Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 12, 2023
Robert Slifkin Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work MACK, 2022. 242 pp. Paperback $30.00 (9781913620073)

Robert Slifkin’s Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work investigates Hare’s documentary photography, charting his initial interest in and eventual disengagement from the medium, and his combat with those in the upper echelons of the photographic world. Taken during the 1960s and 1970s, Hare’s subjects, white- and blue-collar workers, were Hare’s colleagues, or those he encountered in several cross-country journeys. Slifkin organizes his meditations thematically, in short essayistic chapters, following Hare’s relationship to family, gender relations, employment, postwar documentary photography, and art institutions. Ultimately these are explorations of Hare’s sense of self, or “authority” as Slifkin articulates it. Some chapters comprise deep investigations that intertwine analyses of imagery and archival research. “Homework,” a provocative chapter, examines “the treacherous imbrication of work and home.” “Ironic Documents” identifies the intertextuality of images in Hare’s photographs—mass-reproduced “Last Suppers” vie with cat food ads, and “Educational Authority Complex” contextualizes Hare’s graduate work at the San Francisco Art Institute with its heated divisions over photography’s techniques and purposes (36, 89). Other sections are short two-to-six-page forays into particular dynamics shaping Hare’s ideas and photographic career.

As Slifkin relays in his introductory section, “Work-Life Balance Problems,” Chauncey Hare was a character; a crank, or “a pain in the neck” (137). A graduate of Columbia University, the child of a Dupont engineer turned manager, Hare followed a life course as outlined in C. Wright Mills’s White Collar (1951) or William Whyte’s Organization Man (1956). He had an early, unhappy marriage and child with a young immigrant woman and a position at petroleum giant, Standard Oil of California. His career arc epitomized postwar abundance and conformity. Hare came to photography as an antidote to his sterile, enervating engineering career; photography provided an “analgesic antithesis to work” (32).

This photographer of work and workers won three Guggenheim fellowships, surpassed in 1976 only by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans, had an Aperture monograph among his two publications, and a one-person MOMA show in 1977. Ultimately Hare, “poised to enter the pantheon of great photographers” (17) in the late 1970s for his “surreal depiction of mundane and . . . unidealized life,” renounced his career, believing that photography could not “address the social factors that were at the root of the alienation he encountered”(24). The tension “between the two identities of worker and artist,” Slifkin argues, were for Hare both “inextricable and fundamentally antithetical” (49).

The emotional vacuity of work and consumerism for workers of all classes and the physical destructiveness of blue-collar labor was Hare’s main subject. He explored it with the same discipline and badges of authority that other white-collar workers have exploited. He wore sober workwear, and conveyed letters of introduction from authorities—the Guggenheim Foundation and Governors Reagan and Wallace—to gain entry into his subjects’ lives (76–77). He came to his main subject by chance in 1968. Walking down the street near where he worked in industrial Richmond, California, he happened upon a stout, older, working man, Orville England. England had suffered an industrial accident that forced him into retirement without disability support. Hare shows England in his kitchen, at rest beside the stove. England nonetheless appears located in an industrial workspace, a “control room” or “refinery scene” in Hare’s words. After encountering England, Hare began photographing the interiors of peoples’ homes, giving him the required confidence to ask, and at times “pretense and guile” to get the photographs he wanted (81).

Quitting Your Day Job is a critical addition to the limited scholarship on the visualization of working Americans in the late twentieth century. The subject of work lies at the heart of the documentary tradition, particularly in those eras where “the labor question” had its hold upon societies. Early practitioners like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine examined tenement-dwelling laborers, and the latter went on to take heartbreaking photos of child laborers in the 1910s and monumentalizing images of workers in the 1920s and 1930, indeed, Hare paid homage to Hine in several images. With the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, the development of photo magazines, and workers’ self-representation in leftist groups, unions, and camera clubs, photographs of industrial and agricultural labor were a primary focus.

For decades documentarians’ intent and impact was assumed to be ameliorative, yet, since the 1970s, scholars have refused to take photographs at face value. Rather they’ve explored photography’s ideological work: its ability to structure inequalities of gender, sex, and race. But scholars have attended much less to documentary’s first subject, work and class, particularly for the twentieth century’s latter half. It’s been taken as a given that as a result of Cold War anticommunism, US postwar abundance, and the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) embrace of a more personal vision, documentary photography became individualized, less didactic and less yoked to social movements.

