On the Factory Line

Finding moments of beauty and elegance in industrial labor.

Then

Alfred T. Palmer, 1941–43

Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and California

Then

Alfred T. Palmer, 1941–43

Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and California

In 1942, Roy Stryker penned an urgent memo to his Farm Security Administration photographers. He was upset at the relative age of the people he saw in the FSA pictures, saying “too many in our file paint the US as an old people’s home.” Instead, he wrote: “We must have at once: pictures of men, women, and children who appear as if they really believed in the USA. Get people with a little spirit.”

It was a task easier said than done. Stryker had been leading the FSA’s photo division since 1935. The FSA, a New Deal program, was created to assist the rural poor; it doled out loans, operated camps for displaced farmers, and set up subsistence farming communities, among other relief efforts. Stryker’s fleet of photographers were charged with documenting not just the work of the relief agency, but also the daily lives and struggles of the poor. But by 1942, the United States was at war. Pearl Harbor had been bombed the previous year, and the government was turning its attention to bolstering home-front pride—a theme that didn’t exactly square with images of poverty-stricken farmers.

A worker at the Vultee Aircraft plant in Nashville, Tennessee, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
A worker at the North American Aviation Company plant in Inglewood, California, 1942. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The same year that Stryker penned his memo urging cheerier photos, the federal government created the Office of War Information, tasked with creating and disseminating wartime propaganda—including triumphant, patriotic images of Americans back at work, particularly in factory jobs where workers were busy assembling what Roosevelt termed an “Arsenal of Democracy.” As wartime efforts ramped up, the work of the FSA was curtailed; its budget was eliminated in 1943. Stryker and his photographic unit were transferred to the Office of War Information.

“The move was in the cards,” Stryker told an interviewer in 1963. “Farm Security was coming to an end ... We were not going to be allowed to do that broad, general coverage of the American scene and there was no justification for it.”

Riveters at the North American Aviation Company plant, 1942. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Alfred T. Palmer, a globe-trotting photographer from California who had worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams in his youth, was hired as the lead photographer for the OWI. With a background in commercial photography, he was hired in part as an antidote to Stryker’s unit’s documentation of the poor. He turned his camera on the factory workers who were energetically churning out materials for the war effort. In his photos, no one sat idle: men shaped torpedoes, forged massive guns, and operated formidable machinery. Palmer also photographed the women who went to work in factories, taking the place of men serving in the military. Women in dresses smiled for him as they polished sights for guns, or wore pants and bright lipstick as they built aircraft, like real-life versions of Rosie the Riveter.

A worker assembles part of the cowling for a B-52 bomber motor at the North American Aviation plant, 1942. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Within a year of its transfer to the OWI, the photographic unit of the FSA was fully subsumed by the organization. Stryker departed to take a public relations job with Standard Oil. During his seven years running the FSA photo unit, he had kickstarted the careers of photographers who would go on to define documentary photography in the United States, including Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans.

The OWI’s life span was even briefer than that of the FSA photo unit; it was dissolved in 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. With no war effort to support overseas, taking pictures of happy factory workers was no longer a federal mandate.

Then

Alfred T. Palmer, 1941–43

Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and California

Now

Christopher Payne, 2018

Portland, Oregon

Now

Christopher Payne, 2018

Portland, Oregon

I was recently commissioned by Gamblin—makers of beautiful, high-quality oil paints for artists—to photograph their factory in Portland, Oregon. The owners were familiar with the series I had done at the General Pencil Company in Jersey City, and liked the way I was able make a common and seemingly simple object look beautiful and complex. They also appreciated the dignity with which I portrayed the workers, and hoped I’d achieve something similar with their workforce.

Much of my recent work photographing American manufacturing has been influenced by Alfred T. Palmer, a New Deal-era photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration and its successor, the Office of War Information, during World War II. He photographed factories, shipyards, dams, and power plants all over the country, and, in particular, made beautiful portraits of men and women assembling airplanes at North American Aviation in Inglewood, California, and Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, California, using dramatic lighting to focus on the worker, obscuring the background in almost total darkness. It’s a theatrical approach that elevates his subjects while lending them warmth and intimacy. Palmer shot 4-by-5-inch color transparencies—which was neither a common nor easy thing to do at the time—and the resulting images are incredibly detailed and vivid, as if they were made just yesterday.

There’s a sense of optimism and energy in Palmer’s subjects: young men and, especially, women who in many cases are taking on manual labor as their first job, reflective of a time when manufacturing was an assured path to the middle class and a necessary part of the war effort. The landscape of American industry is much bleaker today, and in factories I’ve photographed, many of my subjects have typically been older, or part of a struggling demographic—rural white, or recent immigrant—that has few other employment options.

At Gamblin, however, the roughly two dozen employees were young, and seemed proud and committed to being there—like the subjects I imagined in Palmer’s photos. Manufacturing jobs, by their nature, can be repetitive and dull, often tied to an exhausting schedule that workers can’t control. Here, the paint-making process is simple but must be done with care and precision: raw ingredients of dry pigment powder and linseed oil are blended together into a paste, which is milled on steel rollers for consistency of color and texture, and then the paint is filled into tubes.

The Gamblin factory is housed in a generic warehouse that isn’t photogenic in itself. Much of the equipment is old, and originally served a different purpose: the mixers were once used for baking, and the tube fillers used for toothpaste. A large modern paint factory would have automated equipment, but there is very little of that here. Artisanal manufacturing is done at human scale, and operations are confined to the reach of a worker’s hands. The tasks require more skill than meets the eye, and within the choreography of production there were real moments of beauty and elegance.

I’ve photographed the gleaming factories where new Teslas and Airbus airplanes are made: enormous, brightly lit spaces where an army of workers in sharp uniforms usher an impressive new technology into the world. But in a place like the Gamblin factory, intimacy is more important that scale, and I wanted my photographs to reflect the attention to detail that goes into this work—a level of craftsmanship that is nowadays all too rare.

 

 

 

  

 

Christopher Payne is a New York City-based photographer specializing in architecture and industry. He is the author of several books and his work is regularly featured in the New York Times Magazine and other publications around the world.

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