The Working Life: Photography and the Depiction of Labor

Aperture #226: American Destiny, 2017

‘The Working Life: Photography and the Depiction of Labor’ is an essay written for Aperture magazine #226: American Destiny.

In 1899, Frances Benjamin Johnston was commissioned to photograph the working life of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which had been founded in Hampton, Virginia, after the American Civil War to offer vocational education and practical training to freed slaves and Native Americans. Johnston’s resulting photographs formed part of the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, who helped organize the show, disliked separate education for African Americans, with its emphasis on manual labor, but he considered Johnston’s work an “especially excellent series of photographs illustrating the Hampton idea of ‘teaching by doing.’”


In 1966 the Museum of Modern Art acquired an album of Johnston’s Hampton prints, and the following year curator John Szarkowski discussed the work in his essay “Photography and the Mass Media.” Illustrated by an image called Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence: Students at Work, the essay praised the formal and technical qualities of Johnston’s platinum prints: “Miss Johnston demands and earns our attention. Having won it, she holds us by the richness and relevance of her description.” But in 1982, this image of students at work reappeared in the artist Allan Sekula’s essay “School is a Factory” with a very different reading. Sekula wrote that “the purpose of the Hampton album was promotional, serving as an aid to fund-raising. Thus the attitude of diligent and industrious servitude exhibited here might have been intended to impress white donors, like the steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie, with the promise of converting a supposedly indolent and uneducated rural black population into disciplined, productive, and unrebellious proletarians.”

We are in a moment when the idea—and image—of work are highly charged and politicized. In this circumstance, can an individual, or a nation, derive a self-image from the work it does? Johnston’s choreographed scene, with posed working bodies interlocking, is an instructional photograph about instruction. A labored image of, and akin to, good carpentry. This doesn’t stop it being propaganda, but it doesn’t make it propaganda, either. Photographs, particularly those depicting manual labor, are often the result of mixed intentions, practical hurdles, and aesthetic chances. While photography may show, it cannot explain. It is good at the “what” but not the “how” or the “why.” Photographs visually describe labor, but cannot truly account for it.

From its beginning, the camera had such a close kinship with the cogs and levers of the Industrial Revolution that within decades a new “machine aesthetic” had developed, peaking in the mid-twentieth century. But the camera found laboring human bodies to be equally photogenic, with their sweating skin, bold shapes, and furrowed brows. Lewis Hine’s Power house mechanic working on steam pump (1920), an icon of American industrialism, is built on this duality. Does its formal unity suggest a utopian integration of man and machine, or is this an image of tension and alienation?  Context can push the reading one way or the other, but the ambiguity is there.

The kind of graphic punch distilled in Hine’s image dominated the depiction of American manual labor for many decades. It was partly a way to simplify the visual complexity of factories, workshops, and production lines, but there was also a rhetoric of heroic toil. This was pushed hard by Fortune, the nation’s lavish magazine of business and industry, launched in 1930. Margaret Bourke-White’s hyperbolic shots of factories and workers have much in common with state photographs made in the Soviet Union at the same time. (Bourke-White was also keen to have herself depicted as the heroic working photographer for this can-do age). But such extravagance always risked backfiring. In 1947 the media theorist Marshall McLuhan derided Fortune for its “managerial grand opera.”

However, Fortune’s other key photographer was the antithesis of Bourke-White. Walker Evans photographed laborers throughout his career, but never actually laboring. He preferred the less prescriptive arena of the street, at lunchtime or after hours. He also looked to common tools, or the workspace devoid of employees, shifting the camera’s gaze away from the working body. Indeed, Evans sensed a much deeper consonance between photography and unemployment. “People out of work are not given to talking much about the one thing on their minds,” he wrote in his photo-essay “People and Place in Trouble” (Fortune, March 1961). “The plain non-artistic photograph may come closer to the matter, which is sheer personal distress.” The static muteness of photography befits the silenced and stilled human. This profound insight went unnoticed, but Evans’s circumspect attitude to picturing labor anticipated a great deal of the ensuing attempts to grapple with the challenge.

From the late 1950s to the early 2000s the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher made extensive photographic surveys of industrial architecture across Europe and America. Their clear, frontal, and rectilinear images were made with large-format cameras in the neutralized style of nineteenth-century architectural photography, and are almost always devoid of workers. The plain vision also masked the Becher’s own selfless labor. It is only when you see a grand survey exhibition of their prints, or consult their large books, that you can grasp the effort taken to build and operate these structures and the effort taken to document them. So while labor seems to be absent from the buildings and the photographs, it haunts from beyond the frame.

The Bechers restricted themselves to industrial forms that made sense to the eye, or, as they put it in their 1970 book Anonymous Sculptures, to “objects predominantly instrumental in character, whose shapes are the results of calculation and whose processes of development are optically evident.” Mine shafts, lime kilns, and water towers, for example. They excluded nuclear power plants, because one cannot see from the outside how such a facility works.

In contrast, Lewis Baltz’s celebrated series The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California (1974) shows the exteriors of low-rise modular buildings that give no indication at all as to what is being made inside. “You don’t know whether they are manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath,” he once commented. He could have ventured in, as an investigative journalist, but there was something disarming about those exteriors. The uncertain status of labor in (and of) such images meant that at first the art world didn’t know how to receive Baltz’s work. When interest did come it was in relation to minimalist sculpture and Conceptual art. For artists like Dan Flavin, to name one example, a piece of sculpture could simply be an industrially standard form, like a fluorescent light tube. The conceptual turn in art happened for many reasons: the dead end of high modernism, new feminist voices, new political movements. In its downplaying of conspicuous craft, Conceptual art paralleled both the growing shift toward cheap mass manufacture overseas and the great expansion of the service and leisure industries that continues to this day in so many “postindustrial” nations.

