Capitalist Realism through Contemporary Photography: A Critical Anticipation | 當代攝影與資本主義現實主義的批判姿態

Inspired by the Capitalist Realism movement in the 1960s German carried out by Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg (Konrad Fischer), this essay discusses the possibility of the evocation for the movement's critical stance towards the society through the effort of contemporary photography. It is an introductory essay assigned by LEAP (

Full text is available in LEAP, issue 39, June 2016.

本文應『LEAP藝術界』(所作,為其當期以『資本主義現實主義』為主題的攝影別冊導言部分。文章回顧了20世紀60年代由Sigmar Polke,Gerhard Richter和Konrad Lueg(Konrad Fischer)等藝術家在德國發起的『資本主義現實主義』運動,並號召當代攝影在根植於這一批判性的歷史傳統的基礎之上,發展出屬於當代的社會批判之可能性。

全文可見於『當代攝影與資本主義現實主義的批判姿態』,LEAP藝術界,issue 39,2016年6月。


“Capitalist Realism”. That was how German artists Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg (Konrad Fischer) named their “Teutonic version of Pop”[1] Meeting in their twentieth at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, both Polke and Richter were emigrants with their families from the Soviet controlling area to West Germany due to political and economic reasons. In 1963, the artists held their “first exhibition of 'German Pop Art’ ” (Richter) in an abandoned shop at Düsseldorf, and Richter and Lueg also performed a liveshow “Living with Pop – A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism” in the Berges department store, showing the public a scene of ordinary life in a staged living room. Through their artworks and performances, the German generations simultaneously “were parodying the overnight ascendance of Pop Art, with its celebrity culture and embrace of everyday commodities, as well as the German craze for all things American”[2] and interrogating the predominant doctrine called “Socialist Realism” adopted in the communist world.

From its origin as a confrontation of “Socialist Realism”, it seems reasonable for the photographer and writer Jörg Colberg to deploy “Capitalist Realism” as a description of certain contemporary photography. “Much like Socialist Realism, which set out to celebrate the successes of collectivism… 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.”[3] In his essay, Tol Seidel’s Dubai landscape and Nadav Kander’s “ruin porn” were selected to support his argument. On the one hand, a Capitalist Realism is an index of money with the dismiss of the power of men, as shown by the sky scrapers in Dubai without a sight of humankind. On the other side, images of remnants indicate Capitalist Realism’s “underlying economic credo: what isn’t fit to survive must perish or be disrupted.” However, hasn’t Colberg to some extent invalidated the idea of Capitalist Realism by imposing its literal meaning on certain photographic phenomena with the deracination of the word’s historical context? To me, it is the very embedded spirit within the history of Capitalist Realism that potentially accounts for a critical engagement in today’s art world.

Colberg’s “Capitalist Realism” is cast in an inductive predicament. Notwithstanding the landscape diminishing human existence and “ruin porn” are photographic embodiments of Capitalist Realism, but by recontextualizing the term historically, his argument however excludes other open possibilities for photographic representations that reflecting, refracturing, or tackling the capilaltist reality. For instance, I consider Martin Parr’s documentary of British consumerism and Slim Aarons’s pool pictures of the society class have much more to say with Capitalist Realism, because they both demonstrate life scenes of consumer culture among different classes within the capitalist economy, echoing to the practices of Pop Art movement with a critical stance[4]. In many of their photographs, the trace of, and even the human themselves, are never intentionally dissolved. While in Massimo VitaliIn’s Pool and Disco projects, the crowds and the environments are always considered as a holistic complex projecting to a collective psychological condition that stems from the consumerism lifestyle. Namely, the emphasis on spectacles without human existence could be a representation of Capitalist Realism, but it is never the only answer. Moreover, from an orthodox Marxist point of view, by emphasising the Capitalist Realism as a revolt to Socialist Realism, it is the analysis of different class and ideological orientations of both sides that should be considered, rather than the photographic style and theme. In a broader sense, all documentations and representations of the reality, surreality, and even hyperreality absurdly permeating our world should be taken into consideration.

This departure, therefore, rapidly expands the list of photographers who are seriously concerned with the Capitalist Reality under the light of Capitalist Realism. From Wolfgang Tillmans’s What's Wrong with Redistribution (2016), to Wang Jingsong’s Standard Family (1996); from Brian Ulrich’s colourful photographs of consumer culture to Philip Kwame Apagya’s African studio photography, what indeed deserves for more attention is whether Capitalist Realism in the alleged “late capitalist society”, in which discourses of identity, hybridity, feminism, and post-colonialism have entangled, could re-enchant its critical magic towards the society as it did in the 1960s through contemporary photographic endeavours. Like Tillmans, his interrogation on redistribution, an economic process, was undertaken by the truth study centre with the employment of collage as an essential measure of presentation, recalling me what had been done by the earlist German Capitalist Reality artists. Philip Kwame Apagya, a Ghanaian photographer who produces studio photographs with African portraits agains painted backdrops, drives the audience to rethink the rising capitalism and modernisation project in Africa, decentralising the traditional Western visual hegemony. I insist, in such photographic efforts the original critical stance of Capitalist Realism can be rediscovered, and that will illuminate us to see and to perceive our contemporary world.







[1] See Sooke, A. “Sigmar Polke: the artist who made Germany go Pop” on Telegraph. 07 Oct 2014: accessed on 30 Apr 2016

[2] See the general introduction of “Capitalist Realism” on, accessed on 30 Apr 2016

[3] See Colberg, J. “Contemporary Photography’s Capitalist Realism” on Hyperallergic. 21 Mar 2015. accessed on 30 Apr 2016.

[4] Aaron may be less critical than Parr, as he admitted that his aim was to “photographing attractive people who were doing attractive things in attractive places.” See in the exhibition catalogue of his solo exhibition Poolside at Getty Images Gallery. 31st March - 7th May.

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