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This is Corporate America: The Intertwined Histories of Photography and the Office

This is Corporate America: The Intertwined Histories of Photography and the Office

Britt Salvesen
11 Snaps

In the mid-1980s, Chauncey Hare could boast an enviable résumé for a fine-art photographer: multiple Gug­genheim and NEA fellowships, exhibitions at major institutions, and the publication of Interior America (1978) and This Was Corporate America (1984). He had pared down his full-time position in environmental engineering to three days a week and was preparing to quit altogether.

But Hare was not leaving his office job to pursue a romantic dream of creative freedom. Instead he would question the very foundations of art-world success—picketing museums where his work was on display, defacing books in which his photographs appeared—and study organizational development at Pepperdine University. In 1985, not long after This Was Corporate America appeared, Hare stopped making photographs altogether and earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology. He now works as a therapist, counseling people on what he terms “work abuse.”

Hare gave up on art’s potential to effect change, and his arresting photographs are little known. But with the just-released Protest Photographs (Steidl), Hare reiterates his demand that society pay attention to the working people and conditions he depicted so mercilessly. This may well be his final statement as a photographer, but one of his key themes—the office environment—has been taken up by a new generation of artists for reasons of their own.

Though offices have long been recognized as stages for significant social interaction and identity formation, they are still regarded as neutral, functional spaces. Likewise, depictions of offices are dismissed as boring and formulaic. The upholding of these assumptions by workers and designers alike indicates a collective refusal to acknowledge the tensions—personal, social, and spatial—that suffuse all offices.

Until recently, that is. In novels, films, television series, art galleries, blogs, and elsewhere, the office setting has become a subject in itself. The moment Hare despaired of ever seeing seems finally to have arrived.

Offices and photography, both originating in the Industrial Revolution and flourishing in the resultant capitalist economy, have intertwined histories. Offices in the modern sense (designated places, outside the domestic sphere, for the non-manufacturing work of managers, clerks, typists, and so forth) became necessary in the last third of the nineteenth century, when a goods-based economy shifted to a service-based one. Initially, spaces once used for storage, sorting, or packing were retrofitted with the trappings of intellectual labor: wood paneling, coffered ceilings, rolltop desks with bankers’ lamps. The first purpose-built office building, New York’s Equitable, opened in 1870, with the first passenger elevators providing access to its seven stories. During this same period many other inventions—the telegraph (1844), manual pencil sharpener (1847), typewriter (1860), coffee percolator (1865), telephone (1876), stapler (1878), rubber stamp (1883), mimeograph (1884), legal pad (1888), paper clip (1899), three-ring binder (1904)—contributed to the office’s functional identity.

By the twentieth century, the office had a sociology all its own. Upton Sinclair’s indelible coinage “the white-collar worker” dates to 1919; William H. Whyte’s “organization man” to 1956. Military and assembly-line terminology (starting with the word company) rounded out the vocabulary of scientific business management, a new discipline emphasizing standardization and efficiency, surveillance and control. This was the world of Ross Hare, Chauncey Hare’s father, who enacted the classic mid­century climb up the ladder: the son of a Pennsylvania steelworker, he became a draftsman, went to college, and eventually rose to a supervisory position at DuPont. According to Hare, his father did away with time clocks at DuPont in 1952, later to be forced into early retirement for defying upper-management’s hard-line attitude against strikers. In many ways, Ross Hare resembled the troubled, anxiety-­ridden protagonists who emerged in novels and films of the day, as well as in sociological analyses. These “men in gray flannel suits” craved the material prosperity that seemed so ­readily available to them in the postwar years, but they paid a heavy psychological price.

The 1960s saw fundamental changes in management ­theory and business practice, which in turn stimulated design trends in office architecture, interiors, and equipment. With the Union Carbide Building in New York (1960), Skidmore, Owings & Merrill defined the international-style office plan: suspended ceilings, partial­-height partitions, central open ­areas filled with rows of desks for clerical workers, and a perimeter of private rooms for senior managers. In response, designer Robert Propst (then of Herman Miller) advocated flexible modularity as a means of anticipating and accommodating the changes that technology would effect on the workplace and on workers. However, the innovative ideas Propst articulated in his 1968 book, The Office: A Facility Based on Change, were inexorably absorbed into the hierarchical international-style grid model he had hoped to humanize. Few of us now associate cubicles with freedom.