Slifkin suggests Hare’s photographs quote both the FSA’s cool and observant Walker Evans, or earnestly engaged Russell Lee. Particularly intriguing is his analysis of Hare’s photograph of his kitchen. In 1939 Lee had photographed a Texas FSA recipient in her gleaming new kitchen. Hare referenced the “planned ingeniousness” of his photography, but as Slifkin writes, both photographers “cast the patterns and textures of the various surfaces,” as “aesthetic entities in their own right.” Specifically, “the stark frontal symmetry, orderly white cupboards and centered window” of Lee’s photo are echoed in Hare’s image of his young son sitting in the sink, waiting to be bathed (64–65, 42–43) Lee served as a father figure too. Hare annotated a copy of Interior America that he mailed to Lee. It showed one image of Hare’s father in their front room, asleep in an easy chair beside a Christmas tree. For Hare, the father, consumed by corporate structures, was directionless without oversight. Hare wrote Lee that his father had refused to ever discuss Interior America with him, rejecting Hare’s portrait and disenchantment with the American Dream (182–86). Hare documented both “the spiritual poverty . . . and emptiness of such materialistically based promises” (73), and how “modern industrial casualties” were “shafting themselves” (85). In place of the FSA’s earnest belief in individual and collective potential thwarted, Hare identifies a bloated collective body, provided for, but stunted by capitalism.

As much as Hare was moved by Lee and Evans, he honed his vision of work as technology and automation was changing its nature. And labor’s place in society shifted—workers were no longer simply legible as beacons of radical change, but widely recognized, particularly white male workers, as a conservative force. Simultaneously, while many blue-collar workers had been pulled by their unions from subsistence lives, both blue- and white-collar workers questioned their disaffection at work and leisure. Other documentarians, motivated by New Left social movements, sought revolutionary change and sought a practice and vision that could make the world anew. Slightly younger than Hare, notably Alan Sekula, Martha Rosler, and Fred Lonidier, spurned earlier documentary practices. Their art was more conceptual, and in exploring their subject they employed multi-media formats, snap shots, textbook illustrations, and soundtracks. Believing Evans to have been “coopted,” they rejected his “aestheticized stylizations.” And no neutral observers, their projects demonstrated their “investment in the material” (143).

Hare is a fascinating subject to mine as he sits between these two documentary moments, uncomfortably though, finding a home in neither. Moved greatly by the earlier generations’ photographs and highly critical of capitalism and bureaucracy, he shared no materialist critique, but rather one ground in a “therapeutic approach” that was “more personal and metaphysical” (211–12). Here Slifkin may downplay Hare’s class consciousness, as grandchild to a steelworker who had given a limb to the mills (Interior America, 10).

Ultimately the disquiet Hare felt as an employee and as a photographer of workers, extended to the art establishment. Seeing in them the same spirit-stultifying dynamics found at SoCal and later government jobs, he attacked these institutions. Two decades after his monumental successes Hare no longer described himself as a photographer (14–15). Organizations—corporate, arts, and governmental—engaged in “work abuse.” Once he left photography and became a therapist, or “awakened to his own authority” he could confront the abuse he perceived (52). In stepping away Hare sought to control how his photographs were seen. He gave his photos to the Bancroft Library with instructions that they could never be exhibited, and only reproduced with information on workers’ domination by multinational corporations (28). He picketed exhibitions of his work and sent defaced copies of exhibition books to top curators and museum donors, in effect breaking ties with them (167).

There’s no one quite like Hare in his photographic generation—his photographs, though ironic, are generally not sly or charming, nor involved enough in the human subjects to engage empathy. Their aesthetic register is intellectual. Unlike Sekula or Rosler, Hare’s inability to engage collaboratively also relegated him to outsider status. But what he identified, in work and life of the 1970s, was perhaps so bureaucratic, so anodyne, that his project resisted staying power, irrespective of his personality and attacks. Hare’s photographs identify the cold claws of a consumer capitalism that refuses to sate its takers, leaving Americans at home and work cut off, tied to one another by “cords and wires coming out of the holes all over the place,” that don’t link us, but rather “become a form of bondage” (21).

Carol Quirke
Professor, Director, Liberal Studies Graduate Program, SUNY Old Westbury