Lost Labor, Images of Vanished American Workers
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Raymon Elozua

Weyerhauser     In the early history of photography, most photographs had to be staged for technical reasons. Equipment was heavy and powerful lights were necessary for taking pictures indoors. As picture-taking technology improved, lighter cameras and more sensitive film allowed action photographs and the informal recording of daily factory life. As public relations and advertising assumed more prominent roles in the business culture, photographs became tools in a subtle propaganda campaign. Although the ability to capture "candid" photographs increased, the images became increasingly "posed." Techniques such as masking or airbrushing allowed the company to control or remove any disturbing elements in the original scene. The visual aesthetics of photography were also employed to portray the company and incidentally the workers, in a positive light, emphasizing the company commitment to be "modern," "efficient," and "technologically advanced." and the worker as " happy," "safe," or "content." In the 1930s, the rise of unions led companies to be cautious in representing the workplace because of the fear of strikes and factory takeovers. During W.W.II, images of home front workers emphasized patriotism, teamwork, and sacrifice. After the war, workers were seen as consumers, and life on the factory floor was downplayed in favor of showing workers in other social situations.
    Despite the anonymity of the individuals who created these images, often moments of great artistry appear in the photographs. The visual portrayal of workers also reflects aesthetic movements in photography: the soft-focus pictorialism and Bauhaus formalism of the 1920’s; the social realist style of the 1930s, the heroic portraiture style of the 1940s; and the photojournalism aesthetic of the 1950s and 60s, and the advertisement style of the 1970s and 1980s. When aesthetic concerns became dominant, as they did in some corporate histories, workers were often reduced to pictorial elements in a play of light and shadow. Low angle views and dramatic staged lighting were used to portray workers sympathetically, and experimental techniques such as collage and photomontage also found their way into corporate histories often as decorative endpapers. The rise of mass circulation magazines such as Life and Fortune, and newsreels like Fox Movietone and Paramount, contributed to an increasing visual literacy and sophistication on the part of the general public. Audiences expected information to be conveyed visually as well as in writing. As a result, the visual aesthetics of art photography were employed to portray workers in accordance with corporate self-interest.