the president of the International Federation of Photographic Art (Fédération internationale de l'art photographique, FIAP) echoed numerous other assertions made at the opening of the fifth annual photography trade fair and exhibition complex Photokina 1956, which took place in Cologne, West Germany, from September 29 to October 7, 1956.

The leaders of the U.S. and West Germany, international organizations such as the UN and UNESCO, the photography industry, and photographers around the world all shared a similar idealism. Their praise of photography as a universal language, however, was unanimous only in theory. In practice, art exhibitions organized within the framework of Photokina 1956 revealed a chasm between two radically different understandings of photography. On one hand, there were exhibitions featuring narrative photo-essays by a small elite of Western European and U.S. magazine photographers.

On the other, was the fourth FIAP Biennial of photographic art, displaying creative photography from thirty-six countries in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The FIAP Biennial revolted against the predominant principles of exhibiting photography in terms of content and aesthetics, exhibition design strategies, and the concept of authorship. This article analyzes this revolt and traces the reasons why it went largely unnoticed.