Monday, November 2, 2009

Protest Photographs by Chauncey Hare

Over the next month, time willing, I will be featuring several books which are my picks for best books of the year. The first is the new Steidl and Steven Kasher publication of Chauncey Hare's Protest Photographs.

Chauncey Hare is known primarily for his 1978 book Interior America from Aperture. Attuned to his own estrangement in the corporate world being a research engineer for Standard Oil, he began photographing as an escape from his everyday routine. In his written introductory essay he describes the physical and psychological toll that such an environment had on his health including daily nausea and extreme panic disorders from which he suffered. These unpleasant attacks would let up as the week ended and Hare could look forward to photographing during the weekends.

Starting with 35mm and graduating to a Burke and James 5x7 camera, Hare was initially too shy to approach people directly so he described the landscape around the homes of Richmond, California where he lived. On one occasion in 1968 Hare was approached by a man who offered to sell him a camera. This invitation into the man's home led Hare to start to explore the interiors lives of the workers in the area. Citing the resonance of photographers like Evans and Russell Lee, Hare methodically worked to gain access into people's living rooms and three Guggenheim fellowship facilitated a large body of work that has incredibly remained under the radar of many younger photographers.

When I was in art school, Hare's Interior America was a book that often came up in conversation with my teachers. What struck me was his indelicate use of artificial lighting. His strobes aren't softened to reduce strong shadows and often the blanket of light is harsh. It is if he wished for every hard edge to be revealed in crisp uncompromising detail.

The original edition of Interior America followed a straight forward design from Marvin Israel keeping to one picture on the right and a short caption specifying place on the left page. It suffered from a weak printing which made Hare's pictures on first glance seem unimpressive. One had to fight to fully sense the power of those 77 images. The whole endeavor feels cheap and so typical of books from the late 70s.

Protest Photographs is a more direct title for the work. Hare's response to the claustrophobic atmosphere and spiritual desolation in the workers lives (and his own) is its driving force and his main concern. It is his vision of what could be extraordinary lives dulled by joyless routine and loss of personal meaning - anesthetized cogs in a machine.

Protest Photographs expands the edit of Interior America to include many more images as well as photographs Hare made within the offices of corporate world he was rallying against (Hare once handed out protest leaflets at a lecture at MoMA protesting the Mirrors and Windows exhibition that included one of his images as he didn't approve of the museum's corporate sponsor). The printing is light-years better than the original, restoring Hare's extended tonal range and giving it its full due.

Hare was considering destroying all of the existing prints and negatives of his work unless the Bancroft Library at the University of California would accept it as a donation. The wealth of material which includes taped interviews he conducted with workers and corporate managers, slide shows, 50,000 negatives, 3500 prints and 30,000 35mm slides.

In the late 1980s Hare gave up photography to become a therapist who concentrated on work related abuse. Perhaps he saw how it is difficult for photography to truly make a change, or, was photography just a step in many outlets to spread the message of shifting priorities to one's own happiness and fulfillment. Hare lived in both those worlds. His view was saved and is now available in this book - kept out of a bonfire that couldn't possibly have consumed his anger.