Chauncey Hare – Quitting Your Day Job

Spoiler alert: I really enjoyed this account of Chauncey Hare’s work by Robert Slifkin, which I encountered after I saw him talking about Hare with great enthusiasm in this video:

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There’s lots I could pull out to reference, but I’ll focus on one aspect of his work, focusing on domestic interiors, because it dovetails with another interest of mine – and a nascent photographic project I’m developing myself – our relationship with designed products, what they promise us and how we live with them.

He uses decor and mass-produced consumer objects as cues to undercut the subjects’ self-representation (arguably, cruelly) and to say something about the way people lived in the day-to-day without even realising it (somewhat reductively, that the consumer dream was a sham):

The kitschy paintings and curios that clutter Hare’s photographs, the lace doilies that protect the indecorous mélange of modern and traditional furniture, the ormolu clocks and candlesticks, the imposing appliances and the cheerful, boldfaced labels of the cans and cartons of groceries that compose readymade still lifes on the tables and countertops of these spaces, all these visual details register the crude and dulling wake of the postwar economic boom which allowed increasing numbers of Americans to become mass consumers (arguably even making such acts of consumption the very basis of their identity as Americans).

At the same time, the countless stains and patched walls captured by Hare’s unforgiving camera, as well as the unseemly power cords that jarringly protrude from all sorts of objects, betray the subjects miscarried attempts at bourgeois decorum.

Image from UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

I’m obliged to include this text alongside this image: “This photograph was made by Chauncey Hare to protest and warn against the growing domination of working people by multi-national corporations and their elite owners and managers.”

Later in the book (p. 73), Slifkin goes on to detail Hare’s ideology further, tying it to his later work in the corporate world. He also notes that these material cues are not merely there, to be accidentally captured by the photographer. The framing, lighting, arrangement of elements in the scene is all deliberate. In some cases, manipulated by Hare. I think this intentionality is easy to miss, and these photographs can be too easily dismissed as snapshots of the mundane.

Much like Arbus’s work, such photos seemed to underscore the grotesqueness at the core of American immoderation. If the FSA photographers sought to document the penury caused by the Depression and Dust Bowl and the promise of prosperity offered by the New Deal, Hare’s work seemed to suggest the spiritual poverty (or, as Hare would begin to describe it, alienation) and emptiness of such materialistically based promises. This theme would be emblematized in his practice of juxtaposing the hard- edged and cheery designs of domestic goods within oftentimes grubby and disarranged interiors. Even in the foundational picture of Orville England, with its antiquated appliances and the sitter’s old-fashioned outfit, the presence of a large can of Maxwell House coffee signals the contemporary world of mass-produced goods that would famously become the defining motif of pop artists like Andy Warhol. Hare noted that he rotated the coffee can before taking the photograph–his one conceded alteration to the scene–suggesting an intuitive understanding of how such products could serve as material symbols of alienated labor (and, according to orthodox Marxism, were in fact material evidence of alienated labor.)” As in the instance of Hare’s 1971 self-portrait with the even more jarring presence of the box of Tide detergent resting on top of the oven-turned-developing table, the oftentimes vivid designs of these products could also invest his images with a degree of critical irony.

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