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The amount and diversity of labor that it takes to make our world run are unfathomable. Given that, it’s natural to have an inherent curiosity about the lives of people and how they spend their many hours in the workplace.
Though for some of us employment involves staring at screens and punching keys, manual labor and its tactile use of tools are unquestionably important.
The exhibition On the Job: Photography by Jim Seder, currently at MSOE’s Grohmann Museum, offers a glimpse into some manual laborers and their tools.
Seder prefaces the exhibition with his artist’s statement, noting his ongoing interest in the subject of manual labor. He presents images that take workers out of their workplaces, but leave them and the tools of their trade intact.
The gallery is filled with more than two dozen photographs, printed as large digital images on canvas. The portraits are full-length views, the majority in color but a few in black and white. All of the backgrounds are unadorned white spaces, although a few are darkened to gray.
In many instances, Seder’s subjects are shown with frontal views and accompanied by an image of their back. Seder wants us to see the entirety of the figure, to fixate on the worker presented in stark isolation.
Sometimes they are humorous, like “Russ,” who is an exhibitions manager. He is one of the few in profile. Dressed in a red button-down shirt and worn black jeans with a hole in the back pocket, he is a cross between “business causal” and stagehand. He holds a small black portfolio and long yellow measuring stick. White cotton gloves and a cellphone are among the tools in his pockets. It is his expression that is most arresting, though. With his mouth wide open, he is yelling or laughing, or both. It is a combination that is intense but joyful at the same time. Given his stated profession, we can imagine that it often involves this mix.
Another subject is “John,” who is a contractor. He is kitted out with a heavy tool belt strapped over his gray T-shirt and holds a bucket with additional tools and supplies. The drill in his hand is pointed at his temple like a gun as he stares straight-faced into the camera. He could be hamming it up for the camera, or succinctly saying something about the complications that come with wrangling all sorts of work crews to get a job done.
“Bob,” a water softener specialist, holds a cellphone to his ear, suggesting there is a lot of time spent on that device during the day.
Many of these portraits are subtle operations, with people standing before the photographer in a simple and straightforward way. It would be interesting to know more about the sessions: What were the instructions about what to bring or how to dress, how to stand or where to look? This curiosity is piqued by images like “Kevin,” a sheet metal fabricator, who stands casually with hands on his hips. We see the bright florescent yellow of his T-shirt marked by dark stains and debris, the uniform of his job. The tattoos on his arms give a sense of personality, as do his impressively long and manicured fingernails, also marked by discoloring dirt.
The images of hard surface masons “Wigperto” and “Juan” stand out, as they are in black and white and presented on dark backgrounds. Juan stands dramatically with feet in an open stance and holding a well-worn shovel. Wigperto holds a pickax and another tool — something that looks like a cross between a caulk gun and welding torch — while posing in a jaunty, striding motion. We can see a bit of a grin on his face.
All of the images in the exhibition are of men except for “Rocio” who is a housekeeper and “Anna,” a manicurist. This dearth of women in the exhibition perhaps suggests the predominant demographics of the selected fields shown.
On one hand, the photographs are like archetypes, showing images that could be construed as representative examples of people in these professions. On the other, though, Seder draws them toward a more personal reading. In the absence of background details, we are drawn to the individuals and details that move in between their typical work garb and the aura of personality they exude.
While work may consume a great deal of our time and lives, even when on the job we must still be ourselves.
On the Job: Photography by Jim Seder continues through Dec. 11 at the Grohmann Museum, 1000 N. Broadway, Milwaukee.