Unions and Strikes Through the Camera Lens
Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney. He is a feature editor for the History News Network and his articles—often interviews with writers and academics -- have appeared in HNN, Crosscut.com, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change and other periodicals. His coverage includes history, the arts, human rights, international affairs, medicine, and the media.
Chicago police fire on striking steelworkers in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937. Credit: NARA.
"The viewfinder is a political instrument."
--Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Images
The American labor movement and photojournalism in the U.S. evolved in tandem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As workers struggled for security through unions, Americans interpreted the labor movement through a burgeoning onslaught of photographs in the popular press.
In her new book Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class (Oxford University Press) Dr. Carol Quirke, a cultural historian, traces how news photography brought workers into the nation's mainstream and how Americans responded to those images in the news of the day.
She discusses a range of photographs from stereographs of the uprising of 1877 and tabloid photos of the 1919 strike wave to the more widespread photo-essays in Life magazine (“an all-seeing eye with a brain”) and the worker-friendly images presented in union papers. Dr. Quirke examines how unions, employers, and news publishers each represented workers in photographs and how readers saw the complex and contradictory portrait of labor as business interests used photographs to demonize labor and unions while sympathizers celebrated strides toward better working conditions and worker security. And she explores how changes in technology took photographs of the working class from a sort of novelty until the 1930s when faster film and lighter weight cameras combined with wire transmission led to more image saturated news.
Eyes on Labor has been praised for its lively writing and extensive historical and photographic research. Author Ellen Boris commented: "In displaying the shifting construction of class identity and trade unionism in mass circulation magazines, Carol Quirke brilliantly shows the political significance of visual representation in the twentieth century; working-class use of photography for self-enhancement; and the shifting public profile of the labor movement during its turbulent and institutionalizing decades, the 1930s to the 1950s. This powerful and original work is cultural history at its most potent.”
Dr. Quirke is an associate professor of American studies at SUNY Old Westbury. She has published essays and reviews in the American Quarterly, Reviews in American History, and New Labor Forum. She is a former community organizer who worked in Minneapolis and Boston on economic justice, immigrant rights, and public housing issues before receiving her PhD in U.S. history.
Dr. Quirke spoke about Eyes on Labor by telephone from New York.
What prompted your interest in photojournalism, the working class, and the labor movement?
I went to graduate school after working as a community organizer for about a decade, the last four years to address racism in a public housing development. And I was raised in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago. I was very aware of the role that racial stereotyping and racial imagery played in the politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century, in part because I grew up in a neighborhood that was full of Reagan Republican, or rather George Wallace Democratic, voters in the late 1960s. It was on the South Side of Chicago in Dolton -- one town south of the east side of Chicago, which is where many of the steel mills were.
I went to graduate school with an interest in exploring how working-class whites identified as white, but this project fell in my lap. I was looking at Life magazine and the question of the welfare queen. I wasn’t finding imagery that spoke to what I had wanted to analyze, but there was all this amazing imagery in Life about working-class people, and specifically the rise of the CIO [Congress of International Organizations] with the CIO sit-down strikes in 1937. I was very interested and did some work on that.
Chapters led to further chapters. My family was involved in the Memorial Day massacre [at Republic Steel in Chicago in 1937]. It’s a story that I only learned about as an adult. My grandfather scabbed during that strike, and my great-uncle was one of the individuals shot by police. When I did my research in Life, there were so many pictures of the Memorial Day massacre, and so I explored that in a chapter. And when I was doing research in the La Follette [Senate investigation] files on the Memorial Day massacre at the National Archives, I found a pamphlet about the strike at Hershey. That took me to another strike and looking at this question from another viewpoint.
The book grew that way -- organically.
How did your project evolve from your original plan? As an American studies expert, you may be coming from a different angle than a historian. And you look at several themes: the evolution of photography, the growth of photojournalism, and the beginnings of the labor movement.
