Archives photos assure our labor is not lost

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 18, 2009
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LEXINGTON - For many people, what they do for a living defines who they are in life. Such self-definition isn’t necessarily a question of workaholism or professional ambition. It’s simple arithmetic: Five times a week, half of each waking day is spent on the job. Is it just a coincidence that “labor’’ describes the process that brings people into the world as well as what they do at work?

One of the many satisfactions offered by “The Way We Worked,’’ at the National Heritage Museum through Jan. 3, is how it rejects any narrow interpretation of its subject. These images, all of which come from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., remind us that where and how a job is done - let alone who does it - can be no less important that what gets done.

“The Way We Worked’’ doubles as an exercise in on-the-job social history. Class figures prominently, of course. But so, too, do race, gender, technology, and even fashion. (A section of the show focuses on work attire.) The 86 photographs, which range in date from 1857 to 1987, amount to a cross-section of US society. Occupations on display include fisherman, logger, cowboy, teacher, office worker, longshoreman, factory worker, firefighter, police officer, waitress, farmer, nurse, doctor, pilot, construction worker - and that’s only a partial list.

All but eight of the photographs are in black and white. That seems fitting. Who thinks of 9-5 as an extended Kodak moment? All too often, drabber is closer to the reality of labor. Still, John Alexandrowicz’s 1973 color photograph of a Cleveland sanitation worker or the one Bill Gillette took a year earlier of farm workers hoeing rows of beets reminds us that visual enlivening can’t change the fact that so much of work, as Dr. Johnson said of human existence generally, is “a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.’’

A few of the images here were taken by famous photographers. Lewis Hine has six pictures in the show, Timothy O’Sullivan two, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein one each. The two miners Lee photographed in Harlan County, Ky., in 1946 stoop at nearly a right angle as they exit the mine. One all but feels the ache in their lower backs.

Most of the pictures come from those two most important names in the history of the medium: Anonymous and Unknown. That’s fitting, since work - “the toad work,’’ the poet Philip Larkin called it - is something nearly all of us have in faceless, nameless common: an identity so shared it ceases to identify.

Unknown hardly means untalented. Whoever took the photograph of a maid with two small children in a Washington, D.C., park in 1910 had a masterful eye for composition. And the anonymous photographer of “Banana Inspection’’ knew great visual material when he (or she) saw it. The fat, fingery thrust of the many bunches of the fruit borne by a group of stevedores is like a garland of accusation.

Sometimes there’s a conscious effort to ennoble and lionize. Charles Fenno Jacobs has shot the shipfitter in “Man Working on Hull of US Submarine at Electric Boat Co., Groton, Conn.’’ so that he looks like a blue-collar Neptune (the long wrench he holds could be the god’s trident). Joseph O’Donnell has lit his portrait of a secretary at her desk in such a way that she could be a moonlighting fashion model, the pen in her hand as slim as a cigarette holder. A different kind of nobility is evident in the photograph of mourners protesting the loss of life in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, which killed 146 workers. (Workplaces aren’t the only locations in “The Way We Worked’’; so are picket lines and demonstrations.)

More often, we get matter-of-fact blankness. George J. Szabo’s 1973 photograph of postal workers wearing headphones as they sort mail conveys all too well a sense of punch-the-clock drudgery. Their effort to allay boredom finds an unexpected counterpart six decades earlier in Hine’s “A ‘Reader’ in a Cigar Factory’’: A man sits on a raised chair reading aloud from the day’s newspaper to the workers. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a newspaper is more than just a newspaper.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

THE WAY WE WORKED At: the National Heritage Museum, 33 Marrett Road, Lexington, through Jan. 3. Call 781-861-6559 or go to www.nationalheritage

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