It's Just a Job: Bill Owens and Studs Terkel on Working in 1970s America

Jan 20, 2018 - Jul 29, 2018
Machaver Gallery

During the 1970s, the nature of work and people’s relationships with their jobs changed dramatically in the United States. Manufacturing, a mainstay of the American economy and national labor identity, began to falter under the weight of global shifts, giving way to an economy increasingly organized around service and white-collar work. These changes, coupled with rising unemployment, the struggles of women and people of color for equality in the workplace and beyond, and occupational disenchantment, caused the topic of “meaningful employment” to become a national preoccupation. As political theorist Marshall Berman noted in the New York Times in 1974, “Americans have come to perceive work as a central problem, maybe the central problem, in the 1970’s [sic].”

Drawn to the topic of employment because of its primary importance to the lives of ordinary people, California-based photographer Bill Owens and pioneering oral historian Studs Terkel began book projects in the 1970s focused on working life in the United States. Although these projects differed in geographical scope and in their instruments of investigation—Terkel traveled the country with his signature tape recorder, while Owens focused his camera on the working people of California’s Bay Area and Los Angeles—both men sought insight into the era’s zeitgeist through candid portraits of its secretaries, factory workers, and insurance agents. The themes that run through their work, including workplace discrimination based on race and gender and employment instability in the wake of globalization, remain remarkably relevant today.

This exhibition of thirty-one photographs from Owens’s Working series celebrates a recent gift to the museum by Robert Harshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner in honor of the class of 1968. The photographs are juxtaposed with audio recordings of interviews conducted by Terkel and related publications by both men, bringing their vivid accounts of work into dialogue with one another.

Organized by Hannah Shaw, Mellon Intern and PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, Rutgers University, with the assistance of Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director of Academic Programs 

Bill Owens

Computer Telephone Operator $200 a Week from the portfolio Working, 1975-1977

Gelatin silver print on paper

 6 7/16 × 7 11/16 in. (16.3 × 19.5 cm)

Gift of Robert Harshorn Shimshak and Marion Brenner, given in honor of the class of 1968

Bill Owens Archive