Finding Work: Representing Labor in Contemporary Art

By Scott Sternbach

November 13 – December 9, 2009, Ground flr
Opening Reception: November 13, 6-8PM

Steven Brower • Jesse Dittmar • William Oberst • Tom Otterness • Karina Skvirsky • Scott Sternbach • Johanna Unzueta

As the unemployment rate reaches a twenty-six year high and the idea of a ‘jobless recovery’ to the current economic crisis is mentioned, Finding Work looks at the way that some contemporary artists have taken to representing labor in their practice. Whether through documentation or staging acts of labor, artists over the past century have often been concerned with and represented labor in their practice. The artists here look to locate labor and interrogate our assumptions surrounding work and how much of that process is hidden in plain sight. The messy reality of manufacture may lack the luster of capitalism’s glow, its objects and trophies, but this labor is the essence of the very products that embody today’s economic and social world. As one in ten people actively seeking work cannot find it, labor and its absence is clearly a political issue. Within this context the act of finding work, whether represented or real, is of urgent import.
-Keith Miller, Curator

Steven Brower

Steven Brower lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He has had numerous solo and group shows all over the world including New York, Italy, China and the Netherlands. His current projects include the “Brower Propulsion Laboratory,” which follows the life and work of retired astronaut Conrad Carpenter.


Jesse Dittmar

Jesse Dittmar is a Gallatin 08 alum and has been featured in four previous group photography exhibits in New York City and surrounding areas. Jesse hails from the North Eastern US, has lived in London and New York City, and has traveled to Africa as well as Europe.


William Oberst

William Oberst earned an M.F.A. in painting from Stony Brook University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Claremont Graduate University. He taught painting and drawing at Stony Brook for more than a decade and is the recipient of many awards, including the university’s Distinguished Faculty Service Award in 2002. His studio and residence are in North Adams, Massachusetts. He is affiliated with Atlantic Gallery in New York City.


Tom Otterness

Tom Otterness is an internationally known sculptor made famous by his use of whimsical bronze characters to confront iconic issues and address social concerns. His work can been seen publicly in New York City both in the 14th St. Subway station and on Park Avenue. Additionally, his work is featured in the public collections of the Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Modern Art (NY), The Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. A fixture of the urban landscape, Otterness’ creative and thoughtful pieces could easily earn him the title of “New York’s favorite sculptor.”


Karina Skvirksy


Karina Skvirsky is a photographer and video artist whose work often focuses on issues of racial politics as portrayed historically, in the media, and through the lens of American culture. She has exhibited internationally in group and solo shows including: the Aldrich Musuem, CT, Momenta Art, NY, Sara Meltzer Gallery, NY, Jessica Murray Projects, NY, The Center for Book Arts, NY, Vox Populi, PA, Bronx Museum of Art, NY, Smack Mellon, NY, StudioSoto, MA, Kunstahalle Exnergasse, Austria, Impakt 2004, The Netherlands, Le Centre pour L’image Contemporaine, Switzerland and others.


Scott Sternbach

Scott Sternbach is the director of the photography program of CUNY LaGuardia and has been exhibiting his photos since 1990. Introduced to photography through his grandfather’s love and devotion to the art, Sternbach had the privilege of studying with renowned artists such as Arnold Gassan and Lisette Model. His work encompasses an impressive array of topics, from researchers in Antarctica, to farmers in Upstate New York, to a breathtaking collection of portraits of famous jazz musicians.


Johanna Unzueta

Johanna Unzueta is a Chilean sculptor whose work has been displayed internationally in Rio De Janeiro, London, Paris, and New York among other cities. Through the use of hand sewn felt Unzueta creates unique objects which, in their detailed manufacture and exact replication, address issues of labor, representation, and feminism. Her work is currently on view at the Queens Museum, The Visual Drugs Gallery in Switzerland, and in Chile’s National University Museum.