I’ve always loved art. When I was a community organizer, I loved using community arts to build community. This project fit because it joins politics and the power of the visual.
And you’re right: I’m looking at photographs in some ways that may make a historian uncomfortable. I’m reading them as an art historian might read them. But the book is also anchored historically, so I’m linking an analysis or reading of photographs from the turn of the century through about 1950, in the more typical work of a historian. For example, with the images at Hershey, I’m also looking at the strike there, the events there, the corporate and community archives, and oral histories of individuals who were engaged in the strike. When I looked at a union camera club, as with Local 65 (Wholesale and Warehouse Employees Union) in New York City, I was very lucky to have oral histories of some camera club members, access to newspapers where the photographs appeared, and the notes of the camera club meetings in the thirties and the forties.
Methodologically, the book is mixed. There is traditional history reading images as an art historian might, and analyzing images ideologically, as other scholars have done such as Peter Bacon Hales who did great work on urban photography in Silver Cities, or Alan Trachtenberg in his Reading American Photographs. That meant looking at thousands of images and then choosing representative images to explore in greater depth.
How do you see photographs as an evidentiary resource for historians?
Photographs are an amazing, grossly underutilized resource. We know that some time in the nineteenth century there was a visual turn, and a lot of scholars have discussed that. Even your typical textbook today will have a lot more pictures than it might have had twenty years ago.
We have a complicated relationship to the image because historians are using images more and they’re aware of their power, but I think they’re nervous about the image versus the word. The scholarship that has come out that is fascinated with the image can also be cynical about what the image communicates. Scholars know the images can be seen in different ways, but they often stop there instead of exploring the ways in which the image works.
Historians are much more sophisticated now, but there was a sense earlier that photographs were an unmediated window onto the past. Of course, photographs, like words, have histories that shape how they look and the ways in which they speak.
Is there anything about photo research you’d like to add for students or historians who are interested in that research?
That’s an interesting question. In my book, I looked at the institutional matrix that was producing these images -- whether it was a union or a popular magazine like Life or newspapers. There are other ways to look at images as well.
I hope in future work to pay more attention to the specific photographers and the ways they shaped the photograph’s meaning. There are so many visual resources out there, and my guess is we could dive into those more. I found that the New York Public Library has amazing collections that I never had a chance to look at.
Did working-class photography in the U.S. grow out of the muckraking photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine?
I wonder if I’m even comfortable in saying that there’s a practice of working-class photography here. In Europe, there were camera clubs that were clearly connected to working-class experience and activism. At Local 65, a leftist union in New York City, the photographers were trained by other leftist photographers who were involved in the Photo League that was part of that international movement of photographers. But I concluded that there was less evidence of self-conscious working class photography in this country than in other countries.
You have people like Lewis Hine at the beginning of the twentieth century arguing for using the camera for social uplift. But these practices were much less pervasive than we can imagine. There’s been a discussion of how the Kodak camera was used by middle-class women and others and how the democratization of the camera made the world more visual. I don’t think we have a history yet of how workers used the camera in the United States.
How widespread was the work of photojournalists such as Riis and Hine? Were their photos of the poor and workers seen mainly in New York and in other urban areas?
Riis’s work was very influential and it would have been known in reform circles. I did some primary research on Riis, and he lectured well into the twentieth century about his experiences, using lantern slides of New York City poverty and deteriorated housing, although he moved to a more saccharine, moralistic lecture form as he continued.
Hine’s work was well understood in reformer circles. He became a corporate photographer in the twenties and sold his services to companies.
So reformers and progressives knew of both photographers’work, but the mass audience for such work was more limited. We know that Hines’ work informs what [Roy] Stryker was doing with the Farm Security Administration, so there’s also some impulse into the New Deal.
Your book chronicles some photography in the late nineteenth century, particularly the strikes such as the Railroad Strike in 1877 and the Homestead Strike in 1892.
