Walker Evans, Labor Anonymous in Fortune magazine (1946)

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‘The feature is in fact subtitled ‘On a Saturday afternoon in Downtown Detroit’, suggesting this may not be a day of work at all, even if this is one of America’s foremost industrial cities. These may well be workers but they are not working here. The text occupies a space the size of one of the portraits, as if word and image were of a piece and interchangeable, but once read it is clear the purpose is to uproot that assumption. Evans reminds the reader that there is no classifiable physiognomy on show here. Labourers cannot be stereotyped, niether in appearance, nor disposition, nor dress: ‘His features tend now toward the peasant and now the patrician. His hat is sometimes a hat, and sometimes he has moulded it into a sort of defiant signature.’ In other words these photographs offer no sure measure and the reader will still have all their interpretive work ahead of them. He concludes: ‘When editorialists lump them as “labor” these laborers can no doubt laugh that one off.” It is an obvious point but easily forgotten: a person cannot be anonymous in and of themselves but only to, or for, another. ‘Labour Anonymous’ is revealed to be an ironic title, critical of the assumptions of mainstream editorialists and readers, including those of Fortune  itself (the feature appeared in an issue dedicated to ‘Labor in U.S. Industry’)’ (Campany, 2012:85-86).

Passage extracted from David Campany’s essay – Recalcitrant Intervention: Walker Evan’s Pages in The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond (2012) London, New York. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

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