In the beginning, the word we used was “helping”. Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand or an imposition. It wasn’t a curse or a condemnation, something to be avoided at all cost or valued beyond all reason. Helping was something people did naturally, and it was the best way for a child to enter the mysterious and utterly appealing world of grown-ups.
Helpers garnered smiles of approval as they trailed behind Mother with a dust cloth or ventured into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for Daddy. Helpers cut flowers that made the house pretty and picked up their toys. Helpers collected windfall apples in a bucket or pulled low-hanging cherries from the trees. Helpers set the table and dried the silverware, folded the wash cloths and put newspapers in their box. If a neighbor who’d been called away was worried about her thirsty geraniums, a good helper knew to borrow a bucket and carry water to the flowers.
Helping, I thought, was fun.
Over time, I learned many of the people I was helping were doing something called “work”. Sometimes they worked on the car, sometimes they worked around the house. Painting was work, and vegetable canning. Dad worked at repairing a faucet. Mother worked on my new dress. Necessary work helped to bond us as a family, while chosen work defined our differences and became an arena for creativity.
Slowly, I began to understand the complexity of work and differentiate among its varieties – homework and handwork, busywork and piecework. I learned to associate work with money, and occasional unhappiness. I discovered there were days when Daddy didn’t want to go to work, and times when others seemed worried by lack of work. Still, working and helping remained so intertwined that the phrase “Daddy’s gone to work” seemed wonderful to me. Even among adults, chatting across the fences or on the porches of our neighborhood, no higher praise could be given than to say of someone, “That one’s a workin’ fool”.
Workin’ fools aren’t so abundant these days. New forces are abroad in the land, forces happy to sunder pleasure from work, to minimize its importance and reduce it to the sort of burden only a fool would willingly endure.
Given our increasing ambivalence toward work, I found it refreshing to discover a current Smithsonian traveling exhibit sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked.
Initially, I was amused by their use of the past tense. The Way We Worked suggests our working days are over – that work itself has become a curiosity, a museum piece, something to be wondered over and then forgotten as easily as that fifty-foot-long chunk of Route 66 languishing in the Smithsonian’s collection. In fact, the exhibit is strongly historical in nature, though not so dismissive.
“The Way We Worked”, adapted from an original exhibition developed by the National Archives, explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the workforce and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the Archives’ rich collections to tell this compelling story.
Equally interesting are the concurrent exhibits created by “partner sites” – small towns selected to join with the Smithsonian in an exploration of the rich diversity of work. Free to develop their programs as they saw fit, some chose retrospectives or emphasized particular industries.
But in Kansas, one town chose to focus on the present. The Way We Worked in Blue Rapids, a photographic exhibit sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council in partnership with the Museum on Main Street program, opened February 2 at the Blue Rapids Museum.
“Over the past year I photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. While the other [exhibit] sites focused on their particular histories – mining, agriculture, black populations – ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids during 2012. We called it a snapshot of a single year, and thought of it in terms of the historical record.
It was more time-consuming than I’d envisioned, and much more rewarding. Along the way I spent hundreds of hours with farmers, ranchers, convenience store workers, clerks, grocers, city workers, lifeguards, contractors, shopkeepers, retailers, postal employees, medical professionals, welders, musicians, explosives experts, county fair workers and volunteers – even a cat and a dog.
I was there for funerals and the baptism of twins. I was allowed unrestricted access into the working lives of my friends, my neighbors and complete strangers. Everywhere I went my camera went.”
When I first met Tom and Lori Parker, I’d already become a fan of Tom’s blog, Dispatches from Kansas. When he told me about the unfolding project, the opportunity to follow it through time seemed delightful. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun.
As months passed and images of life in Blue Rapids began to pile up, it was impossible not to be amazed by how little some things have changed.
In other instances, the sweetest of memories were evoked. Lunch with Daddy at his work place seems to be as special now as it was sixty years ago.
The photographs shared along the way always were interesting and often compelling. But of equal interest were the photographer’s musings over his project. Recording the frustrations, joys, technical challenges and sheer exhaustion that attend any large, on-going process, Tom clearly understood that blank canvas, empty pages or vacant walls present significant challenges to those charged with filling them.
Triggering [my] edginess is an immersion into the classic images of early American labor with a hefty dollop of worldwide street photography thrown in for good measure. After delving into Robert Frank’s The Americans, Lewis Hine’s works on child labor, Margaret Bourke-White’s collections on industrial design and factory workers, Dorothea Lange on the Dust Bowl years, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith and others, I’ve reconsidered and reworked many of my initial compositions in an attempt to mimic some of their distinctive styles.
It’s an imposing and indeed impossible task, one almost guaranteed to assure defeat. When I discussed this with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, he shook his head and said, “Can’t be done. Were those pictures iconic when they were taken or are they iconic because of what they represent to us now?”
Still, for the documentary photographer setting out to record a historical record of a certain sliver of time, it’s impossible to escape or ignore the body of work which we now consider classical or iconic. We start with a preconceived notion tinged, perhaps fatally, with ideas of becoming a modern day master whose photographs would not only enhance a vision of America as portrayed by Frank, Evans and Lange, not only continue their tradition, but compete with their bodies of work.
Sartore offered several bits of advice, one of the best being “Go big or go home.” But the most incisive, and the one I’m printing out to paste on my monitor, aligned the project’s direction in the truest, most linear fashion. “Every picture,” he said, “must advance the story.”
The process of advancing the story was as slow as it was detailed. Tom would “select an image in Lightroom, transfer it to Photoshop, increase the canvas size one inch on each side, type the name of the person in the lower margin followed by the name or nature of his or her business, center the type, transfer the image back to Lightroom for resizing to approximately 12 x17 inches, and print. And wait.” It was a lot of waiting, and a lot of work.
I was tired all the time. In the past month sleep was as elusive as coherence or the ability to piece together words into a cohesive whole, similar to writer’s block but much more debilitating.
When people asked when I was going to write another column, I’d say, when I can think straight. But thinking straight seemed to be exclusively the domain of The Way We Worked project, and little else. It filled my days and troubled my dreams. It propelled me from the warm confines of my flannel sheets, often at 2 a.m. And in December, the month of its finale, it allowed for very little else.
As he snapped the project’s final photo at 11:59 p.m on New Year’s Eve in a local bar, there still was work to be done before meeting his deadline. Still, no one imagined it wouldn’t be done. Through the whole of 2012, Tom Parker had proven himself a working fool – capturing 40,000 images, considering and culling, rejecting and retrieving. He went big and didn’t go home, all in order to keep advancing the story. For that work – and that foolishness – Blue Rapids, Kansas, the Smithsonian and each one of us should be immensely grateful.