Lost Labor, Images of Vanished American Workers
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Raymon Elozua
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National Gypsum     Though labor photography is as old as the medium itself, most images show workers on picket lines or posing outside the workplace. Company-sanctioned photographs attempted to portray a corporation in the best possible light, with no pretense to objectivity or to being pro-labor. The workers were often taken for granted, as if products somehow "made" themselves. Actual work could only be photographed with management's permission because of the fear that the images would serve as evidence of unsafe conditions or information for competitors. In spite of this, the photographs in business histories and technical manuals provide factual evidence of the work environment and physical appearance of long- forgotten factory workers and reveal subtle aspects of company attitudes towards work and workers that cannot be found elsewhere.
    These images tell us what these people do, but usually not who they are. Most often, only the tasks or machines are specified while the men and women in the photographs remain unidentified. However, corporate executives and management are often prominently featured and identified. Still, the photographs often portray working individuals, and the physical strength and coordination necessary to work in the noisy and dirty environments of industry. Some depict the difficult and troubling working conditions in mines, quarries or slaughterhouses. Others reveal the skill and craftsmanship of individual artisans in smaller factories, whose careful prototyping is essential to mass production. Additional photos reveal the dedication and thoroughness of individuals responsible for the quality of manufactured goods at the end of assembly lines. Others show us the middle class managers and clerks in charge of administering these large enterprises. Despite a predilection for the companies to use the worker for a sense of scale in comparison to the equipment, or to view the worker as a transient and replaceable necessity, the factory workers often stood out in these photographs, maintaining a sense of individuality. In the final analysis, each image is an important fragment in the complex mosaic of depicting work in America.