Essay: Finding Work is a Job
From the panel discussion, “The Image of Labor” Tuesday November 17th, 2009
The title of this exhibition, “Finding Work,” evokes a central problem of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century worth tangling with. W.E. B. DuBois famously said that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line—and that seemed hard to dispute with the Great Migration, with lynchings and with Watts, with the civil rights movement—and still seems so with Rodney King, O.J., and with our new President. As much as the nation wants to run away from its racialized and racist past, we find over and again, in Faulkner’s words, that “the past isn’t dead, the past isn’t even past.” The “labor question,” the problem of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century on the other hand, was ostensibly solved with FDR’s New Deal. A century ago economists such as Simon Patten had promised a culture of abundance, a “pleasure economy” with the rise of mass production. But it was only with the reworked political calculus of the New Deal, where unions finally came into their own and wrenched some bit of security and social insurance from the state and from business, that capitalism’s promise applied to many U.S. workers, as well as its middle and upper classes. Today we know what an utterly fragile scrim of security that was.

For me this points to one of the curator Keith Miller’s central assumptions in curating this show: “Labor and its absence is clearly a political issue.” From the nation’s inception, we were to be a nation that rejected class and we continue to struggle to “see” it. Yes there’s Fox’s “Family Guy,” and if we read against the grain there’s gangster movies, or urban dramas such as The Wire. Even googling working class and Hollywood or TV brings up few hits. An article entitled “Hollywood Flicks Stiff the Working Class” seems to apply to the nation’s mass culture. In the information economy, one has to labor to find labor.

In the U.S. context, if one were to ask which artist best represents American workers or work, the response of many would be Lewis Hine. (And many might struggle to come up with another name.) Hine photographed workers, primarily industrial laborers, in the era before unions were an important part of the political equation. His photos ennobled those in the lower classes—a way of looking at labor that is reflected in many of the artists featured in “Finding Work.” His photos of Eastern European steelworkers from Homestead Pennsylvania, taken as part of the Russel Sage Foundation funded Pittsuburgh Survey in the first decade of the twentieth century, showed a group of decidedly ethnic workers. They seem at ease with one another, their arms clasped around each other’s shoulders, a cigarette casually held by one worker. Their begrimed workshirts and filthy hands don’t keep these workers from a self-possession that they communicate to their viewers through their direct, appraising gazes.

Similarly, in Hine’s glassworks factory from 1909, a prepubescent boy stares right at the viewer. The photo stands in stark contrast to another kind of photography that developed at about the same time: corporate photography. As David Noble argues, this corporate style minimized the worker, emphasizing the factory’s order as orchestrated by the manager, much as Taylorism sought to transfer the knowledge under the workmen’s cap to management for greater productivity and control. Hine on the other hand identifies the laborers in the center of a dark, chaotic factory floor. Alan Trachtenberg considers Hine’s workers to demonstrate “sociality,” the subjects ask that we interact with them—not just view them as objects. Hine believed in the dignity of work, that “cities do not build themselves, machines cannot make machines, unless back of them all are the brains and toil of men. We call this the Machine Age, but the more machines we use the more do we need real men to make and direct them.” This was Hine’s opening gambit in his Men at Work series, a series created, in the midst of the Great Depression. Hine had developed a decades-long record of America’s industrial workers by this point. Hine’s work is a monument to one way of seeing labor—a way largely obscured in today’s culture.

Despite the apparent absence of labor—in art, and often in popular culture, it is interesting to note that the history of photography is entwined with the medium’s representation of working people. In the camera’s first decades photographers churned out endless chemical images that aped artistic subjects and conventions centuries old—portraits, both august and sentimental, and landscapes, sometimes cityscapes of worlds old and new, and of course genre scenes, sometimes of working people—working types, that derived from new 19th century forms of urban literature. But when photographers represented contemporary life and looked at working people the camera lens broke artistic conventions creating new ways of seeing.

Portraits had tended to be of elites, but once tintypes democratized image making, workers thronged to be “emportraited.” If middle-class American brought items to symbolize their power and status: books, eye glasses, globes, the marks of domesticity for women, laborers often showed up in pictures having lugged into the picture frame the tools of their trade. The joining of word and image also involves workers. The first photograph ever to appear in a newspaper, “Scenes of a Shanty Town,” showed a worker’s hovel sitting on a patch of Manhattan schist. Appearing in the New York Daily Graphic on March 4, 1880, the half-tone print though clumsy by today’s standards was a great improvement over earlier attempts to wed text and photographic image together. Why the Graphic printed the “scene” of workers’ abode is not recorded, for the paper could have shown instead one of the metropolis’s broad avenues or architectural gems. This interest in “the other half ” became the primary focus of early documentary photography, a new genre that has been historically tied to representing workers and the poor.