You tend to see photographs in the news when there’s conflict. The news runs on conflict, and if there’s violence, editors will put that on the front page. Certainly, it seems that associations such as the National Association of Manufacturers took advantage of that fact. The Chicago Tribune of the 1930s was seen as a right-wing paper and they described the victims of the Memorial Day massacre as Bolsheviks, Mexicans, foreigners and outsiders as a way to disparage working-class activism.
What is your sense of the coverage of labor in the teens and twenties?
I was focused on news photographs and not the coverage of labor, so I may give you an incomplete answer. Josh Brown’s work on the illustrated press, Beyond the Lines is beautiful and he takes up the question of the representation of worker activism in the nineteenth century.
I was struck that, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, you don’t see photographs that often. When you talk about the history of photojournalism, people point to the halftone in the 1880s, but those images weren’t seen as photographs typically. For example, Jacob Riis’s photographs in their time weren’t seen as photographs in newspapers. Even in his book How the Other Half Lives there were only a dozen or so photographs. They were mostly line drawings [based on the photos]. That was the case through the end of the nineteenth century.
Even though the halftone technology existed from the 1880s, there just weren’t that many photographic images. There were more as we moved into the twentieth century, and I saw a fair number of “documentary style” images of the difficulties of workers’ lives, but those tended to be in the middle-class opinion journals, perhaps McClure’s, Outlook Magazine, Collier’s and Scribner’s. But those magazines did not have a mass audience.
What was important to the book’s argument was that those images existed, but they were seen by a lot fewer people than were the photographs of labor struggles in the 1930s, which were seen by a nationwide, mass audience.
You note that, in the twenties and thirties, the mainstream press featured images mainly of white male, often contented, workers. You stress that women and nonwhite workers were usually not portrayed, or women were often sexualized if they were shown.
Certainly, if you look at Life magazine, I was surprised to find it treating labor activism almost as if it was a fad -- in a joyful, celebratory way. That changed over time, but in Life there was an acceptance of labor as a partner in American prosperity. As you say, typically white male workers were portrayed.
In Life magazine, the women were presented as “cute.” They engaged in activism, but their primary reason for being in the article was that they were delightful to look at and their activism was always fun and happy -- not really activism at all. And in Life, you virtually don’t see immigrant workers or African American workers.
In the labor press, you see more images of African American workers and women workers. It’s a mixed bag. In Steel Labor, women came into the union in World War II, and the women were treated as “girls” as well. It’s clear that the union wasn’t that happy about female leadership or female unionists. The depiction of women made the union paper a lot livelier, but it had less to do with accepting women as unionists than using women’s image to vivify the paper.
And Life would feature photographs of women such as the cute, perky garment workers.
Life actually made a romance story about International Ladies Garment Workers Union members, and the use of the heterosexual romance was a common motif in Life magazine. They didn’t look at the woman as a worker, but as a romantic figure who went off to the ILGWU’s Unity Camp in the Catskills, and gee, didn’t she have a great time and wasn’t it romantic, just like in the movies. They also showed the Woolworth’s “girl” strikers in exactly the same way. They were “prinking,” which I think means they were making themselves up to look pretty.
Steel Labor used stock images of their members and the group photographs of their rank and file weren’t interesting. You wouldn’t want to look at them. Their images of women were quite interesting so Steel Labor editors and photographers knew when an image had punch, but they didn’t bother to represent their male members in a lively fashion.
Life publisher Henry Luce saw his magazine as a neutral “all-seeing eye,” but the portrayal of labor tells a different story.
Eyes on Labor looks at Life, which was already being read by millions of Americans in its first week of publication. Luce is seen as a conservative and, no doubt, he became virulently anti-FDR, but he did believe in affluence for everyone and he wanted to sell his products in the same way, perhaps, that Henry Ford did. As a result, he assumed abundance as a positive good for workers. Luce and Life photographers visualized abundance as crucial for American workers. They helped bring workers into the nation’s mainstream.
