Workaday Lives As Everyday Art

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Amid the worst of the Depression years, a policy-driven series of photographs chronicled the day-to-day lives of farm workers. The Farm Security Administration’s photography program, beginning in 1935, fostered some of the Depression era’s most famous photographers and produced a canon of images that have shaped the American public’s perception of the Great Depression.

It is only a small leap of the imagination to recall those stark Depression images when viewing Unseen America New York State, an exhibition of photographs taken by American union workers that chronicle the things they see in their daily lives.

They are portraits and still life images of workers at work and at play, and the places that are significant to them while doing both. Some state simple facts through captions – “Housewives in Bangladesh, now they work in factories” – while others resemble photojournalistic takes on newsworthy events, such as a snapshot of young pallbearers carrying the coffin of a friend who was murdered.

Some images are quietly beautiful – like a pensive still life of an old wooden chair framed by a glass-paned door, bathed in atmospheric late afternoon sunlight. It was made by Roger Chenez, a retired Verizon worker who lives in Lockport, in the western part of the state.

Mostly, they succeed in their mission of documenting what workers see in work and in life. A general contractor from Chatham, near Albany, captures a seasonal worker from Mexico hauling a box of freshly picked chives. A technician from Purchase portrays his tools and paintbrushes as a still life. A Sudanese refugee working in Utica snapped a candid shot of a co-worker, donning a work apron and cap, smiling and dancing with a broom.

The photographs, all black and white, are a product of a photography project run by Bread and Roses, the nonprofit cultural arm of SEIU 1199, New York’s health and human services union, in collaboration with the Workforce Development Institute, which provides education and training for labor unions.

The national Unseen America program makes photography and writing classes available to union workers and exhibits their work at galleries, libraries and churches when each 12-week course has concluded. In New York, there have been 20 courses taught over the past three years, and the photos have been displayed at the New York State Museum in Albany. The exhibit is currently making its way across the state.

“Our hope is that labor would have an opportunity to encourage their workers to express themselves with the dignity of their work,” Ed Murphy, executive director of Workforce Development Institute, said at the opening reception of the show at Gallery 1199 in Manhattan.

“Who would have thought that today we would be facing a crisis like the Depression?” Murphy said. “This exhibit is about workers and their lives, and right now we need to be talking about the workers and their lives, and the safety net of this country.”

Unlike the Depression era’s Farm Security Administration photography project, the photographers participating in Unseen America are ordinary workers – not professional photographers – who relished the opportunity to study an art form and flex their creative muscles. The photographs are not always technically perfect, or even all that compelling in some cases. But their simple presence in galleries across the state serves to remind viewers that creating an artistic work is not always about technical excellence, or balance of light and form, or composition; what makes every child an artist is simply the human instinct to create, to make picture after picture with the utmost confidence in the value and uniqueness of each one.

That Unseen America does this for laborers across the state is rewarding – for the workers themselves and for the viewers who get to see the world through their eyes.

Veteran letter carrier Thomas Brooks is one worker who has dabbled in photography before. Brooks used the holiday tips he received one year to purchase a professional grade 35 millimeter camera, which he used in a photography course at his local community college.

His photo, “Who He Is” – portraying an acquaintance from his mail route, pictured in his garage among auto memorabilia – was among those selected for the exhibit at the State Museum.

“It’s nice to be recognized for the things that you do,” Brooks said.

Unseen America will be on view at Gallery 1199, at the union’s headquarters at 310 West 43rd Street, until December 17. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. More images can be seen here.

– Michelle S. Han

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