by Glenn Gordon
December 6, 2002
This exhibition of photos from the book of the same title published this year by the Minnesota Historical Society Press take on a whole new meaning in the context of the opulent former home of James J. Hill.
In order to get in to see "By These Hands: Portraits from the Factory Floor," a "gritty" show of photographs of Minnesota factory workers by David Parker currently hanging in the gallery of that brooding nineteenth-century pile of stone on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, the James J. Hill House, you have to be escorted by a docent past a series of stanchions with velvet ropes--a precaution against those with a mind to filch the silverware.
The show consists of fifty photographs culled from Parker’s visits to twenty plants and factories around the state. Of these images, there are perhaps five or six that are strong and memorable photographs; the rest are the work of a tourist passing through. They illustrate the difference between a pedestrian snapshot and a photograph that looks into a subject in the manner of such photographers as Lewis Hines, W. Eugene Smith, Sebastio Salgado, or the great photographers of the WPA.
The flatfooted absence of any sense of irony about mounting a show of photographs of industrial workers in this baronial, positively Veblenesque temple of conspicuous consumption is irritating. Meaning to or not, the show condescends to its subjects, indulging in the conceit that with this exhibit something socially redeeming has been done for them. It hasn’t. The photos are posted like a collection of curious data unearthed on field trips by someone dabbling in proletarian anthropology.
James J. Hill's collection of bucolic French landscapes once hung, the docent tells us, on the very walls now occupied by these pictures of guys working at the Ford plant in St. Paul. Still looming over one end of the room is the Hill family’s gigantic household pipe organ, an instrument that looks like it could run a blast furnace all by itself. Meanwhile, sailing through with tour groups, the house’s docents cheerfully burble about how much this and that thing in the house would cost "in today’s dollars."
Also pasted on the walls are quotes from interviews with some of the workers in the photographs, as though these snippets truly give them a voice. They don’t, and most of the photographs are without the eloquence to do it either. With a few starkly beautiful exceptions, these pictures do not really look that deeply into these people or their circumstances. The show does less to celebrate the state’s industrial workers (very few of whom are likely to be flown in to see it) than the highmindedness of the show's organizers.
Dressed up in work clothes, the show brings to mind a story from one of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s failed campaigns for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Kennedy was in West Virginia, standing at the entrance to a coal mine, shaking hands with miners as they got off their shift, when one of the miners said, "Ted Kennedy, huh? Is it true what they say, that you never had to work a day in your life?" Kennedy hung his head and admitted it was so, whereupon the miner consoled him, "Well let me tell you something, Senator—you ain’t missed shit."