I think many readers will be surprised by the Hershey sit-down strike in April 1937. Hershey was seen as an idyllic town for workers, then there’s a strike, and it’s put down brutally by the company and by local citizens.
Hershey was interesting. In terms of the number of workers, it didn’t seem like an important strike. The CIO won an election to represent Hershey workers, but then lost a sit-down strike -- which led to a company union and then the AFL coming in to represent workers. Because the CIO Hershey workers lost their strike it may be less interesting to historians.
What intrigued me about the strike was that there was so much coverage of it. I argue that the Hershey corporation, from about 1900 when Milton Hershey first founded the company, developed an image of the corporation as beneficent. Hershey claimed the company didn’t advertise, but of course it had promotional materials such as point-of purchase ads, biographical portraits in mass-market magazines, postcards, and recipe books, all that sold the corporation. Singer Sewing Machine and a lot of other companies were also developing their brand at this time, and Hershey rode this same crest of brand development.
Milton Hershey was a bright businessman, so he had continuous processing in his plant, vertical integration of production, including the control over a source of sugar production in a second Hershey, Cuba, just east of Havana, and modern office buildings along with his savvy marketing techniques.... But Milton Hershey also had “backward looking ideas” of cooperation, or paternalist control. He wanted an ideal community, a model workers’ town, but his workers had no say in that community whatsoever; they could not even vote. The limits on workers’ lives and the typical constraints that faced workers in the 1930s -- low wages and difficult working conditions -- led them to strike in April 1937.
The company fought the strikers, and there was a brutal takedown of the union and the [strikers were] forced to run a gauntlet after they were forced out of the plant. Hershey fired many workers after the event. And ultimately, the CIO was vanquished. The story of the Hershey strike and the images of the violence appeared in Life magazine and in three hundred different stories across the United States.
How did Life and other periodicals portray the strike?
I paid the most attention to Life, although other stories appeared in Newsweek, Business Week, etc. You get the image of a beneficent corporation that did everything to make its workers’ lives cushy. The corporation [described] the factory as a country club for workers. Hershey did a wonderful job of making Hershey Park, an amusement park, an attraction for people all over the Mid-Atlantic region. And they made it seem as if workers had access to all these wonderful things, even though workers weren’t able to partake of them.
Life portrayed Hershey as the beneficent capitalist who was a bystander to what transpired. Instead it was the “loyal workers” who stood by their boss and didn’t want to be unionized. “Loyal workers” was a phrase promoted by the National Association of Manufacturers in their publicity campaign to make unions look bad.
In Life there was a two-page spread. On one page you see the beneficent corporation, and on the other page you see the violence that happened when labor unions came in. The violence happened because the corporation had stoked tensions in the community; unionists thought they brought in hired “goons.” But that’s not the way the story was presented. Life’s story presented the quest for unionization as bringing chaos and violence...
What was the role of Hershey in bringing in strikebreakers and encouraging local citizens to attack strikers?
The Hershey corporation perceived the town as a utopian experiment, and -- based on multiple oral histories I read -- even the workers largely believed in the idea of the town as an agrarian location where people lived harmoniously and felt good about Milton Hershey. Even after the strike, people did not seem angry at Milton Hershey himself, but it was clear that the town was riven by what happened.
I found a couple clues about the role of the corporation in what happened. The corporation itself talked about “outsiders” coming in, and that was a typical way to make unions look bad, one that NAM promoted. It wasn’t the workers themselves who were causing problems, but usually some unnamed, foreign outsider. The National Association of Manufacturers published this story in Mill and Factory Magazine and the story was given to citizens in the town in pamphlet form.
The company managers also went door-to-door and talked workers into signing up with the loyalists. They allowed [the loyalists] into the Hershey arena to galvanize the workers. They made local farmers mad at the workers by not buying milk the company had said they would.
