FIAP Biennial in Photokina 1956: A Revolt Against the Universal Language of Photography

"FIAP Biennial in 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.

Download article draft here. This is a revised draft, as received by the editors on July 13, 2018. 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!

Otherwise, come back to this page in late 2018 to see the final, edited version of the article and updated information about the journal issue. 

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.

 Trade fair section of  Photokina 1956 , Cologne.

Trade fair section of Photokina 1956, Cologne.

The leaders of the U.S. and West Germany, international organizations such as UN and UNESCO, photography industry, and transnational community of photographers united in FIAP all praised photography as a universal language. Photokina 1956, however, revealed two radically different understandings of such a language. On one hand, it denoted Western European and U.S. magazine photography whose success and popularity was driven by the market forces of the publishing and photo industries as well as by the support from politicians.

  UNESCO photography exhibition at   Photokina 1956  . Photo: Charles E. Fraser.

UNESCO photography exhibition at Photokina 1956. Photo: Charles E. Fraser.

 Magnum exhibition in  Photokina   1956 . Photo: Charles E. Fraser.

Magnum exhibition in Photokina 1956. Photo: Charles E. Fraser.

On the other, it entailed numerous, idiosyncratic visual languages coming from photographers from thirty-six countries in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa represented in the fourth FIAP Biennial, which was included in the program of Photokina 1956. For these photographers, universal was their shared understanding of photographic art as an idealistic pursuit of self-expression that exists strictly outside the market. This article views the intervention of FIAP and reasons of its failure in the Photokina 1956 exhibition through a sociological lens that focuses on the contested social status of photographers and the power inequality in postwar photography.  

 FIAP Biennial in  Photokina 1956.

FIAP Biennial in Photokina 1956.