Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work

Every kid in school a political prisoner
Every lawyer in a cubicle a political prisoner
Every doctor brainwashed by AMA a political prisoner
Every housewife a political prisoner
Every teacher lying thru sad teeth a political prisoner

Diane di Prima, “Revolutionary Letter #49”

This book, being about work, is by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers and accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns, as well as kicking the dog around. It is above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.

Studs Terkel, Working

I got into the arts, at least in part, in an attempt to avoid institutional control of my life. I was very idealistic, and as a young man heavily influenced by Karl Marx and Guy Debord. I wanted to escape authority and find a way of living that was self-determined, based on self-generated ideas and creative work. Perhaps naively, I thought art and education offered an alternative path to a corporate work-a-day world. It was disillusioning, to say the least, as I advanced through the ranks of academia and worked to develop a career in the art world, to see how these too are consumed by institutional mindsets and hierarchies. In these cut-throat environments, I found myself in constant conflict with my peers and colleagues, people always fighting over resources, egos, and opportunities. Many of my colleagues in academia tried to keep me from succeeding rather than helping me to develop a career, not a reflection of my skills as a photographer or educator, but simply because I had different ideas about making a life as an artist.

More and more the language of academia incorporates the language of business, with obsessions about assessment, outcomes, and other quantifiers becoming an ever-increasing part of education. Financial and pedagogical hierarchies between programs and departments are rife, each institution using their resources in an attempt to corner a particular discipline (perhaps better to say market). Nothing seems different to me in the art world, though perhaps the hierarchies are more rigid, as people jockey for position and attempt to claw their way to the top, rarely reaching down to help others attempting to do the same. Addressing the evolution of the art world into the 21st century, photographer Robert Adams identified an ailment he coined “economic censorship” as a growing trend in which the value of creative work is determined by its retail potential. 

Away from the acute anxiety and nausea induced by his work environment, Chauncey Hare successfully found refuge and a unique vision critiquing the corporatization of America. His photographs addressed the economic and social issues of the American workplace, documenting the alienation and the spiritual and economic poverty of the working class.

An employee at a major oil company in California, photographer Chauncey Hare had a similar realization, when in 1977 he traveled to the Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition of his pictures organized by legendary curator John Szarkowski. Hare started photographing in the late 1960s as a way to heal the pain he associated with the dehumanizing attributes of his mind-numbing job as an engineer at Standard Oil California (later renamed Chevron). Away from the acute anxiety and nausea induced by his work environment, Hare successfully found refuge and a unique vision critiquing the corporatization of America. His photographs addressed the economic and social issues of the American workplace, documenting the alienation and the spiritual and economic poverty of the working class. Initially, he found great validation in Szarkowski’s support of his work, but quickly saw otherwise once he got to the museum. In his introduction to This Was Corporate America, Hare’s 1984 publication about his life in the oil industry, he reminisces about his first impressions at MoMA: “I was surprised how much the hallways and offices at MoMA looked those at Standard Oil,” he remarked. “I broke with photography at that time because I saw it as a repeat of Chevron. When I visited the offices at MoMA I couldn’t tell the difference between the offices and hallway at MOMA from the offices and hallway at Chevron. I couldn’t tell any difference between Szarkowski and some person at Chevron who is about three levels above me. The same kind of authoritarian outlook.” Such observations guided Hare to make some of the most original photographs of the 1970s, and to forge his own unique career path through the arts.

I first learned about Chauncey Hare’s photographs when in 2009 I purchased a copy of Chauncey Hare: Protest Photographs. This bookis a survey of his early work, highlighting his pictures from the late 1960s through early 70s, made with the help of two Guggenheim Fellowships the photographer received while still working at Standard Oil California (SOCAL). He started by photographing his colleagues and immediate work environment, developing his pictures in the documentary tradition of predecessors like Russell Lee, Walker Evans, and Lewis Hine. His photographs attempted to present a scathing social document of the abuses of human dignity required of capitalism, while also offering something much more subjective –  a sense of  alienation or personal conflict akin to the work of Diane Arbus. Now Hare’s legacy and accomplishments are further substantiated by a new biography published by MACK Books, Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work. Written by Robert Slifkin, Associate Professor of Fine Arts at New York University, Quitting Your Day Job offers an interesting and thoughtful perspective on Hare, an original and renegade photographer who sought to undermine the status quo and the limitations placed on all of us by corporate culture and institutional hierarchies.

