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Work Force

Catalogue essay for Foto Industria, Bologna, Italy 2013

Morechroe (Studio), OHIO, Office and Factory Staff, the Fisher Body Ohio Co’y, Cleveland, Ohio September 21, 1926

 

         “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,

         It's off to work we go

         We keep on singing all day long,

         Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, heigh-ho

         Got to make your troubles go,

         Well, you keep on singing all day long

         Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, heigh-ho ...”*1

 

Those lyrics may make you think of those seven dwarves trudging merrily along their way back and forth to the diamond mine in the original Disney cartoon, but there is a very dark, sobering “cover” version of “Heigh Ho” by the singer Tom Waits which begins with the rattling of chains and the cranking and clanking of machines.  Oh, the dread and oppression of work.  Exhausting, defeating, hateful ... labor.

 

On the other hand, Benjamin Franklin posited that “It is the working man who is the happy man.  It is the idle man who is the miserable man”.  Ok, energizing, redemptive, desirable ... labor.  

 

I’ve done both and would agree with Mr. Franklin, but the truth may list even closer to Joseph Conrad’s statement from :Heart of Darkness, “I don’t like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself not for others - what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.” 

 

Welcome to the existential in work, at work ... .

 

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This is a small selection of American photographs of groups of workers, all made before 1950 or so. 

 

The notion of a “work force” seems so quintessentially American with Henry Ford and his Model T assembly line in the 1920’s.  Actually the assembly line dates back to Eli Whitney who also patented a form of cotton gin in the 18th Century.  Work force also describes the enormous union movement in the US. 

 

These are images of different sized work forces from firemen to telephone operators.

 

There doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of attention paid to images like these in the photo histories.  Part of the reason for this may be that there aren’t so many of these pictures to be found relative to the endless number of single portraits.

 

They are difficult to make.  First of all, you need a lot of people in one place and then you have to get them to cooperate while the photographer tries to make the picture.  It’s not so easy trying to get everyone in the frame, at the same moment, all facing forward, all smiling. 

 

These works are curiosities that got rolled up and stuffed into a closet or they are the framed ones left on the wall in the attic or cellar that slowly faded and yellowed and collected dust.

 

It’s a shame because this images have handsomeness and history.  There is a nobility in work and the groupings of men and women are emblematic of that.  It’s easier to find military formations; civilian gatherings seem rarer.  They’re documentary records but they have aesthetic appeal.  They’re like jazz: complex, patterned, layered, repetitious, and familiar, part of the vernacular.  They can be shapely; they can be raucous. 

 

They don’t behave like the photographs with which we have more experience - family portraits or landscapes or still lifes.

 

They can also be divinely funny.  Who are these people, what are these people doing?  Most often that information - as well as the maker - is lost to us.

 

It even takes work to look at them.  Your eye sweeps along and up and down and zooms in and out.  (All of those little faces ... what a lot of work!). 

 

There is the surprising charge of energy in the chaotic mob of Morechroe Studio 1926 Fisher Body workers on their break.  There is a rambunctious, agitated quality to this.  Work seems be such a primal force.  This is a spectacular slice of American life at the end of the first quarter of the modern era.

 

And there is awkward, goofy nobility in the 19th Century Anderson Studio “Veteran Firemen” in the town square (actually lower Broadway in early downtown New York).  It’s serious and good looking but it also seems like a watercolor of European toy soldiers in formation.

 

How many in a group?  There is something surreal about the thousands of soldiers in the Mole & Thomas Liberty Bell or the numbered Bell Telephone operators #1-19 from the 1938 World’s Fair.  The convergence of plaids is equally strange and perfect in the Unknown Studio grouping of “workers with anvils” which was probably made 50 years before that. 

 

These photographs transcend their record keeping banality.  The prints begin to look like fantastical, absurd hybrids of Chinese scrolls or unwieldy scores of modern music with the black quarter notes and white half notes and rests dancing along the horizon.

 

Work, work, work.

 

*1 “Heigh Ho”, Frank Churchill (music) and Larry Morey (lyrics), 1937, for Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

 Work Force by W.M. Hunt © 2013