I/Eye: On Photography

Autobiography of the San Francisco Bay Area, with a few remarks on the work of Chauncey Hare

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on May 25, 2010

The catalog above arrived last week from SF Camerawork, published in conjunction with the exhibition by the same name in Fall 2009 at the SF Camerawork gallery. It brings together a diverse group of photographers whose lives and careers brought them into contact with the Bay Area, or who have played a cultural role in the region. I was pleased to see Chauncey Hare’s work represented in this context, sharing a double-page spread with a photograph by Ken Light. Light’s image (p. 38) shows a man, dwarfed and delicately limned with edge lighting, standing between massive, churning press machines. He is holding a sheet in his hand, probably inspecting it, and his right hand rests on a lever. Though he is sandwiched by the machinery, he seems master of the situation, and the connection between his hand and the work of the press is presented in dignified, intimate terms.

Hare’s picture, on the other hand, shows a white-collar functionary sitting in cerebral vacancy. His head is pinned in place, as it were, as a tiny balloon of intention between the planar abstractions of the office space: overlapping rectangles of desk, window and file cabinet are the composition’s building blocks. The pediment of reference works on his desk hint at the entangling prospect of words and ideas whose primary purpose will be to keep the rectangles in place—tiny head ensconced in white collar.

Both photographs are masterful in different ways. Light’s photograph has an elegiac grace, and the use of the camera to penetrate the inner sanctums of the industrial world — specifically, here, the printing press — connects this image to a rich vein that includes the factory photographs of Lewis Hine, Margaret Bourke-White, Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander. In Hare’s photograph, there is something utterly different, prescient and chilling: an almost sinister banality that is both precisely observed and disconcertingly opaque. We have no idea what this man does; indeed, that it’s impossible to form a complete idea of what he might be up to is succinctly grasped in pictorial terms: we can’t see his hands. All guesses are foiled by the stark reticence of the picture.

Hare, himself an engineer at Chevron for many years, is terse in stating his interest in making the series This Was Corporate America, 1976-78, from which this picture is excerpted:

These photographs were made to protest and warn against the growing domination of working people by multinational corporations and their elite owners and managers.*

Like the mystery of the functionary’s occupation, there is something alarmingly inscrutable about this domination-in-the-making. Hare’s photographs try to scent out its human effects; yet the sources of it are multifarious and ever-happening: in terms of sheer political momentum, it’s everywhere.

Realization of this fact is perhaps flooding into general awareness along with — though not as quickly as — the long black bloody plume in the Gulf.**  In fact, the ‘growing domination’ is already a foregone conclusion; its fruits are not the mythic prosperity of TV political ads, but a complex of spreading economic and man-made catastrophes that are increasingly volatile in scope. Chauncey Hare, with his deep knowledge of the worker’s experience, his years of struggle in the oil bureaucracy and his powerful eloquence with the camera, has seen it coming.

*The statement also serves as epigraph to Hare’s brilliant and weighty volume Protest Photographs (Steidl & Partners, 2009).

**Editor’s note: This post was written at the time of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf and almost exactly a year before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan on March 11, 2011.

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