How does one represent labor especially in the post-industrial United States where a service economy has replaced one of heavy industry? And how does an artist, usually a member of a rarified class who if successful can sell pieces for thousands of dollars or more, depict a class different than her own, a class that probably has little concern or regard for her artistic production and the art world it inhabits? These questions are addressed (and not addressed) by photographer Sharon Lockhart in her recent 2008 project entitled “Lunch Break” which was shown at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea in from December 2009 to the end of January 2010. In “Lunch Break” Lockhart focuses her lens on the workers of Bath Ironworks in Bath, Maine. Owned by General Dynamics, the company “is a full service shipyard specializing in the design, building and support of complex surface combatants for the US Navy.”
So, how does Lockhart represent the labor of the Bath Ironworks without it devolving into an (anti)picturesque, sentimental or exploitive depiction? To prevent this devolution, her strategy is to not represent the actual workers at all, but rather photograph their individual lunch boxes as well as the independent food businesses run by the ironworkers that cater to their coworkers.
Lockhart’s strategy reminds me of a work by the artist Martha Rosler from 1974-75 entitled The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems. Rosler’s project presents a series of photographs and texts in an attempt to represent the drunks who inhabit the Bowery in New York City. (Of course, now even that area of Manhattan is experiencing gentrification.) As the title of the piece suggests the artist has little faith that her work can indeed represent the inhabitants of the Bowery. The photographs are images of the Bowery in which the body of the drunk is absent, but signaled through the sign of an empty bottle or bottles of liquor. The accompanying text presents words which are used to describe the state of inebriation.
Martha Rosler The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems 1974-75
These photographs and texts do not intend to depict the drunks of the Bowery, but rather the work is an attempt to counter the dominant discourse about drunks and the means of representation (documentary photography) which is usually used to naturalize this discourse. Speaking about mainstream images of drunks on the Bowery, Rosler states, “The buried text of photographs of drunks is not a treatise on political economy, on the manipulation of the unemployment rate to control inflation and keep profits up and labor’s demand down, on the contradictory pressures on the institution of the family under capitalism.” Instead, such photographs are meant to position the drunk as a vile individual who has made a life choice and deserves punishment for it. These photographic depictions serve to naturalize and conceal the “buried text.” Further discussing mainstream images of drunks, Rosler states, “If impoverishment is the subject here, it is more certainly the impoverishment of representational strategies tottering about alone than that of a mode of surviving. The photographs are powerless to deal with the reality that is yet totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology.”
Similarly, if Lockhart depicted the individual workers of Bath Ironworks in a straightforward manner, the “buried text” of the changes in the American economy from heavy industry to a service economy, the military nature of their product, the relationship of the military-industrial complex to the economy as a whole and so on would not be evident. Instead, you would have perhaps images of patriotic labor building the ships which America needs to defend herself and to project her power around the world. In this sense, mainstream photographs of labor (which depict actual workers) are already defined within the dominant ideology and this definition does not allow for the complexities of the working class in America. And one could argue that even Lockhart’s eventual strategy of not depicting the workers themselves is still unable to deal with the complex position of labor and the working class in the United States in political, economic, cultural and social terms.
In choosing to photograph the lunch boxes of the workers, Lockhart has chosen something that is personal and specific to that individual worker in terms of his own taste both in food and the container in which it is carried to work. While the title of the images identify the worker and his job, the image in no way conveys anything about his actual physical labor.
In the photographs, the different lunch vessels mimic archaeological remains that tell us something of their culture and civilization, but not everything, Like in archaeology, the viewer has to speculate about the meaning of these objects and those individuals who used them. For example, one worker, Butch Greenleaf, a machinist, uses an old woven picnic basket to hold his lunch. The photograph measures 24.75”x30.75” as do all the lunch box depictions.(There is some humor here: a man named Butch carries a picnic basket to work?!?!?) The container bears the traces of its use and history in the weathered and rough patina of the wood and the uneven profile of the basket cover as if gnawed away by time.
The depiction of Butch’s container is in the form of a diptych. One photograph displays the basket open and the other shows it closed. The position of the basket in each image does not reveal anything about it’s contents, so our understanding of this worker is based only on the mute vessel depicted. We must (0r should we not) imagine the life of Butch Greenleaf. Perhaps Butch favors old things or this basket belonged to his mother or it is a reminder of happy childhood memories of family picnics. Certainly this object has a strong psychological resonance. Or perhaps the silence of the basket is Lockhart’s comment on her own project: that in the end it is unable to really tell the spectator anything about Butch’s life and labor or that of the other workers.
Also of interest is the diptych format of the Butch Greenleaf basket photograph which elevates this mundane item to something more important and sacred as diptychs were often used to create altarpieces. There is also the elevation of these everyday objects to the realm of high art in the manner of Marcel Duchamp. But does this elevation to art or a connection to the sacred through the diptych format remove these objects and their representations from the reality of their existence? They are taken from their owners, photographed and then returned, but again what do we learn about the lived experiences of their owners? The artist benefits from these objects in terms of critical attention and remuneration, but the worker is left with only an anecdote.
Another work with the same diptych format displays the lunch box of Mike Dicky, a tinsmith at the shipyard. His lunch box is perhaps reminiscent of his job in its grey metal. It has a traditional shape and perhaps it is a vintage lunch box once carried by his father or a relative. The second image in the diptych shows the lunch box from behind. In both images the container is closed. It is mute. It betrays nothing about Mike Dicky except perhaps that he is neat. The box appears new. It is not stained, dirty, dented or full of stickers. The viewer stares at it and wonders what is inside. What are Mike Dicky’s secrets? What does he see, feel, imagine about his life, his job? The viewer is told nothing and again in this silence is Lockhart saying to the viewer in effect, “I cannot represent labor in its truth.”
