Hands Across America

Manual labor can be hard and exhausting, practical and poetic.

Then

Ralph Steiner, 1934

New York City

Then

Ralph Steiner, 1934

New York City

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought his trusted welfare administrator Harry Hopkins to Washington, D.C., to oversee the government’s newly created work-relief programs. As one of his first tasks, Hopkins launched what amounted to a PR campaign for the New Deal by commissioning films highlighting government efforts to help revitalize the diminished U.S. economy. Hopkins enlisted Ralph Steiner, a New York-based filmmaker and photographer, to produce one of these films. Steiner’s subject: the hands of the common worker.

Steiner was an experimental filmmaker without Hollywood ambitions. His first film, H20 (1929), was a plotless, 13-minute silent film comprising close-up images of rainfall and ocean waves. (Today it is included in Congress’s National Film Registry for its “striking visual effects.”) Although Steiner made much of his living doing advertising photography for mainstream outlets such as Ladies’ Home Journal, his political sympathies and professional experience were aligned with the mission of the WPA. He was a member of the progressive Workers Film and Photo League in New York, which made newsreels about the labor movement, and a founder of Nykino, a group of filmmakers that mixed dramatized scenes into its leftist documentaries. While these groups’ works sometimes found their way into mainstream theaters, they were often shown independently at union meetings and other gatherings.

Hopkins’s instructions to Steiner were simple: make a film to boost people’s faith in the US economy. The resulting four minute film, Hands, was an artfully composed advertisement for the government’s new relief efforts. Eventually, after the Works Progress Administration was formally created in 1935, Hands would be promoted as showing the benefits of the New Deal. Like H20, it was made up of a series of close-ups: hands carrying out a variety of tasks such as shaking a thermometer, tying a shoe, tossing out chicken feed, or operating machinery. Multiple shots focus tightly on checks from the Department of the Treasury—a sight familiar to workers on the relief payroll.

(U.S. National Archives)

Meanwhile, another New Deal organization, the Resettlement Administration—which, in 1937, would become the Farm Security Administration, deploying photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to document rural suffering—was getting into the documentary-film business. Two years after shooting Hands, Steiner was hired as a cinematographer on the film The Plow that Broke the Plains, a documentary which chronicled the ravages of the Dust Bowl.

Accompanied by poetic narration and a score by composer Virgil Thomson, the 25-minute film garnered support from film critics while ruffling feathers in Hollywood. Studio executives complained that the government-funded film was propaganda and had no place in movie theaters; major distributors also refused to pick up the documentary. In a May 24, 1936, article, the New York Times scolded Hollywood for “turning its manicured thumb down” at such a “compelling, dramatically vital, photographically exceptional” film. “If the government can make pictures like this, as artistic, as interesting, as emotionally effective, I can see why private enterprise should be worried,” chimed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Eventually, the critical acclaim and audiences’ curiosity won out; even without a major distributor, the film ended up showing in around 3,000 theaters.

The Plow That Broke the Plains was Steiner’s last work for the WPA, and it is his cinematography for that film that is often remembered before his work on Hands. But Hands is remarkable not just as an example of early New Deal film efforts, but for its lyrical, experimental nature. “I never do fancy-shmancy cutting,” Steiner said in a 1973 address at his alma mater, Dartmouth. “I’ve had criticism from filmmakers saying that my films are ‘boring’ … and that as education I’ll bore the hell out of little kids who are trained by TV to get ideas fast.” He implored the assembled graduates to slow down: “Lie down and let the clouds float over you and enjoy the world. My God, you’re all going to be dead so soon!”

Then

Ralph Steiner, 1934

New York City

Now

Keith Miller, 2018

Brooklyn

Now

Keith Miller, 2018

Brooklyn

The simple satisfaction of doing a job with one’s hands can seem, for some of us, like something from a distant era. But despite living in a period of increased automation and virtual reality, houses still need to be fixed and built. That work needs to be done by people who work with their hands, use tools, and have a trade they have learned over time.

The beautiful silent film Hands, co-directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke and shot by Steiner for the US government, was made four years into the Great Depression and five years before the start of World War II. It shows different human hands engaged in a broad range of tasks, in a vision as inclusive as it is populist. Steiner’s film is optimistic about the honesty of manual labor, which is further underscored by the elegance of his imagery of hands sewing or driving, drawing or typing.

When I worked as a carpenter, years back, one of the things I liked most about the craft was its utilitarian clarity. If the door opened and closed without a problem, the work was good. Otherwise, it wasn’t. There was the destructive satisfaction of knocking down a wall to change the space, and the final fulfillment of seeing that space transformed.

For my own film, I asked a contractor, Ofen Gillam, who lives on my block in Park Slope, Brooklyn, if I could film on his residential job site to document the process and talk to the people doing the building. Gillam’s company has renovated at least four buildings on the block, and I’ve been seeing him around for years while on my way to work or walking my dog. He always gives me a quick smile and a happy wave hello before he stops to chat. The neighborhood is made up of mostly two-story townhouses with one or two units, with an occasional illegal basement unit here and there. The job I filmed was a gut renovation and total transformation of a house—a sign of the area’s already-changed demographic.

I shot the film between January and March of this year. Since the crew was still in the preliminary phases of the project—building support walls, digging out the ground for a new section of the concrete foundation—the site was still fairly raw. My film hopefully offers a glimpse at work that is often loud and brutish, but can also be—when done with care—precise, practical, and poetic.

The laborers looked like New York City. There were Mexican workers from Puebla section; a Chinese fabricator and a Caribbean man; and Guatemalans who spoke strongly accented Spanish with the other workers, but Mayan languages with each other. During the days I was on-site, I didn’t see any women or white workers, but over the years I have seen people from all over the world doing this kind of construction.

I asked the workers how they’d found this job and how they felt about it. “I should retire, but I like what I do and it gives me great pleasure in doing it,” one man said. “Here you live day-by-day, week-by-week, right?” said another. “There’s no long-term. You just got to give your best.” One day, as we sat waiting for a septic tank to get pumped out, a septic worker named Jerry told me how his father had started in the business after he returned from World War II. He saw that the outhouses in Ulster County were still being emptied by “honey dippers,” who would come around in the early spring and empty them bucket-by-bucket. Jerry told me that he and his father had never worked for another man in their lives; Jerry had been able to buy a house for himself and his wife, then built houses on the property for his two children and their families. He wasn’t bragging. He was proud of his hard work. The satisfaction was clearly its own reward, and it didn’t matter whether it involved pumping shit. It was a job Jerry did well, and that was enough.

Keith Miller is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and director of the films Five Star and Welcome to Pine Hill. He is the co-creator of Brooklynification, a comedy series on BRIC TV.

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