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January 20, 2011

NYT Mag Puts an Eye on American Workers. What’s with the Sterilization?

Although my typical mission is to analyze individual pictures or a particular edit, I’ve been growing more and more concerned about a stylized and depersonalized aesthetic asserting itself in editorial photos, something my friends from the photo world might describe as the blurring of art photography and editorial photography or photojournalism.

Whatever it is, it seems to be getting worse, and its happening, in my mind, at the expense of media accountability, social responsibility and, most disturbingly, the integrity of the citizen subject.

The latest instance of this trend can be found on the cover of the upcoming NYT Magazine, and the photo-feature accompanying a lengthy story on the Obama Administration’s second-half-of-the-first term obsession with  jobs, jobs and jobs. In complementing that story, the NYT Magazine drew a focus on the town of Rockford, Illinois with the goal of throwing a visually light on: a group of people who had jobs; how secure these workers thought their jobs were; and what the workers felt their prospects were of hanging onto those jobs.

An illustration of the human dimension of the economy?

These images convey a troubling uniformity in their Stepford-like lack of affect. Far from the condition of insecurity, a condition we’d be able to tell through some form of fresh expressiveness, the only emotion I can really discern in any noticeable degree here is guardedness or self-consciousness.

I’m interested in what you get from these portraits, how much you think they convey individuality and pay respect to the American worker, and what you think they say about you and I, in their reflection. And then, not to fall victim to generalization, I’d like to know what you think, in particular, of the images of either Sara, Carla, Mary, Kayla, Shelton, Xochilt, Bill, Andrew or Dee.

For myself, I wanted to juxtapose the photo of the telemarketer, Bruce Swanson, with the quote about Bruce from the photographer, Alex Soth, since it was the only quote from the photographer about an individual subject published with the story. (I’ve reproduced the pop-up in actual size.) Writes Mr. Soth:

“His face showed great experience…. Here’s a person who’s seen some ups and downs and really lived a lot of life. But there was something about his clothing. Here’s someone who’s really trying, really trying to make life better.”

I get a flavor of Bruce’s spirit in listening to the audio clip in the interactive feature, but that only makes this distant and denuded photo seem that much more distant and suffocated.  And then, what does his clothing — the argyle, I guess — have to do with his spirit and attitude? As I said, I’ve really been grappling with what’s off about editorial photography these days. It must have something to do with Bruce’s sweater.

Interactive feature (portraits/audio interviews)

Rockford’s Group Portrait, in Five Days (Making of the photo story/Lens blog)

The White House Looks for Work – Cover story

(photos: Alec Soth for the New York Times)

  • Tom White

    The stories are interesting. The audio drives this piece. The photos left me feeling disconnected. I’ve seen a lot of Alec Soth’s work and some of it is breathtaking, really engaging stuff, and some of it seems like just going through the motions. Well, it is a job, and some days we bring more passion, solve more problems and go home feeling exhilarated and drained and some days we might as well not have got out of bed. I saw a comment somewhere (can’t remember where) about how perhaps the Times could have hired a local photographer, given that it’s a story about a job starved town (which incidentally is odd as there is no representation of the actual unemployed..). That might have worked, because I think hiring Alec Soth here is an odd choice; his better work (in my opinion), is street and spontaneity, not formal deadpan, Cerebral Northern American Art World Tradition portraiture. Personally speaking, I find the visuals here are in most cases a barrier, not a portal to what could have otherwise been a highly engaging piece of journalism.

    • Tom White

      Actually, thinking about it and looking through Soth’s work again, the choice of Soth is not all that surprising if the concept was to produce this kind of aesthetic. Despite the fact that I’m not a fan of most of his deadpan stuff and as such have tended to gloss over it when looking at his work, he does have a lot of it – these are not his best though…! I still think that for the most part they fail to engage the viewer (me) with the subject and the story.

      My ultimate thought when looking at these photos is ‘Do I care? Because these people seem not to..” Which is a shame because as I say, the audio is often a very interesting listen.