In this light, art practices coming out of the conceptual turn to directly address labor bring up particularly complicated strategies. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Touch Sanitation Performance (1979–80) involved the artist literally “reaching out” to shake hands with New York City’s 8,500 sanitation workers. We can certainly see this as a symbolic act of unity, and all those handshakes could be considered a lot of work in themselves, if not quite as arduous as clearing trash daily. Shaking so many hands isn’t an everyday activity, but does it close the gap between art and everyday work? Or does it make the distance all the more palpable? For the people doing the handshaking it may close the gap, but what is a viewer’s response? Are we to be inspired to do like the artist? To become a sanitation worker (if we’re not one already)?

The gap between art and life can never really be closed, and there’s a strong argument that it is key to art’s potential to keep open a space of free thought and contemplation. But there are moments when the gap feels awkward. Photographing work and looking at photographs of work are often among those moments. This is partly because of the medium’s equivocal status as labor, and the equally equivocal status of the photographer as laborer. Sure, photography can be very hard work, but it can also be no work at all (the earliest metaphors for the medium—“pencil of nature,” “mirror with a memory”—emphasized ease and erased any sense of labor, or even intention). Any photographer who has been asked to shoot a factory production line will be aware of how different their own labor is, and how differently they fit into the economy.

In Jeff Wall’s Outburst (1989), the boss or floor manager of a garment sweatshop harangues a startled worker. The poses suggest sudden reaction but are stiff and caricatured. Is Wall’s dramaturgy just plain awkward, or is he getting at the way labor relations often frustrate true expression and limit people to empty gestures that bypass true feelings?  Is the boss as trapped in formulaic behavior as the worker who disappoints him? Wall’s tableau feels like a nightmarish karaoke of frustration. Indeed, he first filmed his players in rehearsal, and then chose gestures from the footage to reenact before his camera. It’s not a “direct” representation of labor, and it certainly doesn’t attempt to dissolve art into life. Instead the representation of work and the work of representation rub against each other.

While art practices have been examining all these representational strategies since the 1970s, the mass media depiction of American manual labor has dwindled, and far faster than the manufacturing base itself. It is pictured rarely in the news. As companies became increasingly “image conscious” and wary of bad press, photographers have found access more difficult. When the spaces of work do get photographed it’s often by invitation, and with the restrictions that might imply. For decades, the Magnum agency has taken commissions to shoot for corporate annual reports. In 1969 the computer company IBM commissioned a book from Henri Cartier-Bresson, but the company itself was barely present in the results. Instead, the resulting book, Man and Machine (1970), cherry-picks from the photographer’s back catalogue of images, from horse-drawn ploughs to high-tech industry. While it is far from Cartier-Bresson’s finest publication, there’s something revelatory about seeing dirty cogs and levers replaced by clean electronics while sensing the photographer’s struggle to find ways of picturing the change.

Perhaps the most remarkable and extensive documentation of American labor has come from the photographer Lee Friedlander. Over decades and through several very different projects, all commissioned, he has built up a singularly compelling portrait of the nation at work. Factory Valleys (1979–80), a study of heavy and light industry in Ohio and Pennsylvania, was made at the invitation of the Akron Art Institute; in 1985 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum commissioned photographs of workers seated at computers in and around Boston; in 1986 Cray Research of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, asked for a photobook of its supercomputer production, to be given directly to all its employees; in 1992 the Dreyfus Corporation in New York City asked for images of workers in its offices and trading floor; in 1995 the Gund Foundation commissioned pictures of manufacturing in Cleveland for its annual report; in 1995 The New York Times Magazine commissioned portraits of telemarketers at work in Omaha, Nebraska; and then, in 2007, The New York Times Magazine asked Friedlander to shoot backstage at New York Fashion Week.

The list sounds institutional, but in each case the commission came from an individual, a person within the company who understood Friedlander’s vision and his way of photographing workers as individuals. Yes, they are often pictured in the seriocomic chaos of tubing, cable, or cloth, and at times it’s difficult to see where limbs end and tools begin. But humans change the world of work, and work changes humans. These aren’t corny attempts to pierce the soul of each person, nor to turn people into emblems of “work in general.” There’s no condescension or idolizing either, just complex pictures of complex people doing complex things.

What comes through is Friedlander’s affection for his fellow human beings and their varied circumstances of toil. The photographer working his machine strives to make a picture of another person working theirs. And as always, Friedlandler makes his own labor look easy, wearing so lightly his years of honed and hardwon technique. Pictures from most of these projects were published in a 2002 book with the brilliantly double-edged title Lee Friedlander at Work. It was prefaced with a simple dedication: “To the memory of my uncle Neil Norme, who through his example taught me the honor and pleasure of work. He was a calm and purposeful man. Steady.”

Honor and pleasure. Those are not words one often hears in relation to today’s world of work, nor the depictions of it. It’s unlikely that work will ever be pleasurable for everyone, which is all the more reason to regard it as honorable.

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