I based an earlier investigation into typologies on people working on a small rural industrial estate on the Surrey Hampshire borders (here). The main reference point was August Sander (here) but I was conscious of a small number of other photographers who had used the workplace as a setting.
Perhaps the most obvious is Lewis Hine who, as a concerned documentary photographer, highlighted the role humans played in the great industrial machine that was created in America after WWI (I have previously discussed his work here). His books Men at Work which focussed on the men who built the Empire State Building and Women at Work (1) represent his recognition of people as individuals rather than as examples of a type; his pictures are an affirmation of the importance and character of working men and women. (i) In this regard he is the polar opposite of Sander who saw his subjects as examples but who, ironically, failed to suppress their individuality in his photographs
Hine started taking what he called “work portraits” in about 1920 and although he left little in the way of diaries or essays he kept careful notes about his subjects which were later transcribed onto the back of his prints. These captions reveal a significant amount about his attitude to the people he was photographing. In figure 2 he is at pains to communicate that the young women is a skilled worker which given her gender and ethnicity was an important statement in 1920. He saw his subjects as important people who “could not be dwarfed ivy the product or the process” (ii)
His photographs of factories concentrate attention on the workers and whilst they are occasionally visually dwarfed by machinery they are shown in control of often complex machines and processes.
He was also even handed, not just capturing working environments that supported his reformist views; in Women at Work he shows a high percentage of his subjects engaged with the latest technology, telephone exchanges, print shops, precision engineering. As such his photographs emphasise the skills of female workers as well as the sometimes dire circumstances of their working environment.
Overall his work is a lesson in the importance of understanding and respecting the subject.
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
His was working much earlier than Hine so his approach is limited by the technology available; he does not always present his subjects working, just at work keeping still for his necessarily long exposures and the scope is limited to the people of a small fishing and farming community in North Yorkshire.
However, like Hine, it is possible to read his photographs as positive statements about his subjects.
If in Hine’s work we see respect and a desire to promote the role of the individual in Sutcliffe’s pictures we can read respect and affection.
Anna Fox in her series Work Stations (2) takes a different approach. She is not attempting to project her subjects as the heroic builders of an economy or the skilled craftsmen in a fishing and market town. This series has deeper political undertones as a critique of what she calls “the highly competitive character of working life in Thatcher’s Britain”. There is a Martin Parr-like satirical edge to this series that is partly due to her appropriation of quotes from contemporary business magazines to use as captions and her use of harsh flash lighting.
I have great respect for Fox’s work and particularly like Resort 1 and The Village which are sympathetic views on Butlins and her own village in Hampshire respectively but I am using Work Stations here as an example of outsider photography. Having worked in London offices in the 80s I sense that this was an alien environment to the, then young photographer, and her negative perspective suggests a lack of understanding and perhaps even respect of her subject.
I spent quite some time searching for contemporary documentary photographers who have focussed on people at work and through that research found a rather special book by Charlotte Schreiber, the photographer and Katie Treggiden who wrote the text. In Makers of East London (5) Schreiber and Treggiden set out to document the craftsmen of a creative community that has sprung up in the old factories, warehouses and houses of East London alongside the better recognised high-tech businesses that have helped to rejuvenate the East End but that are also fuelling the gentrification of once cheap districts. The area’s success could drive out the small artisan businesses so this book documents both a success story and an endangered species.
The collection takes Lewis Hine’s approach much further and deeper albeit for a much smaller and narrower group of workers. Schreiber photographs each craftsman as a full or three quarter body shot and then two or three more times often focusing in on their busy hands, their creative hands, the hands in the context of handcrafted (iii). Her series are completed with still life compositions of their tools or materials.
Although I approached this publication as a photo book it would be doing it an injustice to limit my description solely to the pictures. It is a collaborative project with Katie Treggiden, an established and successful journalist; and my delight in this book lies in the relationship between Schreiber’s precisely composed, factual, understated but elegant pictures and Treggiden’s sympathetic descriptions that evolve from, and are punctuated with, excepts from her interviews with the subjects.