Also, I found that Milton Hershey gave a sizable donation to the local American Legion, which led the parade of loyal workers. He was not someone who liked to give money to something he didn’t control so it was quite unusual to give the donation to them. So there was a sense of a corporate hand in events.
I didn’t see anything that linked Hershey to the propelling of the story into the national arena. The National Association of Manufacturers did this as part of its publicity campaign against labor.
There’s a sense in your book that the strikers suffered savage beatings by people with clubs and axes. Do you know about casualties from the violence at Hershey?
I don’t remember any axes. Inside the plant, a worker stuck an ice pick into the belly of an anti-unionist.
Certainly the strikers were beaten badly. I don’t know that any were hospitalized. What hurt the workers more was the sense that the cooperative ideal was broken. And many workers -- over a hundred -- lost their jobs as a result of this strike, which would have been devastating during the Depression.
What was the Memorial Day Strike in Chicago in 1937 and how did it happen?
The strike took place as part of the union drive by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, which began in 1936. Early in 1937, the steel workers signed an agreement with U.S. Steel, which was the biggest steel maker.
But Tom Girdler, the president of Republic Steel and head of the American Iron and Steel Association and the “Little Steel” coalition of companies, did not side with the steel workers and said he would do whatever he could to not have a union work force. Steel workers struck against the Little Steel companies in 1937. Girdler didn’t think the strike would work and tricked workers into going out early to make the strike more disorganized.
In Chicago, where tens of thousands of workers came out, the police were anti-union and the police did not want to allow a mass picket. The steel workers wanted a mass picket and they felt it was their right to have a mass picket.
The strike began on a Wednesday and every day there was an attempt to establish a mass picket. On Memorial Day, a giant group of people came out for the day. It was like a picnic. People were on their dates and there were mothers and fathers and children listening to speeches. They wanted to stand in front of the gates of Republic Steel. When they marched across the field to do so, they met the police. That’s when the altercation took place.
Ten strikers were killed and seven of them were shot in the back. The photographic evidence in conjunction with the stories rebutted the police story that the strikers were going to mob the plant and kill loyal workers.
You describe in detail how the story of the massacre unfolded in Life magazine and in other news outlets, and then the investigation by U.S. Senator Robert La Follette’s committee.
In the initial days after the event, the same photographs we recognize today as showing the brutality of the police were appearing in newspapers and Life magazine and in a Paramount newsreel, but the story line was instead that the strikers were marching on the plant with the intent of producing mass casualties. Of course, the opposite happened. Police injured about one hundred people and ten workers were killed.
So there was campaign of local union activists in Chicago and pro-labor supporters including pro-union people who came out of World War I. One was Hebert Blankenhorn, an amazing publicist who understood the power of the press and felt that labor had to be ready for anti-union violence. The La Follette Committee was designed to publicize the violations of labor’s civil rights, particularly the rights to strike and to have mass demonstrations.
Initially, it wasn’t reported that strikers had been running away and were shot in the back by police and the news angle seemed to be that the police were protecting property and those inside the plant.
The stories were crazy. The police said that the workers were high, the workers were Mexicans, the workers had guns, the workers were Bolsheviks. The Chicago Tribune called strikers Bolsheviks.
The national press didn’t use the term Bolshevism but the story line in Time, Newsweek and Life made the strikers responsible for what took place on the field. It took the legwork of La Follette and his investigative staff, to find the photographs and newsreels, but more importantly to find the witness testimony that clarified what was taking place in the imagery.
When you look at the film footage, it’s very hard to follow what’s taking place. I was lucky to visit the National Archives and look at the newsreel footage of the massacre, frame by frame, on a film bed. It’s very hard to take apart what’s happening on that film. It has to be given meaning through testimony.
It’s striking that there were also women and kids who were in the crowd. That fact didn’t come out right away did it?
