Picturing Work: Images by Photographers that Share a Visual Similarity to a Lewis Hine Photograph

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[Worker pressing rubber bodies, Paragon Rubber Company and American Character Doll, Easthampton, Massachusetts], December 1936

This 1936 photograph by Lewis Hine is primarily about three things:

1) The workplace environment

2) A worker’s relationship to their work, and conversely, leisure time, or lack thereof.

3) The convergence of machine with human form/fetishizing machinery

Below are 10 examples of photography that also address these points.

Timothy O'Sullivan, National Archives and Records Administration, 1868

Timothy O’Sullivan, National Archives and Records Administration, 1868

A miner at work in the US at a time of Westward expansion.  This was after the Industrial Revolution, but America was still a very fresh nation with uncharted territory.  Did O’Sullivan ask this miner to pose for him, given the slow nature of cameras at the time?  Regardless of what took place when the photo was taken, the image shows a man knocking down obstacles in his path, most certainly for the sake of something bigger than himself.

Peter Henry Emerson_Ricking_the_reed_1886

Peter Henry Emerson, Ricking the reed, 1886

Emerson’s photographs were disregarded by some for appearing overly romantic and idyllic, but I’m throwing this image into the mix as a way to see work as a subject matter itself for both artistic as well as more direct issues of labor.

Frank Gilbreth, Time and Motion Study_1913

Frank Gilbreth, Time and Motion Study, 1913

Gilbreth is known for his long exposures that utilized a method of “painting” with light.  His studies of workers using machines were heightened into the “future,” where the functionality of the machines were usurped by the dazzling motion created by a pencil-thin light source.  Notice how the halo above the worker creates a comic book-like “thought bubble.”

Woman working in an arms factory, c.1916 (b:w photo), Moreau, Jacques (b.1887) : Archives Larousse, Paris, France : Giraudon : The Bridgeman Art Library

Woman working in an arms factory, c.1916, Moreau, Jacques (b.1887) : Archives Larousse, Paris, France : Giraudon : The Bridgeman Art Library

Here we see a group of women working in 1916, posing for the camerperson in the midst of their work.  The women are posed with dignity, in the midst of work.  There is a relationship between the workers and their machines–they both need each other.

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Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic, 1919, collage of pasted papers, 90 x 144 cm

Hannah Hoch’s collage illustrates the dizzying relationship between humanity’s technological progress and the dangers of moving too fast.  Clearly a reaction to the utter destruction of WWI.  Sort of reminds me of a Modernist version of Ryan Treycartin’s world.

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Sebastião Salgado, Fallen worker: A fire fighter from the Safety Boss team knocked unconscious by a blast of gas from the wellhead, Kuwait, 1991

One of the many iconic photos by Salgado, whose work encompasses universal depravities such as our destruction of the environment, war, and slavery.  I chose this photo because it is not only mesmerizing, but overt in it’s statement of man being overpowered by his machine.

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Jeff Wall, Untangling, 1994

We can feel the tediousness of the task at hand here in Jeff Wall’s picture of a modern day Sisyphus.  Unlike some of the images above, the blue collar worker here is in a smaller setting, a mechanic shop, as opposed to a larger factory containing hundreds of laborers working toward something large.  We see his endless task spilled before him, yet his age and expression raise questions about the hierarchy of power in this place where a younger worker stands in the background.  Who is the boss here?

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Darin Mickey, title unknown, date unknown

Darin Mickey’s twist on blue collar workers.  Today more and more white collar workers populate the workplace, with factories closing down and skilled laborers now out of work.  Whether it’s feeding rubber molds into a machine in 1936, or filling out spreadsheets on a computer in the 21st century, work is still work.

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Ed Burtynsky, 2005

Contrary to Mickey’s photograph of an American office worker, here we see a room filled with Chinese workers.  Factory work has been exported to countries with workforces that will work longer hours for smaller paychecks.  Unlike the photograph of the woman working in a factory in 1916, who faces the camera with a smile, these women stare at the lens with tired faces, with their bodies turned toward the work at hand.

Vincent Fournier, Nextage #1 [Kawada], Tochigi, Japan, 2010

Vincent Fournier, Nextage #1 [Kawada], Tochigi, Japan, 2010

The future is here!  A two man team with no overseer in sight, programming robots.  The graceful points of contact between the man and his workstation are tender, yet the prospect of what this robot will become is a foreseeable image.

This video is a recreation of the original Lewis Hine image.  In this case an office worker performs a typical office joke (think: stapler in jello), yet her expression and business-like demeanor questions the fun of the act.  Is the joke the work?

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