Class Warfare: Heroic Labor (pictorial)

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

One thing about the New Deal is that it was well documented.  Some of the best photographers of the day were hired by Roy Stryker in the Farm Security Administration.  Lewis Hine worked for the TVA/CCC.  

Pretty much every New Deal agency sent photographers out to document both the need for their activities, and also the results.  There’s some terrific photographs which don’t have the artist identified.  And I do mean artist.

Back in the days of the New Deal, there was a lot of emphasis on work.  On labor actually.  Organized labor was a force, and the powers that be were worried about insurrection from the left in the US.  So it’s not surprising that work is depicted in an heroic light.  

In light of the debates over what is or isn’t worthy of inclusion in the stimulus package, I thought it might be interesting to look at work in FDR’s day.

Cross posted at Daily Kos

Note:  I’m using “Class Warfare” in my titles in this series as an allusion to the media narrative during the Bush years which posited that even saying out loud that wealth had concentrated in the hands of very few at the top was “class warfare.”  (If that’s class warfare?  Bring it on!  We need more of it.)

In the second diary in this series, Lewis Hine’s photographs of child labor figured prominently.  Throughout his career, Hine often chose labor as his subject.  There was a lot of industrial “progress” in the 1920s and 30s.  No matter how it looks with the benefit of nearly a century of hindsight, there was pride and accomplishment.  This from Hine (1920):


Similar trends in art were found throughout the world at that time.  Consider this, from Russian photographer, Anatolij Skurich (1931).  I think it’s fair to say that there’s some confluence in artistic sensibility going on here.


Compared to how labor gets villainized these days – just recall those hearings on the auto industry bailout – those days were a different time.  In Russia, of course, there was your Socialist Realism, which lionized industrial processes (this from Anatolij Surkichin):

The Lincoln Tunnel was a Public Works Administration (under WPA) construction project.  Perhaps qualifying for even John McCain’s hard-headed, mean-spirited standard for what qualifies as real work (photographer unknown).  And those industrial forms certainly can make for appealing abstractions (Surkichin again, on the right):

An interesting Russian photographer was Alexander Rodchenko.  The fifth edition of Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography (1985) features a Rodchenko photograph on the cover.  Previous editions doesn’t mention him at all.  It’s hard to forget all that’s happened since 1917.  But the Bolshevik Revolution addressed real grievances, and inspired a lot of idealists who unselfishly wanted to make a better world.  Rodchenko was one of those.  Considering how it turned out over time, it’s easy to forget the spirit of that time.

Rodchenko started as a (dubist) painter, eventually moving into photomontage.  And when he couldn’t find pictures for his montages, he bought himself a Leica to shoot them himself.  He was also big on manifestos, so we know that he thought leaving conventional notions of pictoral composition behind was part of what he thought the revolution was about.  This quoted from Newhall’s fifth edition (from 1928):

In photography, there is the old point of view, the angle of vision of a man, who stands on the ground and looks straight ahead or, as I call it, makes “bellybutton” shots.

I fight this point of view, and will fight it, along with my colleagues in the new photography.  The most interesting angle shots today are those “down from above” and “up from below” and their diagonals.

Part of it was the new mobility and freedom unleashed by those early 35mm cameras.  This is a WPA water tank built in Torrance, CA:


Similar modernistic proclivities are evident in both cases.  I get a kick out of Rodchenko’s art slogans from 1921.  Here’s a few of them:

  • The time has come for art to be an organic part of life.
  • Down with art as a glittering extravagance in the senseless lives of the wealthy!
  • Down with art as a means of escape from a senseless life!
  • One has to work for life, not for palaces, churches, cemeteries and museums.
  • Consciousness, experiment … function, construction, technology, methematics — these are the brothers of the art of our age.

