In 1958, a chemical engineer at Standard Oil company in Richmond, California started taking photos as an escape from his dreary work days. Soon, however, the camera became the center of Chauncey Hare’s life, and a tool for awakening his political consciousness. Hare’s photographic work from the late 1960s to the 1980s — acerbic, black-and-white pictures of American workers in their homes and offices — exposed the desperation and disappointment behind the unfulfilled American dream. The pictures were also a huge professional success.
At a time when photography was still a contested newcomer to the world of fine arts, Hare was awarded three Guggenheim fellowships (an honor then shared only by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans), a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a monograph published by Aperture. It’s an enviable list of accolades for any artist, especially for one who is self-taught and working a full-time day job. However, Hare’s photography is little known today, partly because of his own efforts. Disillusioned with the art world, he called himself an “anti-official art artist” for a time before bitterly denouncing his artistic work altogether in 1985.
“What an artist is is so corrupted,” Hare wrote in 2005, “that it is a dangerous label to apply.” By the time he co-authored a book on “work abuse” in 1997, Hare, now a clinical therapist, had excised all mention of photography from his biography. So what happened?
Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work (MACK Books 2022) by Robert Slifkin sheds light on the embattled, passionate, and often conflicted life of this artist who ultimately shunned art. Part biography and part analysis, Slifkin’s book brings together Hare’s photos, letters, essays, and archival materials, as well as interviews with his former colleagues and acquaintances, to reconstruct and reconsider the conditions and impact of his photographic output. At its core, the book is about Hare’s complicated relationship to work: how his own various creative and professional working roles overlapped, diverged, and even stamped each other out, and his preoccupation with the status of American working people, including himself, in the face of rising corporate and technological power.
In the book, Hare — who died in 2019 — comes off as a talented but extraordinarily difficult personality. After his MoMA exhibition exposes parallels between corporate power and art world greed, he often rejects or sabotages future art career opportunities in reactionary ways. By the late 1970s, he is decidedly combative against the art system as a whole, demanding the return of works he’s sold previously to the MoMA, mailing defaced copies of photography catalogs to curators, and sending threatening letters to museum staff. In 1979 he picketed a photography exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, handing visitors an “Awareness Guide” full of his agitated writing in all caps. It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether Hare is being overly-paranoid or even unhinged, but it’s also fascinating to watch an artist achieve success at the highest echelons and then roundly reject it.
Though Hare’s behavior can seem extreme at times, it clearly stems from lived experiences and long-held convictions: mainly, his own life as a disenfranchised worker pinched by an all-consuming capitalist economy. He rejected the art world to regain a sense of control. Hoping to ensure that his work would be used according to his beliefs, for example, he stipulated that all reproductions of his photos, including the ones in this article, feature a statement about corporations’ dehumanizing effects. Slifkin recounts Hare’s rebellions without attaching a sense of sensationalism, reminding us that the questions his life and work raise — about the invasion of labor into our daily lives, the unshakeable authority of big companies and museums, and the struggle to reach professional and creative success without losing one’s principles — remain deeply pertinent.
Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work by Robert Slifkin (2022) is published by MACK Books and is available online.