Certainly labor supporters remarked on the women in the field and the women in the pictures. That came up in the congressional investigation by the La Follette Committee and witnesses commented on what happened to women and children. I’m not sure how the press represented women and children in the first days, but La Follette took advantage of their perceived vulnerability in his hearings.
What else did you find about the Chicago Memorial Day Strike of 1937?
In some ways, my findings replicate what other historians have found. Jerold Auerbach did a lovely book on the La Follette Committee and its significance. Daniel Leab and Don Sofchalk did articles in the sixties and there’s a new book in the Memorial Day massacre by Michael Dennis.
Typically the narrative is that this terrible event happened and there were pictures of this event and, because of the photographs, the police were brought to account. My work showed instead that, while very powerful, these photographs required someone to nail down the significance of the photographs and tell the story behind those photographs. It took local unionists who were agitating to bring the police to account for what happened. And it took reporting. Paul Anderson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did an amazing job, as did the La Follette Committee in building the testimony to elicit the stories of what took place in those photographs.
People talk about the Paramount newsreel as being a compelling bit of imagery. When I first saw that newsreel, I had a hard time understanding what happened in it. I couldn’t see why it was so powerful.
I did more research at the Sherman Grinberg Film Library. They had two versions of the film and the National Archive had yet another version of the film. They’re very different stories. There was a pro-union story, there was a neutral story, and then there was the first newsreel that was edited immediately after the events that was against the union and blamed the strikers for the killings. That story of these three films hadn’t been told and I wanted to look at the ways these photographs, which historians had taken at face value, had to be given life and they were given life by the testimony and the stories and the activism of a variety of historical actors -- some well known, others less familiar.
In this period, were there photographic magazines that were sympathetic to labor -- a sort of The Nation with photographs?
To my knowledge The Nation or The Progressive were text heavy. Probably the most sympathetic venue for labor would have been Ralph Ingersoll's PM, which was published in New York City from 1940 to about 1948. Ingersoll, along with Dwight MacDonald, had been a major critic of Henry Luce, and specifically Luce's labor coverage. Ingersoll believed in the camera’s potential, and his photo editors, one of whom was photographer Ralph Steiner, gave their photographers free reign to experiment. PM was the home of famous "tabloid" photographer Weegee. I've interviewed Arthur Leipzig who briefly photographed for them, and he recounts taking one or two of his more recognized photographs while working at PM, because of editors’ encouragement.
The CP's Daily Worker is another interesting source for photographs. Unsurprisingly, given the CP’s commitment to class struggle, the paper had remarkably vital photos of labor conflict and strike coverage -- much of it woven into a counter-narrative of events.
And the work of the Photo League is pretty well known at this point. Their publication, Photo Notes, had some images of labor, and they tried to work directly with unions -- though the League’s better known work was seen in exhibitions, for example in the in-depth documentaries they did of working-class New York City neighborhoods, such as the Harlem or Pitt Street Documents.
What did you learn about photographic coverage of labor during World War II when the iconic Rosie the Riveter emerged, and then during the early years of the Cold War?
Multiple changes in labor iconography arose with World War II, and then the Cold War. I found that moving towards World War II, publications like Life increasingly represented workers as part of the defense machine.
Photographs started showing work -- up until that point, stories about labor unions rarely showed work itself. During the war years men and women workers were seen in close-up shots displaying workers’ deep engagement with their labor. And many photos showed workers streaming into worksites, underscoring labor’s participation in the war effort. Prior to this point, at least in Life, many images showed corporate titans alongside their plants, as if the factories ran without workers.
Images in Life paralleled a larger productionist narrative seen in government agency war posters, corporate advertisements, and labor union newspapers. Life’s photo stories featured unions as partners in the nation’s defense, even as they became shrill about possible strikes. Philip Murray, the head of the United Steel Workers of American and the CIO, and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated were portrayed as statesmanlike leaders -- someone like John Lewis, on the other hand, was represented as a threat because he did not sign on to the CIO’s “no-strike pledge.”
