Producers in America’s Heartland

Tom Duffy: Man in Nature at ARC Gallery, Chicago

8 NOVEMBER 2016,
Tom Duffy - Limestone Quarry workers
Tom Duffy - Limestone Quarry workers

Humanity’s relationship to nature involves a type of cognitive divorce from nature, which then allows individuals to display what Marx called their capacity for creative production – the ability to directly shape nature to one’s needs and desires (instead of just assuming a predetermined role within nature). In Tom Duffy’s current show at ARC Gallery, he examines two extremes involving “man in nature” in America’s heartland, or, more precisely, he looks at extremes involved in the ability of humanity to extract sustenance and wealth from the land through labor. One extreme presents a rare remnant of the working class in the USA, still existing due to the physical inability to outsource their type of job, while the other extreme is a direct result of outsourcing and a creative attempt to adjust to the new circumstances established through the near-destruction of the working class in America.

One of the more iconic images of the American industrial worker is Lewis Hine’s ‘Steam Fitter’ (1920). Hine has his worker bent over, conforming to the shape and demands of a machine from which he derives his livelihood; yet, the subject also shows an immense amount of masculine will, strength and mastery. The worker thus forms a perfect symbiosis or mutualism with the machine. Whereas Hine had become famous for leading a crusade against child labor through his photos of children working in factories, his photos of adult workers became more ambiguous in their judgment of human labor and exploitation in the industrial process.

Indeed, Hine’s various photos of working men seemed to impute dignity to the process of industrial toil, as opposed, for instance, to Marx’s belief that the industrial worker was alienated from his very ‘species-being’ through this type of work and thus became a sad object of financial exploitation. In Hine’s work the men are clearly not objects of pity since the jobs seem suitable to their strength and backgrounds and, consequently, these photos ignite little more than a quiet sympathy for those doing exhausting and tedious work instead of moral outrage. Since industrialization had been legitimated as a necessity, the use of workers in this manner could be tolerated as long as they were perceived as grown men giving outlet to their masculinity and thus securing dignity (and most probably supporting their families).

Hine’s photos reflected the American attitude toward industrial labor at that time and it is useful to begin with this iconic work as a type of normative model or ideal type from which to view Tom Duffy’s photos of the men who work in Indiana’s limestone quarries. Has our conception of the worker changed since Hine? Has it changed since the outsourcing phenomenon of recent years? Which emotions might be elicited now in viewing men at hard work: work requiring, perhaps, little more than physical skill and endurance?

In one of Duffy’s photos we see a man with bulging and rippling muscles, gripping a system of drills, knees bent, body twisted, cigarette stiffly protruding from his mouth. In fact, cigarettes are ubiquitous in these photos of the quarry workers, betraying extra attempts by the quarry workers, perhaps, to handle the physical and emotional stresses of the job. The cigarettes could also serve as sardonic phallic reminders of the fact that this is a place of purely masculine labor, where men can still prove themselves to be men like Hine’s male workers, the cigarettes looking like the penises from stick figures in prehistoric cave paintings.

Like the worker in Hine’s iconic photo these men are clearly demonstrating and affirming their masculinity through their jobs, as the drilling into the rock contains its own priapic symbolism, but the symbiosis that Hine modeled, and which possibly eased our consciences a bit toward the working class, now seems lost and perhaps no longer necessary with the passage of time and acceptance of so much more than was accepted back in the day. To me, for instance, there is no clear masculine and muscular domination of machinery or tools – some tools are so loud they require protective headsets and many of the tools depicted obviously entail physical wear and tear on the body. It is not symbiotic mastery we now see, but benign struggle with the machine. We can be made to realize, perhaps, that these men are not demonstrating the free and creative productivity which Marx believed to be our essence, but toil in the destructive process of cracking and removing tons of limestone blocks from the earth to provide beautiful veneers for various buildings – these are high-end luxury items used for decorative purposes. The Empire State Building and the Pentagon, for instance, are covered with Indiana limestone from this quarry.

In another photo we see a giant limestone slab that has been separated and is falling while nearby workers pensively stare at the result of their work, shoulders slumped in sudden, short-lived relief (kind of the way a boxer will let his shoulders slump immediately after a knock out). Duffy seems to be asking how visible or invisible this labor is to us. It is as if he is saying that the working class still exists, even if we do not read the stories of workers jumping from factory roofs in developing countries. Indeed, we have not completely ended the problem of one segment of a society laboring for the pleasure and luxury of another segment – try as we might there are some working class situations still among us and we have never adequately responded to this situation.

Duffy might also be asking: What psychological mechanisms are at play in each of us when we assess who these guys are and what the work might be doing to them? We assume they are well-paid and happy, and, indeed, I even felt compelled to ask Duffy at the opening, “Are these guys happy?” with Duffy indicating that they were not only happy but proud to be involved in working at the quarry. Duffy spent 5 months with them and told me that one big source of pride comes from the fact that this quarry work has been ‘generational’ with some men following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers.

Along with these images of limestone quarries and their workers, Duffy provides images of various ghost towns he has visited, as well as some American towns in decline, along with scenes from a 3-person family organic farm. The photos of the dying or dead towns serve the function, within the context of this show, of expressing the social pressures which are pushing individuals to reflect on the possibilities for employment now that the industrial sector is shrinking in the USA. This pressure, ironically, has pushed this one family away from the apparent trajectory of history, back to the countryside, exploiting the trend among affluent and educated city-dwellers to prefer the meat of animals which are raised in a more humane and ethical fashion. Duffy’s photos attempt to capture the integrity and joy he found in this family, which goes to extremes to ensure that their livestock are treated as well as possible, even though they are barely eking out a living in the process.

ARC is one of Chicago’s more amazing galleries and has been contributing meaningful art exhibits since its inception in 1973. It is one of the oldest co-op galleries of its kind in the USA and functions as a non-profit, woman artist-run cooperative which provides exhibition opportunities to exceptional artists without discrimination in regard to “…race, age, class, physical/mental ability, sexual, spiritual or political orientation.” Tom Duffy’s show runs there until November 19th.