  • Adrian

    I’ve been thinking about these stories all day. Isn’t the problem here that we have (long since?) lost much of the radical tradition of photojournalism, social documentary or editorial photography? At its best, that tradition treated the photograph as a way to open up to a wider world, to the social relationships within and through and beyond images. We just lost Milton Rogovin this week so, perhaps, it is too much to expect radical photo editorial commitments. That said, our collective retreat from class politics, and class struggle, render us incapable of drawing links between these subjects — and of forging bonds of solidarity and resistance, even as race and gender primarily mediate our collective understandings and experiences. Perhaps Soth’s “Stepford-like lack of affect” aesthetic (ironically) captures these diminished capabilities, if not the pervasive sense of fear about whether we’ll have a job tomorrow. It is not clear to me whether Soth meant this and should therefore be lauded (but not valorized) for his keen political aesthetic, or whether he merely happened upon the sadness within these photos. I tend to appreciate Soth’s photographic practice, although it tends not to fall explicitly within that lost radical tradition of Rogovin among others. But, the emphasis on individualism as the sole or privileged means of resistance (e.g. the singular subject in a portrait isolated from others, the interview responses of these workers), appears to have run its course. I’d like to hear more from the photographer here, and more from the writer. But I’d like that “more” to help open up political possibilities in ways that are desperately needed in Rockford and other places feeling the nasty effects of the economic crisis. The collective sense of fear is to be expected — but, Alec, Peter, Michael, Rockford: where do WE go from here?

    • Jethro

      ” Perhaps Soth’s “Stepford-like lack of affect” aesthetic (ironically) captures these diminished capabilities, if not the pervasive sense of fear about whether we’ll have a job tomorrow.”


  • black dog barking

    Meet the winners of the race to the bottom, those that still have a finger hold in an economy-driven society where the accountant gets first, last, and only word. The most efficient way to manage labor expense is to structure your work place to use commodities. If the job you’re asking your employee to perform is challenging then you’ve got to pay a premium. If anybody can do any job then your labor expense problems will manage themselves. (Win win!!)

    I’m not a photographer so I can’t speak to the technical side of these portraits but as a viewer I think the images effectively capture the numbing life-draining dreariness of working for a living in an environment that wants you to know first off: you are not special. You can be replaced in a heart beat.

    Like the cover layout tells our eyes, these are just bricks in the wall. The lucky(?) ones.

  • Paul Shambroom

    What some describe as a lack of affect, I see as a stripping away of the imposed affect we usually see in directed environmental portraits such as these. Alec Soth has stepped beyond the tradition of predecessors such as Arnold Newman and Annie Leibovitz who direct(ed) their subjects into stylized poses and expressions that essentially illustrate the photographers’ ideas about the subjects. (Both great photographers, I’m not knocking them.) The other type of affect missing in Alec’s portraits is the subject putting on a “camera face”, his or her idea of how to look in a photograph. Somehow Soth is able to strip away much of the artifice of the transaction. What we are left with is a recording of a person in a vulnerable and uncomfortable situation. There’s no glamorizing and no condescension. There’s no bullshit about “revealing the inner person”, because that never happens in a photograph. If we feel uncomfortable looking at them, we should, just as we would feel uncomfortable staring at someone we don’t know.

    • Victor John Penner


      The “lack of affect” is a look, a direction from Soth that is just as deliberate as a portrait by Newman or Leibovitz.

      Whether this “look” is suitable to illustrate the story is worth discussion and I vote YES, it is. It is not reportage ( they are not “caught” in these pose/places they are placed there and directed ) it is illustration, the point of view is the Artists and I say, well said.

    • Aurora

      I was wondering, what did the photographer ask them, right before he took the picture? He seems to have a gift of evoking from his subjects a ‘look’ that he intended. Did he ask the same question of each subject, or does he have a gift that allows him to engage for a short time and then ask a question that will elicit the ‘look’ he has in mind?

      Did he know the editorial point-of-view before he took the photos? Did he collaborate with the author?

    • Aurora

      ooops, should have read further down the page to find some answers, sorry.

  • Peter. Calvin

    Style and concept over content. Maybe we should think back to Avedon’s ‘American West” project, images that were more self-portraits than portraits. Is the photographer treating his subjects as individuals or making images to fit into a concept?

  • Nina

    In the Annie Leibovitz – Alec Soth continuium I’d like to recall Lee Friedlander’s “At Work” series where the workers are seen working and the images are poetic and informative but don’t bullshit the viewer with what Paul Shambroom calls the “revealing inner person” moment. Soth’s portraits in this series feel empty to me, or maybe just rushed. Why photograph a story about workers doing nothing living in a town we are told that matters but we never really see.

  • bill

    Yeah I know I should familiarize myself with the photographer’s other work before being so judgmental…but what strikes me is the sheer, unadulterated, condescension that comes across in these. A “yes you have a small unimportant job but you so deserve it” attitude.

  • Gasho

    Great to be having a discussion about photography here! But also great to just say what you see, which is the whole point in the end.

    I see cogs. Removed from the machine and plucked from the gears and laid on a blank background. Cogs are nothing apart from their function. These people look unmotivated and unenthusiastic – wearing their Target™ badge or tie like a barcode on their own packaging.

    Grinding away at those “positions” that have been created by the corporate accounting structure… without a hint of self fulfillment.