Two other works by Lockhart for “Lunch Break” are triptychs. Here is the third panel of Larry Conklin, a welder which depicts a red and white cooler. The cooler is grimy inside and out perhaps bearing the dirt of Conklin’s job. It has a US Navy and union sticker on it announcing his work affiliations. Conklin apparently likes milk and the two other containers are filled with something we don’t know, but maybe soup, stew or pasta.
The other triptych in the show represents the lunchbox of Gary Gilpatrick an insulator at Bath Ironworks. Here is the third panel of the work which displays his traditional black lunch box covered in stickers and open displaying its contents. Unlike the lunch box of Mike Dicky, Gilpatrick’s container reveals more about him. It has a neat appearance. Gilpatrick has a newspaper and a pencil in his box which suggests that he does the crossword puzzle in the paper. There is also a magnifier which is perhaps used for the small lettering of the crossword or it indicates that Gilpatrick’s eyesight is not very good. It also appears that there is a medication bottle in the lunch box. Perhaps Gilpatrick is older or has a chronic medical condition. It also appears that he doesn’t have food in his lunch box so perhaps he eats at one of the concessions run by the ironworkers themselves.
The food concessions photographed by Lockhart are run by the ironworkers themselves to provide a service to their fellow workers. It is a sideline for some workers to make extra money.
In Dirty Don’s Delicious Dogs the viewer is confronted with the barebones, non-aesthetic food concession of Dirty Don who sells hot dogs, cheeseburgers, kielbasa, soda, ice tea and ice cream for low prices. Posters of baseball players line the wall above. A fan is randomly placed on top of a refrigerator, but it is not running. The hot dog maker is in a simple, rough wooden box with a light above it. The “box” can be locked up at the end of the day.
Of significance in these concessions is the honor system of paying. There is no one “manning” the food stand. Rather a customer helps themselves and then deposits there money in the wooden lockbox on the door of the hotdog concession. This system is a testament to the camaraderie and trust that exists between the workers at Bath Ironworks as well as the workers self-initiative in providing a service for themselves that the company which employs them does not.
Moody’s Mart sells coffee and donuts. The photograph captures the grime and wear of the space particularly on the three drawers. One of the drawers was perhaps repainted green because that was the only paint around. There is graffiti on the wall, old stickers on the drawers, and the supplies are stacked and stored in a random fashion. It is not a place of beauty and there is nothing about this concession besides the coffee and donuts that would lift the spirits of its customers. There is a danger here that this image seen in the context of a world famous art gallery could be seen as (anti)picturesque by the viewer who revels in the grittiness of the scene, but would have no interest in actually participating in it. This is no Starbucks. In the comfort of the art gallery, the viewer can be a tourist in the far from easy lives of these working people, but does not have to really consider the true reality of their existence.
In the photograph of Handley’s Snack Shop a haphazardly scribbled sign on a piece of a cardboard box states, “Please don’t forget to put money in bank”. The “bank” is just simple can with a hole in it. There is no sense of design to this space or the other concessions. They are completely practical and utilitarian. The snack shop is just a folding table filled with boxes of baked goods and candy. There are wires hanging from the ceiling. The wall in the background is full of holes and marks. It is not pretty nor is it meant to be in the space of a shipyard that builds military ships.
In the end, is Lockhart successfully in representing workers at the Bath Ironworks without the photographs devolving into (anti)picturesque, sentimental or exploitive images? I would argue that the depictions of the individual lunch boxes are more successful than the representations of the concessions. The individual lunch boxes taken out of their usual context, elevated to the level of art (as Duchamp did) or positioned as seemingly archeological objects of an unknown culture tell (and don’t tell) the viewer something about the worker who owns the particular container. The silence of some of the lunch boxes is perhaps the way in which Lockhart is signaling to the viewer the inadequacy of her representation of the workers. Indeed, these photographs tell us nothing about the nature of the work at the shipyard or the history or the economic struggles of the workers themselves. Nor do they contend with the present economic, political or social situation of the working class in America.
The concession photographs I think are even less successful. These images can easily slip into the realm of the (anti)picturesque through the dingy, unaesthetic nature of the pictures. Such “ugly” depictions have a long history in documentary photography. The spectator can peruse the grim scene without participating in it or having to contend with its reality.
It is important to note that the audience for these works displayed in the high-end Barbara Gladstone Gallery are urban art lovers and intellectuals who are far removed from the lives and tribulations of the employees of Bath Ironworks. I, like them, am a visitor in the lives of these workers and can never really understand or conceptualize their daily lives. And furthermore, these photographs sell for thousands of dollars and in no way benefit the workers who are their subject.
In the exhibition, Lockhart showed a short film also entitled “Lunch Break” which consists of a single tracking shot technically slowed down in speed which moves incrementally down a locker-filled corridor. The shipyard workers eat their lunch on separate benches in this corridor in isolation from one another. The film is accompanied by a soundtrack that weaves together the workers’ voices, industrial sounds and music.
This video in both form and content conveys the monotony and isolation of the workplace. The workers do not sit together to share their lunch or a conversation, but simply eat alone and then return to work. This film in the end conveys more about the psychological state of the workers and through its form allows the spectator for a brief moment to experience the tedium of their day, the deafening noise and its dehumanizing results. As a representation of labor, it is more telling and effective than the individual photographs. But still there is no real connection to or examination of the political, economic and social status of these workers and their industry in the United States. The “Lunch Break” project in the words of the artist Martha Rosler is “ powerless to deal with the reality that is yet totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology.”