The recent Labor Day holiday was an excuse to browse through our collections, and not surprisingly, the Smithsonian’s photography collections gives a nice overview of how photography has changed the way we work.
Few are unfamiliar with the moving photos of immigrants and child laborers taken by sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine, which served as powerful political tools during Hine’s time (view a selection from the Archives of American Art). Hine began his career in New York City taking photographs of immigrants and the tenements and sweatshops where they were forced to live and work. Later, he traveled around the country for the National Child Labor Committee to document the horrific work conditions of child laborers. Lewis aimed to show the “sweat and service” behind the goods that Americans consumed, but also the humanity and strength of immigrants who were arriving to the US in great numbers in the early 20th century and facing difficult circumstances and widespread xenophobia. Hine combined his photographs with descriptive captions in a form he called the “photo-story,” a precursor to the now ubiquitous photo-essay which was very successful at championing his political causes. All of Hine’s photos helped shift public opinion during a time when immigration was a “great social problem,” and his images of child workers eventually helped shock the public into action and persuade the federal government to institute child labor laws.
Around the same time, photography was being used not only to change the conditions in which laborers worked, but also the way they worked. During a period of intense industrialization, unionization, and rising labor costs, capitalists were looking for ways to cut cost. Many turned to the new-fangled technology of motion studies to try and analyze how to make their workers more efficient. At the forefront of this technology were management consultant Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian, an industrial psychologist. These two used a clock, blinking lights attached to a subject’s moving hands, a grid backdrop, and cameras to presumably analyze the fastest and most efficient way to complete a task. Using the “indisputable evidence” of the photograph, the Gilbreths promised to standardize the repetitive motions of workers on production lines. Not surprisingly, many workers didn’t take well to being reduced to an efficient function, and in some cases, refused to work if their employers subjected them to the Gilbreth motion studies. Nevertheless, the Gilbreths truly believed in their methodology (and famously used it in their own household of twelve children!), and their work became the precursor to today’s ergonomic planning and design.
And of course, photography used in advertising has changed what kinds of products we consume, how these products are made, and what we think of companies and the people they employ. Check out our popular Postal Service photos from the National Postal Museum on the Flickr Commons, or the N. W. Ayer Advertising Agency Records from the National Museum of American History to explore PR, advertising, and employment in our collections.
While video now rules the workplace, mainly in a surveillance function, the photos here leave us with a visual record of the workplace that is much more compelling than hours of security footage.