Most photo-historians credit Jacob Riis as the “father” of the documentary tradition. In 1888, Riis, a police reporter for the New York Sun, took two members of New York’s Society of Amateur Photographers to record the haunts of “the Poor, the Idle, and the Vicious.” His resulting article, “Flashes from the Slums: Pictures Taken in Dark Places by the Lightning Process,” showed the perfidy it promised in images entitled “White Slaves,” “Growler Gangs,” and “Street Arabs.” Other photographs like “Baxter Street Alley” and “Bandit’s Roost” recorded the cramped, menacing neighborhoods of many working New Yorkers, and implied workers’ menace as well. In How the Other Half Lives Riis wrote about disarming “the man with the knife,” whom he imagined countenanced “the masses against the classes.” Riis differentiated the “dissolute” from the deserving working poor in his text, but in his photographs, the English coal heavers, Bohemian cigar-makers, and “sewing and starving” sweatshop girls looked hardly different than New York’s tramps and beer dive denizens who New Yorkers were to fear. Riis’s concentration on the marginalized, including workers, remained a trademark of documentary photography until after World War II. And how easy it was to confound the deserving and dissolute in a time when many working Americans toiled hours on end without attaining wages for adequate shelter, clothing, or even diet.

Yet another photographic first involved workers. In 1941 the Pulitzer Prize committee extended its journalism awards to news photography and the first winner was an image of eight or nine UAW members pummeling a scab. The photographer, Milton Brooks of the Detroit News, stood so that the walls of the River Rouge plant, owned by one of America’s most virulent anti-unionists, Henry Ford, lie as a backdrop. Brooks caught the UAW members in full attack. Their clubs and fists coiled back before striking the ill-fated victim who pulled his coat over his head, and curled his hands round his face. The facial expressions of the strikers are a wonder. Several, intent on their beating have their tongues out; others bite their bottom lips; yet others seem to grin. The photograph trades on one of photography’s assets, the capacity to capture a split second—yet the photographer framed the attack with more timeless rules for composition. The onlookers create a horizontal against the Rouge plant, and the inner group of miscreants creates a triangle that pierces this line. The wide-legged stance of many of the photo’s participants echoes this triangular pattern. Newsworthy and aesthetically powerful, the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph can also be read as a signal of the transformations that unionization would effect in workers’ lives.

Workers’ lives can still be illuminated. Lewis Hine called what he did “social photography.” He thought that the “sympathetic interpretation” of photographs could provide a “lever[s] for social uplift,” and that workers themselves, “in the thick of battle” should do this documentation. It’s fair to say that in the U.S. this has rarely come to pass. Photo historians and historians of Communism may well be aware of New York’s Photo League, which the U.S. government hounded out of existence in the early 1950s. Here in New York City, there was also a union, Local 65 distributive workers union, which had a camera club that recorded the rich cultural life of its union for several decades. But close to a century after Hine visited the steel-making town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, two academic investigators, Judith Modell and Charlee Brodsky retraced his steps. They found “few people in Homestead had snapshot versions of laboring and learning to labor. Outsiders take pictures of work, but insiders do not.”

This is a serious problem for workers. In the screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story, the patrician Tracey Lord played by Katherine Hepburn tells her love interest/antagonist Macauley Connor, played by populist hero Jimmy Stewart: “What have classes to do with it? What do they matter except for the people in them?” Ultimately labor must insist on its representation. Artists, as laborers, might make this a commitment as well. As a recently Ford Foundation funded survey found, more than two-thirds of artists make less than forty thousand dollars annually. Artists might find that they have more in common with workers than they think—in seeing labor and finding work they might find themselves.

– Carol Quirke, 2009