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 helping around the house was a way for children to participate more fully in the life of the family.
Eventually, I discovered that 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, so I looked for other opportunities to seek it out: 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.
Eventually, I began watering flowers for next-door neighbors when they traveled out of town. It required a heavy bucket and multiple trips, but I never thought of it as a chore. It was fun: particularly since I was allowed to go by myself, on my tricycle, carrying my new responsibility with pride.
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 and minimize its importance, reducing it to the sort of burden only a fool would endure — particularly when government checks are increasingly available.
Our increasing ambivalence toward — or reluctance to engage in — work has reminded me in past months of a 2012 Smithsonian traveling exhibit, sponsored by its Museum on Main Street and titled The Way We Worked.
The title itself —The Way We Worked — could suggest that our working days are over: that work itself has become a curiosity or a museum piece, something to be noted and then forgotten as easily as the fifty-foot-long chunk of Route 66 languishing in the Smithsonian’s collection.
In fact, the exhibit was 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 were concurrent exhibits created by ‘partner sites’ — small towns selected to join with the Smithsonian in exploring the rich diversity of work. Free to develop their individual programs as they saw fit, some chose retrospectives, or emphasized particular industries. But in Kansas, one town chose to focus on the present.
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.
When Tom first told me about the unfolding project, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun. As the 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 had changed.
Occasionally, 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.
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?”
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. There 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 his deadline was met. 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.
Today, Tom still is at work: capturing and processing photographs from the world in which he lives. “It seems there’s no end to it,” he says. Then, he grins, and adds, “But isn’t that just the point?”
For my parents and grandparents, for the neighbors who surrounded me, and for all the workers who filled my young world, that certainly seemed to be the point. While doing their best to eliminate drudgery from their lives, they seemed intuitively to understand the truth of Freud’s famous statement that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
They understood that, even as age, illness, or infirmity eventually would change the nature of their work, work itself should go on: advancing a multitude of meaningful personal and communal stories.