At a technical, presentation level this book shows the effectiveness of combining text and pictures in a documentary context, both the essays and captions interact with the photographs complimenting each other and adding layers of understanding for the reader.
To select just one example; a spread includes a full page picture of Jonty Hampson, a cabinetmaker, drawing out the shape of a chopping board using a simple plywood form as his guide. The picture concentrates the viewer’s attention on his left hand holding the pencil but not as an artist sketching or a writer taking notes but with that strong, firm grip that craftsmen use to maintain control whilst applying pressure. We see the grain in the wood that will be later shaped as a unique chopping board and his right hand, just in view but out of focus, holds the form in place. It is a simple photograph, quite classically composed, probably lit with a single light source and either slightly over exposed or desaturated in post production. We cannot see the subjects face and there is the merest glimpse of his body in its checked, workmans’ shirt but we gain the sense of him leaning over his work, concentrating on this early step in the production process but by placing his creative hand close to the camera with space behind there is a sense of movement and activity, of his hands engaged in a creative process.
The picture has a caption “At 21 I left an office job to work with my hands and haven’t looked back since”, a caption that heads up the page facing the photograph and links the picture to the subject by using a first person quotation and becomes the link to the main body of text which describes how people understand his products once they “are in people’s hands”. Neither the text nor the picture contain a significant amount of information but together we have the visual representation of hands and his stated desire to work with his hands combing to describe Mr. Hampson’s motivations, skills and job satisfaction; even before reading the main body of text we have built up a mental picture of the craftsman.
At another level the book is pure documentary, faithfully recording a group of people working in a small geographical area as innovative designers and craftsmen; there is a very direct relationship with Lewis Hine in the way it focusses on the individuals, portraying them, in both text and pictures, as talented, skilful and entrepreneurial. The men and women depicted here use everything from paint brushes to traditional factory machinery and high tech equipment but they are always in control of the process, they are not dwarfed by great machines or slaves to technology. Schreiber and Treggiden don’t glamorise their subjects, this is not a fashion shoot with a backdrop of Victorian machines and tools but it is obvious that they admire them and the idea of creative people doing something worthwhile is very effectively communicated to the reader.
Notes on Text
(i) This positive affirmation side of Hine’s work is often ignored despite the fact that his most famous photograph of men eating their lunch sitting on a girder high above New York adorns the walls of thousands of New York offices. He is more often discussed as a reformer who highlighted the plight of child labourers and immigrants.
(ii) Quoted by Jonathan L. Doherty (1) as being written by Hine in a letter to Paul Kellog the director of the Pittsburg Survey, a progressive reform movement.
(iii) Hands are the craftsman’s most essential tool; handicrafts, hands-on, handy, field hand, farm hand, old hand, give me a hand, hand made, hand painted, hand crafted, to get one’s hands dirty, to have one’s hands full, are all common phrases that emphasise the importance of hands in defining a person’s skills, usefulness, purpose and identity. Other photographers have been drawn to hands (iii), perhaps as Geoff Dyer (3) suggests, partly because they are so difficult to draw but also because they can often reveal as much about a person as their face. Geoff Dyer (3) discusses how Alfred Stieglitz completed an extensive study of Georgia O’Keefe’s hands, a project that could be representing his lover’s touch but also isolating or highlighting the artist’s hand, the creative hand, a device used by painters such as Martin van Heemskerk and Marie-Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun in self portraits in what Victor Stoicha (4) refers to as a “living discourse on representation” (previously discussed here)
(1) Hine, Lewis Wickes (1981) Women at Work (edited by Jonathan L. Doherty). New York: Dover Publications
(3) Dyer, Geoff (2012) The Ongoing Moment (originally published in 2005 by Little and Brown). London: Canongate Books (Kindle Edition)
(4) Stoichita, Victor I. ( 1997) A Short History of the Shadow. London: Reaktion
(5) Schreiber, Charlotte and Treggiden, Katie ( 2015) Makers of East London. London: Hoxton Mini Press
(2) Fox, Anna (1986) Work Stations (accessed at the photographer’s website 11.05.14) – http://www.annafox.co.uk/work/workstations/