Perhaps it’s just easier to get impressed by monumental structures.  The WPA’s Triborough Bridge in New York on the left (photographer unknown), and part of a Rodchenko series on the construction of the White Sea Canal locks on the right:

And just as we’ve seen a lot of recreational and cultural activity in the WPA, Rodchenko’s series included a musical performance during a work break.  With his characteristic rejection of conventional viewpoints:

Rodchenko was one of those dynamos of creativity.  He did product logos, book covers, and movie posters (Dziga Vertov’s One Sixth of the World and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin), amongst other things.  This one promotes rural electrification:

That being somewhat parallel to the REA, which still functions as cooperatives for rural electric supply in many areas of the US:

Projects like this one, the Big Ridge Dam built by the CCC for the TVA, sent the juice out through the REA transmission lines:

If we’re to believe the REA, it’s all so we can have homes (and lives) like this one:

They put out lots of nifty PR pix like this one.  Be that as it may, it seems pretty clear to me that some kinds of labor get glorified more than others.  I suppose part of it’s unavoidable.  It’s not so easy to make high visual drama out of a sewing machine (WPA, Chicago) or a typing pool (WPA, Washington, DC):



Bridges and tunnels and other large-scale construction projects are more glamourous.  Part of how the Reagan Administration did its budget cuts was to eliminate much of the maintenance on the nation’s common infrastructure.  Nobody ever gets to curry favor by naming maintenance work after someone.  You don’t get a ribbon-cutting photo-op for maintenance and repair work either.  So where’s the fun in that?

I’ve been cleaning out my files lately, because a lot of stuff likely won’t be needed again.  I came across this from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 17, 2004:

A top official with the U.S. Department of the Interior visited the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site yesterday to review an almost-finished $2 million renovation project.  In the process, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles said this is part of the government’s efforts to eliminate a $4.9 billion backlog of maintenance projects in the nation’s parks.  “Hopefully, we will never get ourselves back to where the facilities had been allowed to degrade over the years”, he said.

Ha!  I wouldn’t be surprised if the maintenance backlog is considerably more than it was 5 years ago, not less.  And yeah, that’s billion with a “B”.  

And so, building a school or a baseball field, for reasons I don’t quite get, don’t count as much as does building a bridge, for real fully-worthy work.  And taking care of the stuff already built doesn’t count at all.

At any rate, all these pictures from the 20s and 30s aren’t much like we see today.  Nobody much seems to want to lionize labor any more.  Plain old fashioned work.  Maybe it changed around the same time we quit being referred to as citizens, and started being called “consumers” instead.

There’s all sorts of unglamourous jobs, and they’re every bit as worthy of economic stimulus as the grand ones.  Peeling potatoes, sweeping up the mess and changing diapers are socially necessary tasks, too.  

And so another rambling entry in this series winds to an end with a picture of an 18-year-old girl harvesting potatoes back during the Depression, a refugee from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma.

This year there was a tremendous oversupply of labor in potatoes. Men and women hunting for work waited at the ends of the rows for a picker to drop out.

The reason the nation’s infrastructure is in such a pitiful state is because maintenance has been woefully neglected over the last few decades.  That’s something you can only get away with for a little while.  While the wingnuts have been going on about “moral decay”, or whatever the hell it is they get so wound up about, they’ve been content to let our collective physical plant crumble in front of our eyes.  The chickens are coming home to roost on that.  It’s time to take care of what we’ve already got, not waste it through near-criminal neglect.

Previous entries in the series:


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    • LoE on February 8, 2009 at 18:37
  1. I’m stunned at the power of what you’re saying!!!

    On a side note, I was talking to a co-worker this week and told her about this series. She immediately jumped in with the fact that her father had worked for the WPA building walls to both protect and make accessible the cliffs around the Mississippi River here in St. Paul. It made me think about the millions of stories that could be told if we could get a conversation like this going.

    She also told me that the structures and trails at Minnehaha State Park (which is about a mile from where I live), were built by the WPA.  

  2. Wow,

    What a great essay,

    The images are very impressive & it makes me wonder at their historic importance, not only of the times they were taken in, but also in the history of photography.

    Introspection should be a keyword for those who preach about “moral decay”.

    Now, I get to go read the other essays in the series.

    Thank you.

  3. Thanks, btw, for linking to this essay in jotter’s diary–I would have found it here anyway, but I found it faster b/c you did.

    Have been loving these looks back to a time when workers were valued.  And you’re right: most people just take everything for granted & have no clue how we got the infrastructure we have.

    • OPOL on February 8, 2009 at 21:53

    Incredible photos.  Very nicely done.

  4. reminds me of all of the stories my grandparents told me as a child……..

    it reminds me of today…..

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