The Dogma of Work: An Encounter with Twentieth-Century Photographs of Labor

Sean O’Toole

Work, the act of laboring in exchange for some form of monetary gain, defines most adult lives across the world. Viewed from a particular optic, the archive of twentieth-century photography—from Lewis Hine to Allan Sekula, Tina Modotti to David Goldblatt, Lewis Baltz to Naoya Hatakeyama, Walker Evans to Martha Rosler, Jean Mohr to Ernest Cole—can be read as a planetary-scale disquisition on labor. This photography, which encompasses different geographies, timeframes, ideological circumstances, and personal ambitions, variously recorded the humiliations of finding work, the forms of drudgery involved in staying in a job, and the ambiguous freedom in returning home from work. This archive also includes descriptions of the secular architectural habitats of labor, as well as investigations of what it meant to be cut adrift from what the Cuban-born French socialist Paul Lafargue mockingly called the “blessings of work.”

In 1880, Lafargue began publishing instalments of an essay on the virtues of idleness in the age capitalist work ethics in the weekly newspaper L'Égalité. Republished in full three years later as The Right to Be Lazy, Lafargue’s romantic broadside against the “dogma of work,” while heartfelt, was an exercise in porous thinking and wayward socialism. Karl Marx, Lafargue’s father-in-law, rightly took a dim view of his theorizing. But not everything Lafargue proposed in his essay is cant. “Modern factories,” Lafargue wrote, “have become ideal houses of correction in which the toiling masses are imprisoned, in which they are condemned to compulsory work for twelve or fourteen hours, not the men only but also women and children.”

Lafargue’s suggestion that factory work was a form of incarceration, while not wholly original, has proven remarkably durable as a concept. It also provides a useful lens for associatively thinking about the photography produced in what Lafargue pre-emptively called “the century of work.” The dogma of work is predicated on competition among workers to find work. This is often under-acknowledged in photography, but forms a central pivot of two book-length projects by the Swiss Jean Mohr and South African Ernest Cole.

Early into Cole’s House of Bondage (1967) appears a photo of thirteen naked black men facing a wall, their hands held upward in a gesture evoking recent Black Lives Matter protestors. They are prospective miners undergoing medical inspection at a labor terminus in Johannesburg. Cole was twenty and working as a layout assistant at Drum magazine when he fortuitously landed an assignment to take PR images for a mining supplement. He snuck off this photo, and many more, which he later smuggled out of the country when he went into exile in 1966. In his time Cole was a bit like Edward Snowden: his book of photos, billed as an expose by his New York publisher, was summarily banned in South Africa. The photographer died in exile in New York, in 1990, largely unremembered in his homeland.

For all their particularity, photographs are rarely, if ever, sui generis. Cole’s study of the degradations involved in landing a job chimes with another photo, this one taken in early-1970s Istanbul. Mohr’s photo, published in A Seventh Man (1975), forms part of a sequence describing how prospective Turkish workers were vetted at a centralized recruitment center before being fed into the German industrial labor market. Mohr collaborated with writer John Berger to make the book. Berger’s text moves between journalism, which for this writer is really a form of laissez-faire sociology, and literary encounter. At one point Berger tries to imaginatively make sense of the indignity of the medical inspection:

“Nothing has prepared him for this situation. It is unprecedented. And yet it is already normal. The humiliating demand to be naked before strangers. The incomprehensible language spoken by the officials in command. The meaning of the tests. The numerals written on their bodies with felt pens.”

It is as though Berger were writing with Cole’s photograph in front of him.

The twentieth century is, of course, old news. Writing in the preface to the 2010 edition of A Seventh Man, Berger describes the book as an outdated guide: “Factories now are becoming as migratory as workers. It has become as simple to build a factory where labor is cheap as to import cheap labor.” But even in the cyber-social twenty-first century, with its promises of a “new era of community” and “liberated eros,” to quote American sociologists Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio from their pioneering study, The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work (1994), the conditions described by the archive of twentieth-century photography endure.

Cinema is helpful in navigating this archive. Little over a decade after Lafargue published The Right to Be Lazy, business proprietor and inventor Louis Lumière filmed laborers—women in ankle-length skirts and men in suits—streaming from the Lumière factory in Lyon. For Lumière, the static camera shot he produced in La sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (1895) was decisive proof that the photographic recording of moving images was possible. Lumière’s understanding of his description of workers hurriedly leaving work through a factory gate was necessarily entrepreneurial, not theoretical. Exactly a century later, filmmaker Harun Farocki pointed to the strange ambiguity of Lumière’s ur-image from the history of cinema.