Hare was idealistic and uncompromising, and his resistance to corporate culture began to manifest as a much broader vendetta against institutions of cultural power.

Hare’s trajectory as a photographer and artist was as unique as his vision. Trained as an engineer at Columbia University in the 1950s, he moved to California to begin a career in the oil industry. Quickly he came to realize that the culture of corporate America was at odds with his needs for personal and spiritual development, and he took up photography as a form of therapy. Like many of his generation, his earliest efforts emulated work by photographers like Ansel Adams, but all of that changed in 1968, when he made a portrait of Orville England, a colleague at the oil plant. Hare’s portrait launched a new vision: from that point forward he sought to make photographs about working class people and the effects of American work culture on personal identity. Hare garnered substantial success early on, connecting with John Szarkowski (Hare’s work fit neatly into the vision Szarkowski was developing, with clear similarities to photographers like Walker Evans and others working in the new documentary mode that emerged in the 1960s), selling four of his prints to MoMA (the only prints he ever sold), and receiving two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1969 and 1971. With these two fellowships, Hare photographed working class people in their homes, going door to door like a salesman in search of people willing to share something of their lives, using a letter of introduction from California Governor Ronald Reagan to convince his subjects to allow him into their homes. The work from his early Guggenheim years (he received a third Guggenheim in 1976, placing him in elite company with Lee Friedlander, Ansel Adams, and Walker Evans as the only other photographers to receive this award so many times) was largely made in Ohio and Pennsylvania, states with substantial manufacturing industries, and close ties to his childhood home in Niagara Falls, NY. A collection of these photographs was exhibited at MoMA in 1977 and published in an Aperture monograph called Interior America the same year.

Hare was idealistic and uncompromising, and his resistance to corporate culture began to manifest as a much broader vendetta against institutions of cultural power. He had a huge falling out with Szarkowski, whom he accused of cultural elitism and of lacking the sensitivity to understand the political motivations of his work. Hare’s assault on Szarkowski’s vision resulted in his defacing a copy of the curator’s famous book Windows and Mirrors, ripping it apart, scribbling notes and pasting pictures over the illustrations before mailing it back to Szarkowski (the book is now preserved in the MoMA collection). When the exhibition Windows and Mirrors traveled to San Francisco in 1979, Hare self-published a pamphlet he called Awareness Guide that he passed out to museum goers, which offered overt criticism of the corporate interests and social hierarchies the museum represented, noting that corrupt tobacco mogul Philip Morris was helping to fund the exhibition. Around this time, Hare tried to get his prints back from MoMA, claiming that the institution’s blindness to his social and political motivations made it an inappropriate home for his pictures. Unsurprisingly, Hare quickly developed a terrible reputation among museum curators and trustees; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art canceled a show he was organizing for them (including work by Bay Area photographers Bill Owens and Joanne Leonard) on workers, institutional power, and personal identity.

Curiously, Hare entered an MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute after his early Guggenheim Fellowships, MoMA show, and Aperture publication – the kinds of achievements most students hope to gain after attending art school. Hare’s intentions were clear: he wasn’t in grad school for the education but just for the teaching credentials. He was older and more accomplished than all the other students and most of the faculty, which included photographers Reagan Louie, Henry Wessel, Larry Sultan, Ellen Brooks, Allan Sekula, and Martha Rosler (some of whom were just out of grad school themselves). Hare craved more independence in school than the program allowed, and was regarded by the faculty as “a pain in the neck.”

