A lot of very hard work is going on at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
A muscled guy in an undershirt tightens a big bolt with his wrench; a farm worker bends almost in half, filling his sack with cotton; Rosie the Riveter rolls up her sleeve to tackle her factory job. They’re all part of an exhibition called “The Sweat Of Their Face: Portraying American Workers.”
But not all the laborers are big and burly.
A forlorn young girl — she can’t be more than 11 or 12 — stands at a long row of spools of thread mounted on a big piece of complicated machinery. Photographer Lewis Wickes Hine wrote her name and height on the back of the picture: “Sadie Pfeifer, 48 inches high, has worked half a year.” She had a job in 1908 at the Lancaster Cotton Mills in South Carolina. You can almost hear the noise, feel the heat.
“And there she is, this little girl, alone, facing an enormous machine,” says Dorothy Moss, who curated this show with David C. Ward. She says Hine was a crusader, and his cause was to abolish child labor. “He would often disguise himself as a Bible vendor or newspaper deliverer, other professions, to get into these mills.”
Hine put himself at risk to take these pictures, and, with the camera as witness, reforms and regulations were enacted. This exhibition showcases centuries of American workers. They are, as Moss says,”the people who were building this country, who may be on the sidelines, who are not always the focus of our attention. But because artists often identify as workers, artists felt strongly to bring these peoples’ stories out and to honor them.”
In this century, Los Angeles painter Ramiro Gomez honors his parents (his mother is a janitor; his father is a truck driver) by adding workers onto copies of iconic American paintings. In his version of David Hockney’s Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, Gomez deletes the man and inserts a cleaning woman; we can’t see her face — just her hands squeegee-ing the shower tiles. Gomez is making the invisible visible; he and others in the show take workers we never notice, and make us notice.
A food worker in a Subway sandwich store gets the full treatment from photographer Shauna Frischkorn. She puts him against a black background, and lights his face to look sculptural. The black and green Subway cap sits on his red hair like a crown. It’s like a Renaissance portrait, but with a little smile — a twinkle.
“She’s restoring his humanity through the pose and lighting,” Moss says.
While the workers aren’t known, some of the artists who portray them are famous. The exhibition includes photographs by Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and Ansel Adams, and it has paintings by Winslow Homer and George Bellows.
Other artists are less familiar. John Neagle was fashionable in his day, less so now. Still, his 1829 portrait of Pat Lyon is a marvel. It shows a big, beefy guy in a leather apron — a blacksmith at his anvil. The muscles strain in his right arm. In real life, Pat Lyon was falsely accused of theft and jailed for three years — then he became a wealthy businessman. Yet the painter shows him sweating at his anvil, at Lyon’s request.
“He said he wanted to be shown as a working man because the working people of this country are the most honest people of the country,” Moss says.
For an image of someone actually enjoying their work, Moss points to Dawoud Bey’s 1976 photo Mr. Moore’s Bar-B-Que, 125th Street. The owner beams from behind his Harlem lunch counter. He’s looked up from talking with a customer who’s waiting for her food. (She’s smoking, and better flick off the long cigarette ash pretty soon.) Mr. Moore’s apron is stained, probably with barbecue sauce, and he looks welcoming and proud.
“It looks like a wonderful place to spend an afternoon,” Moss says.
Workers of the world — well, the United States, anyway — unite at this Portrait Gallery exhibition. “The Sweat Of Their Face” reminds visitors of the range of vital work we do — and the ways we feel about it.