“The remaining impression from this is of people hurrying away as if impelled by an invisible force,” observes the narrator of Farocki’s filmic essay, Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (1995). “No one remains behind.” At once forensic and exploratory, dialectical and mischievous, Farocki’s thirty-four-minute film negotiates two subjects at once: Euro-American labor history, and the concurrent portrayal of this labor in film. An exercise in radical collage, his film includes documentary footage of laborers hastily leaving a Volkswagen plant in Emden in 1975 and scenes of Ford workers doing the same in Detroit in 1926. Farocki juxtaposes these images with similar fictional descriptions, including Fritz Lang’s portrayal of human automata leaving work in his expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis (1927).

Farocki’s critical overview incorporates snippets from D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), a young Marilyn Monroe, a song by Vladimir Mayakovsky, and scientific footage demonstrating factory security infrastructure. In a direct echo of Lafargue, Farocki likens factory entrances to prison gates. He also observes how “most narrative films begin after work is over.” It is a logic that also informs three remarkable—and remarkably different—photographic essays, each somehow to do with laborers returning from work.

In 1946, Walker Evans travelled to Detroit, then a formidable center of industrial enterprise, where he produced sidelong studies of pedestrians using a Rolleiflex camera. His portraits evidence a peculiar tension between their specificity, what each photograph unavoidably indexes, and the ideological intention of their original display, as nameless embodiments of the idea of American workers. The portraits originally appeared in the November 1946 edition of Fortune magazine, as a sequence of eleven photographs across a double page. The series bore the title “Labor Anonymous,” and was further subtitled, “On a Saturday Afternoon in Downtown Detroit.” It is a striking example of capitalist propaganda.

Much like the workers in Lumière’s film, hats are an important accoutrement of post-war America’s laboring classes—and, crucially for the editors of Fortune, also a marker of their individuality. “His hat is sometimes a hat, and sometimes he has molded it into a sort of defiant signature,” offers the extended caption. Most likely written by Evans, the caption reads like an ex post facto alibi. Despite their anonymity, the argument goes, this collective of eleven men (one with female partner) cannot be reduced to the crude noun of laborer. “When editorialists lump them as ‘labor’ these laborers can no doubt laugh that one off.” This is calculated conjecture.

Founded in 1929 by publisher Henry Luce, Fortune remains a bulwark of capitalist achievement (its ranked lists are widely quoted) and social manners (“I don’t think I’m an asshole,” Uber’s ex-CEO Travis Kalanick was quoted for his June 2017 cover appearance). Fortune’s appeal to not only capitalist barons, but also white-collar workers intrigued a young Allan Sekula. In 1973, a year after he produced a series of Lumière-like photos of day-shift workers leaving Convair’s aircraft factory in San Diego, which he called Untitled Slide Sequence (1972), Sekula worked on an project photographing his father, an aerospace engineer (and Fortune reader) who had lost his job following a slump in the United States economy.

Aerospace Folktales (1973) is a biographical study of white-collar unemployment; it is also, as Sekula stated in 1984, a kind of “disassembled movie.” The work is composed of 142 photographs, a spoken soundtrack and written commentary. Like Evans, Sekula was an accomplished writer. Written in a kind of new journalism style, his commentary functions as a loose interpretive guide to his project. Both his parents, offers Sekula, have “theories about the way things are.” He describes his father’s rationalization of his joblessness as sounding like a Fortune magazine editorial:

“eighty percent of the people who read fortune magazine earn over fifty thousand a year my father never earned fifty thousand a year my father never owned any stock here he is living on unemployment and he sounds like the lockheed chairman of the board i mean he thinks all this is a dysfunction of a perfectly equitable system.”

Sekula did not buy into the cosy fictions propagated by American corporations, just as David Goldblatt did not accept the fiction of apartheid as a benign separate development, a view broadcast by the South African government.

In 1983, at the behest of the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa, Goldblatt accompanied black workers who commuted from their homes in KwaNdebele, a nominally independent black state propped by the apartheid regime, to Pretoria by bus. Some workers traveled up to eight hours to and from work. Later compiled in the book The Transported of KwaNdebele (1989), Goldblatt’s grainy photos of slumped commuters describe the misery imposed by an unfair system that, for all its legal artifice, still required the black body to report to work in the white city every morning.

Jörg Colberg: Bluebonnet Diner, 2017 © Jörg Colberg
Jörg Colberg: Bluebonnet Diner, 2017 © Jörg Colberg

There is a post-script to this work. In 2012, eighteen years after South Africa’s first non-racial democratic elections, Goldblatt photographed an early-morning commuter bus plying the same route. An old indignity endures. The predicaments of working life in the twentieth century, far from being extinct, persist in our current age of neo-liberal capitalism. Workers continue to toil. The dogma of work is rehabilitated.

Sean O’Toole (*1968) is a writer and editor based in Cape Town. He writes regularly for print and online publications, including Aperture, Artforum and Frieze, and has contributed to numerous photobooks, including David Goldblatt’s In Boksburg (2016), Ponte City (2014) by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, World Wide Order by Julian Röder (2014), and Terrain by Jackie Nickerson (2013).