Reflections on Working in the 1970s, with Bill Owens and Studs Terkel, Remain Strikingly Relevant Today

January 24, 2018


As Americans Navigate Rapidly Changing Workplaces, Zimmerli Exhibition Reflects on

What a Job Meant in the ‘70s with Photographs and Interviews


New Brunswick, NJ – The status of Americans’ relationships with their jobs is…complicated. Advice for job seekers drastically ranges from “seek out a mission you’re deeply passionate about” to “just find something fast that pays the bills.” And while some view the proliferation of the gig economy as flexible and freeing for individuals, many freelance and contract workers suffer the anxiety of inconsistent paychecks and no benefits. However, not long ago, most Americans shared an expectation that a job should be reliable and provide a salary that supports the cost of living. It's Just a Job: Bill Owens and Studs Terkel on Working in 1970s America, now open at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, recalls that era. The exhibition pairs the two iconic documentarians of work life, underscoring how the decade was a dramatic time of transition for the American workforce. It is not simply a look back: many of the themes that Owens and Terkel identified remain strikingly relevant, engaging visitors to consider their own perspectives about working. The public also has an opportunity to hear from Bill Owens himself, when he presents an artist’s talk on April 3, at 7 p.m., during Art After Hours: First Tuesdays, one of the Zimmerli’s popular free programs.


“This exhibition takes a multimedia approach to the topic of working in the 1970s, immersing the audience in the stories and experiences of the period’s secretaries, industrial workers, and creative professionals,” notes Hannah Shaw, Mellon Intern at the Zimmerli and PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University, who organized the exhibition. “No matter what field you’re coming from, you’ll find yourself absorbed by these vivid portraits—and confronted by all-too-recognizable struggles, ironies, and hopes that remain at the heart of American working life.”


In addition to 31 black-and-white photographs by Owens from his 1977 photobook Working (I Do It For the Money), the exhibition includes a selection of audio interviews selected from Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, provided by the Studs Terkel Radio Archive. First released in 1974, the collection includes the voices of Al Pommier (parking lot attendant), Dolores Dante (waitress), Therese Carter (house wife), Cliff Pickens (newsboy), and Roberto Acuna (farm worker and union organizer), among others, presenting firsthand accounts.


Owens is a significant figure in the genre of documentary photography regarding two key movements, but he approached his subject matter in contrast to many of his counterparts. After the 1950s, American photographers abandoned the search for a universal vision of society and pivoted toward personal points of view. Like other young documentarians, Owens sought to create authentic studies of what occurred behind closed doors, neutralizing the power imbalance long held by photographers, who often objectified their subjects. Owens has described his process as “see[ing] things that other people don’t in the banal and ordinary. Most lives are mundane but I make them extraordinary by infusing them with dignity.”


Unlike some of his contemporaries who revealed the painful consequences of such taboo subjects as drug abuse, gun culture, and violence, Owens primarily chronicled the ironic and absurd. His three landmark photobooks – Suburbia (1972), Our Kind of People: American Groups and Rituals (1975), and Working (I do it for the Money) (1977) – centered on middle-class suburbanites in the Amador Valley near San Francisco, where he lived and worked. Suburbia, in particular, included friends, neighbors, and other residents who participated in a collaborative community project, expressing an overall satisfaction with their lives. With Working, Owens turned to the tradition within documentary photography that had focused on labor since the late 19th century. But rather than expose dangerous, often illegal, conditions to effect social change like many of his predecessors, Owens provided a view of the American worker as reasonably happy on the job. He captured scenes that generated archetypal characters in a collective visual memory of the 1970s.


This is not to say, however, that Owens did not present a complicated, nuanced view of American life. Subtle details, particularly in the captions, that were innocuous, perhaps even humorous, 40 years ago take on completely different meanings today. Though more women succeeded in entering the workforce during the decade, we now recognize that they often were limited to lower wage secretarial positions, beholden to the demands of male bosses and husbands: Being a receptionist is a catch-all job; you do everything. Mostly we’re dealing with salesmen and they like to see young women. I’ve stayed here for six years because I got married and my husband didn’t want me to commute to a better-paying job. Such captions as Legal Secretary $250 a week and Computer Telephone Operator $200 a Week also diminish the role of women, constrained to their desks, to a mere job title and wage value. Conversely, men are depicted in active, mentally stimulating jobs: The only way to learn anything in photography is by making lots of mistakes; Television cameramen are a special breed; and It takes a year to make a gyro-ball guidance system for the C-5A aircraft, imply the impact these men make well beyond their offices. In addition, few of the satisfied workers represented are people of color.


Several photographs are reminders of once reliable fields that have been decimated not only by globalization, but by structural changes to the nation’s domestic economy. Local businesses have been shuttered by competition from big box stores and online shopping (Baking is the oldest trade in the world); print media has moved online (Newspaper Printing Plant, San Jose, CA); and factory jobs have been relocated overseas (In thirty-one years as a ladleman I've never been injured). In most cases, owners and shareholders have benefited, while workers and, sometimes, entire communities have been devastated.


It's Just a Job: Bill Owens and Studs Terkel on Working in 1970s America, on view January 20 through July 29, 2018, celebrates a recent gift to the museum by Robert Harshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner in honor of the class of 1968. The exhibition is organized by Hannah Shaw, Mellon Intern at the Zimmerli and PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University, with the assistance of Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director of Academic Programs. Gustafson also spotlights Owens in the essay “Performing Documentary Photography in Suburban America, 1970s Style” in the 2017 catalogue Subjective Objective: A Century of Social Photography, which accompanied an exhibition by the same title at the Zimmerli. Selections from Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do are provided by Studs Terkel Radio Archive, courtesy Chicago History Museum and WFMT Radio Network.



The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum houses more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.



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