Hare observed his father’s status and authority over other workers at DuPont with some ambivalence, but nevertheless he embarked on a similar course himself, earning qualifications as an engineer, marry­ing early, taking a job at Standard Oil (now Chevron), and settling down in Richmond, California. For some years, photography helped Hare cope with the pressures of his job and an incipient midlife crisis. What began as a hobby became an obsession when he discovered his true subject: the conditions of working people in America, not only those engaged in manual labor, but also those who earned their salaries in offices. Although he received grants (and leaves of absence) to pursue his art, Hare did not retreat from middle-management life; he moved in closer. The resulting book, This Was Corporate America, appeared in 1984.

These are brutal pictures: unsparing, unflinching, and even malevolent. A wide-angle lens captures every peripheral pile of trash; medium- and large-format film records every shabby scuff. The environment depicted is all too familiar, yet as a photographic subject, startlingly new. Perhaps a conviction that white-collar work was mental and invisible accounts for the lack of sustained interpretive treatment. Certainly the modern office setting is richly depicted in midcentury movies and ­novels: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974), to name just two. But still photographers, enthralled by the street and the landscape, would only enter the office to do a commercial job.

Chauncey Hare offered a terse explanation for this artistic inattention to offices. “Many artists and curators were once among the ranks of demoralized workers and made a run for it when they could. And they’ve never looked back—afraid to acknowledge a responsibility to or see an opportunity in beginning a needed dialogue.” Hare’s pictures did not, as it turned out, initiate that dialogue. Instead, the Corporate America project marked the end of his photographic and engineering careers.

In the years just prior to this psychic and professional rupture, Hare had focused his lens on then-new Silicon Valley companies ­Intel and Caere. Visually, the offices in Hare’s photographs do not reflect the novel aspects of these enterprises, but interior designers soon perceived an opportunity to shape and sell environments to match the youthful audacity associated with the software industry. Trade journals and mainstream media printed innumerable pop paeans to the paperless office. No drab filing cabinets or noisy pencil sharpeners; instead we would have miniature hard drives, voice­-recognition software, and ping-pong tables. This ideation hub was certainly not your father’s office.

Your father, after all, was still toiling to make your brave new workplace possible, manufacturing microchips, maintaining servers, selling products, shipping beanbags; the virtual economy requires a fair amount of physical labor. Initially, Hare, like many observers, was intrigued by Silicon Valley’s ap­parent rejection of top-down management, its championing of creative, team-based processes. But many speculative schemes never left the page, and old-school business practices proved remarkably resilient. And in the aftermath of the 1997 stock market crash and the 2000 dot-com collapse, the prospects of restructuring, outsourcing, and pension fraud have condemned those lucky enough to remain employed to a state of constant uncertainty. Perhaps sensing this psychic urgency, artists have stepped into the office, taking up Hare’s subject with a new ambivalence.

Hare, by temperament and generation, viewed the Organization as the enemy, seeking salvation first in confrontation and then in self-­actualization. For his successors, the social postures of activism and retreat arguably hold as little ­promise today as their corresponding photo­graphic approaches, humanist docu­mentary and sub­jective abstraction. Drawing on a range of visual­ conventions, they portray the middle ground between the extremes of demoralization and ­hubris, bankruptcy and ostentation, conformity and rebellion. If these photographers stop just short of aestheticizing office spaces, they do perform another, more important function of art, which is to defamiliarize them. Inflected by nihilism rather than nostalgia, their images test the utopian rhetoric associated with the global information economy and raise troubling questions about its impact on the individuals called upon to sustain it. 

This project was supported by a Getty Curatorial Research Fellowship. I would like to thank the artists for granting permission to reproduce their work. I am grateful to Chauncey Hare for allowing access to his archive and to Jack von Euw for guiding me through it at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
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