The Intertwined Histories of Photography and the Office

by Britt Salvesen

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Britt Salvesen

Britt Salvesen is director and chief curator of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and an adjunct professor of art history. Among the exhibitions Salvesen has curated are Lee Friedlander: American Monuments (2008) and Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work (2006).

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