Hare's fast-paced introduction to the book highlights his life of protest, a life filled with unbelievable coincidences, learning, and pain. He describes his strong identification with the people whose homes he photographs and his adamant unwillingness to betray them by selling their photographs at any price. He tells of his struggles to have his photographs, accompanied by explanatory text, accepted by the art world. He relates the abusive situations he has endured in his childhood, and in his work life as an engineer at a major oil company and at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Chauncey Hare - Protest Photographs - A review
Yesterday I got Chauncey Hare´s "Protest photographs" from Amazon. It´s a staggering work of strange genius. The story behind it is very odd. He was a succesful engineer at Standard Oil and in his spare time he took pictures good enough to get three Guggenheim grants. He completed the projects made with these grants and the work was shown in MOMA and published by Aperture. One would have thought the world was his oyster. But instead everything turned sour, he quit his job, tried unsuccessfully to establish himself as a teacher of photography and finally quit photography totally. He was on the verge of destroying all his work but at the last minute he donated it all to the Bancroft Library, the only place that would accept his strict conditions regarding the use of the work. From that this book arose, a strange monument to the life work of this troubled man.
The book starts off with chapters written by his partner and then a longish chapter written by Mr. Hare himself, describing the story of his life and of the work that appears. He describes how he had his epiphany when invited into the house of an old worker with work-related lung disease. He got to photograph this man and his subsequent work revolved around photographing working people in their homes. He began to see the corporate world as profoundly unjust and autocratic. He obviously became a difficult man and successively burnt his bridges behind him. He ended up as a licensed psychotherapist dealing in work related issues, publishing a book on work abuse with his partner.
After having read these introductions the pictures come as a complete surprise. The reality that they describe is very mundane, mostly poor working people posing for the camera in their poorly furnished homes. Later in the book some photos appear from the offices of Standard Oil and some street scenes as well. But there is something strange about all these photos and if I hadn´t read the introductions I would have thought that this man was a big irony merchant and perhaps even cruel and heartless, because he exposes these people to a harsh unfavorable flash coming from the side, casting odd heavy shadows and laying bare their pathetic attempts to decorate their modest surroundings with cheap and tawdry pictures, knick knacks and random artifacts. He does this with a wide angle lens and he describes how he included much more in his pictures than his subjects would have been aware of. This also means that often big pieces of the floors and the ceilings are included to strange effect. In some pictures this creates the effect of cramping the space while in others the rooms appear oddly cavernous. One particularly strange picture (page 137) shows African Americans, a mother and daughter probably, weirdly isolated in a psychedelically patterned sofa in a huge living room while an arm juts into the frame from the right side, possibly the family father giving directions. One sometimes gets the same feeling as when looking at Lee Friedlanders photos, full of improbable detail and curious juxtapositions. The TV has a prominent role as have religious pictures and wall hangings, particularly the Last Supper. On page 169 we see an unusually ordinary living room, tidy and abandoned. But again we´re disturbed by the details. A rocking horse juts into the picture from the right. Not so strange. By the sofa on the left there are some rolled up socks and a pair of shoes, not so tidy. On the sofa table a model house which fits questionably with the rest of the decor. Again a little unusual but not so strange. Finally the eye wanders to the TV set in the corner which is turned on. We see two blurry figures and above them the text: "Live Color TV from the moon". Very strange.
But any feeling of Mr. Hare cruelly using these people to his own artistic ends are blown away by the strict conditions he put on the use of these pictures. He adamantly refused to sell them or having them displayed as art in galleries as that would have been a betrayal of the trust the subjects showed him when they let him into his home. This totally isolated him from the art world and his name soon fell into oblivion. One would have thought that the appearance of this book meant some kind of happy ending and belated recognition but it is apparent that Mr. Hare is not a man that feels good about himself but suffers from crippling anxiety. A sad ending to a strange story.
All in all a very moving book, both because of the content and because of the sad story of the photographer.