    These pictures would make a great appendix to Marx’s “Das Capital”. They serve as evidence to his theory.

  • Stan B.

    Alec Soth is somewhat known for portraiture where he lets the sitter stew in their own juices a while in hope that the magic somehow rises. Introduce this approach into already highly sterile work environments that emphasize routine and procedure, and you’ve pretty much stacked the deck.

  • thomas

    If Duane Hanson were a photographer.

    • thomas

      More specifically, Parade Magazine’s “What People Make” + Duane Hanson.

  • Michael Shaw

    Somehow Soth is able to strip away much of the artifice of the transaction. What we are left with is a recording of a person in a vulnerable and uncomfortable situation.

    Paul, if I felt that the look of vulnerability and discomfort in the image was the result of job insecurity, or life insecurity, rather than the result of the portrait situation, I would agree with you.  As someone who sits with people and looks at their faces and shares their insecurities every day though, I’m just not sensing the “larger artifice” coming through as much as I’m picking up a situation anxiety.

    Nina alludes to the problem of speed in executing the story.  The Lens piece gives all indications of that:

    The challenge was formidable: Create a photographic quilt of a small American city, with more than 150,000 potential subjects.

    The resources were modest: A photographer. An editor. An audio journalist. And an assistant.

    The deadline was sobering: Less than one week.

    After several 12-hour days, they had produced 33 photographic portraits and interviews. They finished on Saturday.

    I’m not dismissing Soth’s motive or “style” out of hand. I just don’t think he pulls it off.  As I responded to someone on my FB page, perhaps the scope vs.speed issue wasn’t lost on these subjects, and in fact led to something like a resistance or response to pressure/demand or even sense of coercion in these reactions.  That’s something I pick up in many of these faces that does feel genuine to me.  (Certainly, the “let’s get quality, but we don’t have much time” is also incredibly ironic, isn’t it, given the mission at hand. Talk about confounding variables.)

    And then, I also appreciate gasho’s comment about the larger collection capturing an overall picture of insecurity (the bricks in the wall analogy is quite wonderful), but I don’t think it’s fair at all to justify this effect if it comes at the expense of each individual worker.

    • Paul Shambroom

      That was actually my point. Not to get all “critial theory” here, but If a portrait ever reflects more than the situation of being photographed, it’s a function of the subject, photographer or editor trying to impose a message or attitude on the image. .
      “I’m just not sensing the “larger artifice” coming through as much as I’m picking up a situation anxiety.”

  • manyhighways

    The photographer’s name is ALEC with a C, not ALEX with an X.

  • gmoke

    Everybody but the co-owner of the doughnut shop (upper right) seems to be looking away from the camera or viewing it with suspicion.

    Backgrounds are cubicles or cinderblock walls.

  • momly

    The top group of pictures look like mug shots.

  • dc

    These images look stylized and antiseptic in the same sense as Wes Anderson’s compositions in the Royal Tennanbaums. The effect of that style in Anderson’s movies is to situate his characters in a fable, removed from the political, economic, and social exigencies of the “real world,” and I fear that that’s precisely what’s accomplished here. No matter what the article or captions may tell us about these workers, the minimalist, stylized composition presents their stories as self-enclosed, removed from any broader social forces that the camera’s eye might see fit to analyze.

    This seems to me to be symptomatic of a broader tendency of the artiness of NY Times Mag to erase or obfuscate the urgency of the subjects that it covers — that is, except in those instances where it simply excludes urgent stories altogether.

  • Peggy Luhrs

    I fear these photos are serving an editorial purpose of making worker looks less real and human than the usual celebrities and important men the Times pictures. I think perhaps the photographer thought it was a good way to express the sterility of the office cube and corporate work’s dehumanization. Perhaps both go on. Very clever capitalism is.

  • omen

    sorry for being ot, but
    has the tunisia story been covered yet? why aren’t i seeing coverage in media images of the young man who set himself on fire out of despair? and in doing so, unseated a dictator.

  • >.95

    “the point of view is the Artists and I say, well said”

    I don’t think that the POV of the artist should be determinative. In fact, that view of aesthetic authority covertly merges the artist’s power with that of the economy, which reduces these people to marginalized commodities. It would be interesting to know how much freedom they were given to present themselves, whether it was even discussed, or whether it was simply another imposition.

  • Jethro

    These are people who are not used to being photographed in such a manner. This creates a tension, an anxiety in the images that I feel conveys a valid point. Now admittedly, I just skimmed the story, but it seems it’s not specifically about the folks of Rockford, but rather about the current uncertainty and unease of America (related to employment), and how important it is for the Obama administration to correct. It’s a photo illustration, and in my opinion, one that works extremely well…

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