In the beginning, I learned to call it “helping.” Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand, or an imposition. Helping was something people did naturally, and being allowed to help around the house was considered a perfectly acceptable way for children to enter the mysterious world of grown-ups.
Trailing behind my mother with a dust cloth, or venturing into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for my father garnered smiles of approval. I enjoyed approval, and so I looked for opportunities: cutting flowers to make the house pretty, or picking up my toys. I collected windfall apples in a bucket; pulled low-hanging cherries from trees; set the table and dried the silverware; folded the wash cloths; put newspapers in their box.
When a vacationing neighbor called home, worried about her thirsty geraniums, I borrowed a bucket and carried water to her flowers, thinking it great fun.
Over time, I learned another word for helping: “work.” People worked on cars, and worked around the house. Painting was work: so was putting screens on windows, or vegetable canning.
Slowly, I began to understand the complexity of work, and to 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 people who worried over lack of work.
Still, working and helping remained so intertwined that the phrase “Daddy’s gone to work” seemed wonderful to me. Even adults chatting across fences or on the porches of our neighborhood could offer no higher praise 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 work from pleasure: minimizing its importance and reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure.
Given our increasing ambivalence toward work, a Smithsonian traveling exhibit, sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked, is especially delightful.
Initially, their use of the past tense amused me. 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, and far from 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 work force and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the Archives’ rich collections to tell this compelling story.
Equally interesting are 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, 2013, 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 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 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.
By the time I 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. Of equal interest were Tom’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… 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.
This Labor Day, Tom still is working: processing photographs from yesterday’s “Orchestra on the Oregon Trail” event near Marysville, Kansas. “It seems there’s no end to it,” he once said. Then, he grinned, and added, “But isn’t that just the point?”