Saturday, October 30, 2010

That was Then, This is Now

With the dawn of the modern age and an increasing appetite for power and speed in the 20th century, photographers documented the worker while reflecting evolving philosophical and political points of view. According to Lawrence University's art historian and curator Frank Lewis (right), in his lecture in the Wriston Auditorium on Friday, October 28, 2010; early photographers' nostalgic portrayals of anonymous laborers rooted in the land and in tradition began fading away as the Modern age took hold. Instead, came pictures of workers blurring into a frenzy of production fueling an increasingly materially-addicted society. Noteworthy were Lewis Hine's photographs of child laborers. Children in mines sorting nuggets of coal virtually disappearing into a cloud of dust. Eventually Hine's photographs raised public awareness and new child labor laws were enacted to protect the health and safety of children.

Lewis Hine, Breakers, Pennsylvania Coal Co. (circa 1908-1912)

Cut to the 21st century. In American cities once known for making things in the 20th century, the factories have faded away or have been turned into monuments or condos. The biggest employers in many cities are hospitals perhaps treating the people who used to make things? The job of making things has moved elsewhere while America's appetite for electronic devices and fast food continues to grow. Where do all those broken cell phones and blown out hard drives and old TVs land? Other than a few obscure documentaries like Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground or Edward Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes, the final resting place of digital waste is not discussed often enough. Lewis ended his lecture with an Edward Burtynsky's photograph. A blur of faceless workers clad in pink jumpsuits working in a plant processing chicken in Jilin Province, China maybe to satisfy the ongoing appetite for McNuggets. Burtynsky's ouvre also includes the byproducts of these times. Staggering accumulations of mother boards and computer cables in China forming both landscapes and monuments reminding us of both labor and unchecked consumption.

Edward Burtynsky, Manufacturing #17, China, 2005
Edward Burtynsky, Recycling #9, China, 2004

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