Workers: The Human Clay (Steidl, 2023) is the most comprehensive volume to focus on Lee Friedlander’s near seventy year fascination with work and those who do it. Edited by Joshua Chuang and bringing together 253 images stretching as far back as 1958, this book functions well as an overview of a subject that has persisted in Friedlander’s oeuvre since his earliest days as a photographer. Beyond this, Workers puts forward an expansive argument for what work actually is (more than just the cliché invocation of miners, welders, and technicians, for example), and also, through Friedlander’s framing and sense of timing, for how we should consider relating to people at work from seemingly all walks of life.
With well over 80 books on his work having been published to date, Workers is one of many Friedlander titles organized around a unifying theme or concept, and this one in particular is the final installment in the six-part series, The Human Clay. As that title suggests and as his pictures have always shown, people for Friedlander are endlessly malleable, both in a plastic and a dramatic sense. What this new book emphasizes is his appreciation for how that personal malleability is so often shaped precisely by the kinds of work we do and the demands it makes of us, and that ultimately, in the end, some measure of truth about who we are is expressed along the way.
The book is a straightforward and handsome object, representative of Steidl’s typically high standard of printing and production. Many pictures appear in print for the first time, and those which have been published before have likely never looked better. In a more rudimentary survey we might expect the sequence to follow either a roughly chronological, regional, or even workplace-specific order. It is to Chuang’s credit, I think, that he decided against the use of such broad and linear-seeming strategies for creating structure. While there are pockets of thematic cohesion throughout, such as office workers, salespeople, athletes, musicians, and so forth, those groupings are sometimes followed by ones with little obvious relation, as when telemarketers in Omaha, Nebraska in 1995 are followed by makeup artists at work during New York City’s Fall Fashion Week in 2006. Though the sequence creates a relation between these pictures and the work they show, in order to go deeper and establish real, substantive similarities, one would likely need to research the labor conditions and wage levels for these respective professions at the very least, information which this book, and Friedlander’s photography more generally, has omitted as a priority.
What overarching structure there is to the book can be seen in its near even divide between manual laborers on the one hand, and those who work in what we can most succinctly call the culture industry on the other. Within this rough structure there is left plenty of room for elaboration on the concept of work, which is carried out through the variety of subjects Friedlander photographed, and then also through the use of captions, as some make explicit the kind of work being done, where, and when, whereas others simply list the location of the picture. An example of the latter is a trio of images in the very beginning of the sequence where the captions only indicate where and when the photographs were taken (New York City, and 1986, 1984, and 1959, respectively) but stop short of specifying the industry each subject is part of, or what trade would have been obvious to Friedlander at the time or after. We can certainly make an educated guess as to the profession of each man in these pictures, but the possibility that is left open here – what the effect of captioning does – is that we should consider these men carrying out an odd-job, favor, personal chore, or essentially anything “informal” (as opposed to the “formal” structure of wage labor), and then consider that as a form of work that is categorically equivalent to what the truck driver or sanitation worker does that immediately follows in the sequence. If we go beyond the effect of captioning and consider the many pictures where no recognizable type of “work” is being carried out and where instead people seem to compose themselves for Friedlander, like the many artists and intellectuals do, or even where they seem to be waiting or passing time, then we start to see just how capacious the concept of work is for both Friedlander and Chuang. Rather than be reducible to a representative act or gesture, there is instead the possibility that a life being lived is enough to suggest the lifetime of work that has shaped it.
The book opens with an excerpt from the 1965 novel Stoner by John Williams, in which the protagonist, William Stoner, is reflecting upon his efforts to remake his study in a house that had to that point been as much a financial burden as a place to comfortably call home. As he began sanding and oiling wood boards and constructing bookshelves and repairing the rest, he realized “[…] it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.” That the work we do is in turn what makes us is a sentiment that we can locate in Friedlander’s pictures. Though they hardly glorify or glamorize, and they seldom offer a penetrating representation of what a job must be like for those who do it day in and day out, his pictures do dignify their subjects. Where there is humor, as there so regularly is in his work, it is to be found in the graphic situation these people are part of – how they may have momentarily arranged their bodies or contorted their faces within a larger composition – rather than as part of a judgment about the work they do and value it may have. We can make those judgments ourselves and perhaps laugh accordingly, but Friedlander does not seem interested in taking sides, and in his refusal to do so there is an implicit respect for those in front of his camera. It may be surprising, then, that we are rarely given reason to believe we are accessing the inner life of these people. As Martha Rosler observed in 1975 when writing about an exhibition of Friedlander’s work then on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York,
“Their expressions, although sometimes bizarrely distorted, say more about the effects of flash lighting than about personality or emotion, except the most conventionalized kind. The close-up is a form suggesting psychological encounter, and Friedlander uses it to negate its possibilities. People shown interacting with things often look unwittingly funny, or sometimes peculiarly theatrical, bringing a suggestion of seriousness to the irony of their situation.”
She would go on to remark that Friedlander was not one to psychologize his subjects, which still rings true almost fifty years later. Interiority, if it is there, is caught in a glimpse, like a shadow passing over a wall, and hardly ever is that fleeting moment expanded into something which suggests the particularities of a life beyond the frame. Instead, Friedlander gives us abbreviated typologies of workers, where what is emphasized most are the ways we must adjust and adapt in response to the work at hand. In a cluster of ten pictures showing opera singers mid-audition for the Metropolitan Opera, for example, we see chests puffed and faces seeming to expand with each note, hands gesturing as though they could add nuance to the sounds just sung. Workers building computers in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, sit hunched over as they sift through countless lines of wiring, and factory workers across Ohio are shown in confident control of sophisticated machinery. In contrast to these types of descriptions, Friedlander so often shows us the inverse of labor being performed in something close to a dramatic fashion by focusing instead on waiting or on downtime, on a casual or structured break. In this vein we see salespeople (of theater tickets, hats, tourist tchotchkes, and medicine) passing time rather than cajoling a would-be customer into a sale; farmers seated and posed in front of picturesque vistas; office workers staring off somewhere deep into a middle distance, deliberately vacating their minds if only for moment. While his pictures always seem to dance around being outwardly comedic, and if we have seen our fair share of them we know that they often elicit a humorous grin before a deeper curiosity develops, what also seems true and consistent across the long arc of Friedlander’s life as a photographer is that he has always retained his capacity for empathy towards the people he photographs, regardless of how novel or absurd the conditions of their employment may seem to him and eventually to us. To spend a life at work is a near universal experience, and though we may toil away, moving from station to station while each one leaves its mark, we are never reducible to these experiences alone.