Rosie of course was a common way of depicting women -- in Life, and in labor papers. But papers like Steel Labor, of the Steel Workers Union, which had a sizeable female membership during World War II, feminized its workforce -- and didn’t quite recognize women as contributors to union life -- even as women’s image brightened a staid labor paper.
Ironically, as we move to the Cold War, I found labor papers like Steel Labor being more willing to acknowledge the necessity of rank-and-file activism. The 1946 and 1949 steel strikes were crucial to cementing the power of the USWA, and the paper, which had largely shied away from representing activism now promoted it. Generally however, I found that imagery presented labor as joining the nation’s mainstream. Certainly this was a positive change from labor as the nation’s “other half,” as we saw in photos of workers in the first decades of the twentieth century.
But many workers still lived on the edge of poverty -- their lives remained quite insecure. Neither mass-market publications like Life, nor the labor press typically represented labor’s want. It’s difficult to know how this visual absence hurt labor -- but I believe it made it harder for labor’s demands for higher wages to be understood -- the privation in their lives was hidden
Can you talk about the resonance of your research now with the continuing efforts to weaken unions, the recognition of corporations as people under the Citizens United decision, and the emergence of Occupy movement?
Generally, my sense is that the mainstream press, despite it’s early fascination with the sit-down technique, tended to promote the view that labor activism led to social chaos. Even when companies were paying for “goons” or their own security forces, which often provoked violence, and even when the unionists were the victims of violence, articles and captioned photos promoted the view that unions provoked the violence.
My research showed how the National Association of Manufacturers, long a union foe, took advantage of news photography to disparage unions to a national reading and viewing public. Despite union successes -- with nearly a third of workers in unions in the postwar era, and their success in lifting workers out of poverty -- corporations succeeded in diminishing the public’s understanding of unions’ role in this success. However, like the current Occupy Wall Street protesters who seized on social media to reach out directly to other supporters -- unions, progressives, and some rank-and-file workers understood that news photographs touched Americans, and that they could use the camera to reach out in new ways to advance their message.
Are you planning other projects on the history of photojournalism?
I’m beginning a biography of Dorothea Lange that is under contract with Westview Press’s Lives of American Women series.
I’ve also done some oral history interviews of former Photo League and PM photographer Arthur Leipzig, and am contemplating an essay on documenting work. He was a photojournalist who conceived of himself as a documentary photographer -- his roots are in the radical tradition of documentary. By the 1950s and 1960s much of his work was for corporate clients. His trajectory as a photojournalist allows for a nuanced exploration of some recent debates on the documentary.
Finally I’ve done a fair amount of research on the memory of the Memorial Day Massacre that took place on Chicago’s South Side, where I was first raised. News images of the massacre appear in textbooks, documentaries, and popular histories, but in attaining iconicity, aspects of the event are often forgotten or radically re-interpreted. The community where the events took place largely neglects it -- I only learned about it as an adult, despite my family’s involvement in the events. And there is only one recent history of the massacre. I think the simultaneous salience and elusiveness of the massacre in cultural memory seems fertile for exploring violence, dissent, and class identity in mainstream mass culture, and in radical, and union cultures over the course of the twentieth century.
Is there anything you’d like to add about your book and your research?
In a recent blog for Oxford Press, I suggested that battles over labor’s status in U.S. society took place in corporate boardrooms, at factory gates, in D.C. congressional corridors, and also in the pages of an increasingly visual mass media. Photographs re-imagined workers as part of the mainstream, but constricted labor’s promise by making strikes seem disruptive, and promoting individual, private gains over collective solidarity.
Today less than twelve percent of all American workers belong to unions. Organized labor pulled many out of poverty, allowing workers to conceive of themselves as middle-class. Labor’s dwindling power, including its precipitous decline since the 1980s, corresponds with growing economic inequality -- hence Occupy. Its message, and its image, will have consequences.
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