PARIS — Poignancy pervades A Working Eye, the first comprehensive retrospective of François Kollar’s Constructivist-style photography that, through nuanced grays and deep blacks, dramatized French workers’ empowerment. This heightened sense of poignancy results from the fact that unemployment in France today is stubbornly stuck at unacceptably high levels (currently 10.3%).
The bulk of the first-rate worker appreciation images Kollar created were done between 1931 and 1934, during France’s Great Depression, when he fulfilled a large commission to photograph the workers of France in the diverse areas of advertising, fashion, heavy industry, handicrafts, manufacturing, and agriculture. Kollar was born František Kollár in 1904 in Slovakia and, after exhibiting in Das Lichtbild in Munich alongside Florence Henri and others in 1930, received this major commission, entitled La France Travail. The admirable images of workers and their machines, such as “Renault. D‘une main l‘ouvrier fait tomber le sable. Billancourt (Hauts-de-Seine)” (1931–34), form the heart of this show.
Without falling into hammy Socialist Realism style, Kollar rendered French working class heroes in beautiful, discreet, lush black-and-white tones. These images of the working person endow them with qualities of excellence, nobility, and respect, and evoked in me mixed sensations of hard materialistic capability and human tenderness. These images of men and women, such as “Nettoyage des lampes. Société des mines de Lens, Lens (Pas-de-Calais)” (1931–34), show people deeply embedded within their functions and roles in the production process. In that sense, they contrast with Dorothea Lange’s famous and beautiful Migrant Mother series and the uninhabited, rigorously stark industrial scenes photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Published by Éditions des Horizons de France as 15 themed photogravure booklets, Kollar’s photographs illustrated texts on the honor of work by the likes of Paul Valéry. For the project, Kollar beautifully photographed every sector of work activity. “Alsthom: assemblage des volants alternateurs de Kembs. Société Alsthom. Belfort (Territoire de Belfort)” (1931–34), for instance, is a powerful image from this series, in which metallic machinery dwarfs the human body in a way suggestive of the vast landscape of inequality we associate with the contemporary global economy and its post-human sense of scale.
Kollar’s earlier work is less politically symbolic, but more formally innovative. In 1930, he set up a studio in Paris where he experimented with photomontage, solarization, and other special lighting effects, as seen in “Étude publicitaire pour ‘Magic Phono,’ portrait de Marie Bell en photomontage” (1930). Created through the superposition of negatives, Bell — a classically trained actress who appeared in Jean Genet’s avant-garde theatre performances — is fused with a gleaming phonograph record. Kollar also photographed the era’s flashy buildings and fashion celebrities, such as Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Pierre Balmain, sometimes using daring techniques of backlighting, double exposure, and overprinting. The double negative image “La Tour Eiffel” (around 1930) is a riveting photograph that is integral to the “Neues Sehen” (New Vision) aesthetic of which László Moholy-Nagy was a major exponent.
Kollar also shot artistic images for Hermès and Chanel advertisements, such as “Escalier chez Chanel” (1937) and “Publicité pour machine à écrire Hermès” (1930), which has a light Surrealist touch that is most effective — it is one of my favorite photographs from the 1930s. Kollar went on to work for other advertising agencies and luxury brands, where he excelled through his sensitivity to the combination of light and texture. These images were published in journals such as L’Illustration, Vu, Voilà, Art et Médecine, and Plaisir de France. The pleasurable image “Aux sources de l‘énergie, Enseignes lumineuses, Paris” (1931) has a delightful Dada flavor to it, recalling some of the best moments of dazzling superimposition in the Dada masterpiece film “Entr’acte” (1924), directed by René Clair.
Kollar was first employed by the railroad in Slovakia before becoming a professional photographer at the age of 24, which comes across in the superb, self-reflective photograph “Bouche du tunnel Sainte-Catherine, vers Sotteville-lés-Rouen, Rouen” (1932). His in-depth knowledge of the world of work is also informed by the period when he punched in as a lathe operator at Renault’s Boulogne-Billancourt factory.
I admired some of Kollar’s early experimental self-portraits, as they show a very playful approach to lighting, composition, and ego. Also of considerable interest are the photographs he shot in 1951 as part of a commission by the French state to document the regions of West Africa that were, at the time, under French rule (now Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Senegal). Back in France, Kollar brilliantly continued to shoot the French worker well into the ‘50s, for example with his strong “Sans titre [Emboutissage des couverts, usine Christofle, France]” (1958) and the shimmering “Sans titre [Fabrication de corps de chauffe de chauffe-eau, Usine Brandt, France]” (1950s).
The full range of sustained quality seen in the 130 vintage prints on exhibition expressively shows that, at least sometimes, hard work pays off in the arts. Kollar’s distinctive aesthetic provides a strong, sweet spot amid the sour struggles for employment taking place today in economies shaped by histories of slavery, colonialism, union-busting, sexual exploitation, and corporate capitalism. His artistic style, one that colorlessly abstracts, unifies, and embeds the worker within his or her technological environment, broadens the social politics of employment beyond the heroic human. Rather, he depicts through his unifying, ashen tones the conjunction of laborer and machine. In these photographs, the human worker is bound up with non-human apparatuses in cyborg fashion, depicting a complex technological laborer who is no less real and worthy of our aesthetic delectation.