Hare never landed the teaching position he sought, in fact he never worked professionally as a photographer. After completing his MFA, he took a job working with the Environmental Protection Agency. In the late 1970s he focused his camera on SOCAL and made attempts to photograph his office with the EPA, continuing to win grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts. Hare used these resources to complete a second book, This Was Corporate America, a somewhat crudely produced publication, made on the cheap with a printer who had no experience with this kind of bookmaking. This Was Corporate America is a curious book, perhaps more autobiographical than social documentary; it included a Christ-like self-portrait on the cover, and an essay detailing his life in the corporate world, as well as his attitudes toward MoMA and the art world. The pictures were mostly employees from the oil industry that shaped his early life, but also included a simple drawing of an employee jumping to his death from his office window (a real event in the Bay Area at that time; Hare was denied permission to republish a newspaper photograph of the event).

This Was Corporate America was financed by an NEA grant, but Hare also used some of this grant money to pay for another graduate degree, this time in psychology. After completing this degree, Chauncey Hare left his life in photography and went on to work as a counselor. In the late 1980s, he married his second wife Judith Wyatt, who was also a therapist. Together Hare and Wyatt co-authored Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It, a self-help book conceived to help the kinds of people Hare spent two decades photographing. Like This Was Corporate America, this book was more autobiographical than it appeared; Hare frequently used his own experiences as case studies, renaming himself to retain “anonymity.” Curiously, the author bio printed with the text neglects to say anything about his previous career in photography.

There are a few things Slifkin could clarify in his book, some of it relating to Hare’s emotional and intimate self, attributes that undoubtedly fueled his creative work. We learn that Hare married early and had a child, but it is hard to tell if he was at all involved in their lives. Slifkin also notes that Hare had an ongoing relationship with a prostitute in the early 1970s, which the photographer cited as a credential for his understanding of the working class. Hare remarried somewhat late in life, and to a woman quite a bit younger. While finishing This Was Corporate America, Hare conducted a sort of performance ritual in which he relinquished his father’s soul just before his death, ultimately resulting in the Christ-like portrait used on the cover of the book. Little is revealed about Hare’s relationship to his father, other than the fact that he was a drinker (Hare made an amazing picture of him passed out by the family Christmas tree). All these things might not mean anything, but it does make me want to ask some pointed questions. Perhaps we can assume that Hare felt a more primordial alienation than just that reflected in his indictments of corporate America? Or that it was hard for him to learn how to have healthy relationships at home, let alone at work? Slifkin suggests Hare was an angry and vindictive man; perhaps today we’d see those as systems of mental health disorders? Slifkin’s final conclusion, though never made explicit in his text, is that Chauncey Hare was a tragic hero, perhaps somewhat like Peter Hujar. I once heard Hujar described as an undeniably great artist, someone who really wanted to be an artist, but had no idea how to conduct a career as one. Slifkin, I think, concludes the same about Hare.

I once heard Peter Hujar described as an undeniably great artist, someone who really wanted to be an artist, but had no idea how to conduct a career as one. Slifkin, I think, concludes the same about Hare.

It is worth noting a couple of details about Hare’s archives, because they do suggest some important things about his work and intentions (and perhaps something about a very stubborn personality). He was adamant about not leaving his archive to a museum, so it was donated to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, along with the stipulation that the photographs were not to  be exhibited, but instead should be treated like research documents. While wanting to be understood as an artist, Hare maintained a very earnest understanding of his own work, feeling that the primary intention was to record the lives of workers in America during the 1970s and 80s. Additionally, he stipulated that all published photographs must bear the same caption, “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.”

I like to teach my photo students, whether beginning or graduate, that often the best art photography is made by people who set out to make the clearest photographs they can rather than those trying to make art. Like Disfarmer or Atget, Chauncey Hare is a great example of what I mean, a humble man driven more by great passion more than great reward, who understood that the camera guided by the right intuition was enough, no trickery, gadgets, or conceptual experiments, just a commitment to an idea and a willingness to walk door to door to get it done. His photographs are simply composed, in many ways, but he brings a remarkable intuition for letting his subjects and their environments speak clearly for themselves. With the artifice stripped away, the resulting photographs have incredible formal, social, and personal complexity. Occam’s Razor teaches that the simplest solution is always the best, and Chauncey Hare’s photographs offer a perfect visualization of this idea.

Robert Slifkin
MACK, 2022

All Rights Reserved: Text ©Brian Arnold
Images ©MACK/The Bancroft Library