A Second Look: Chauncey Hare’s Interior America

InteriorAmerica

There is an article about Chauncey Hare in Aperture Magazine’s American Destiny issue, which had me re-look at this particular photographer. I own a much thumbed through copy of Protest Photographs, one of those books that immediately grabbed me when I first acquired it a few years ago. In their The Photobook: A History – Volume 2, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger contrast Hare’s work with Walker Evans’, describing the latter — “the greater artist” — as “ironic and detached,” whereas the former is said to be “bleak and bitter,” but displaying “much more humanity” (how’s that for a consolation prize when you’re the lesser artist?). It’s important to note, though, that included in Parr/Badger 2 is not the Steidl reissue of the work, it’s the original book, Interior America, published in 1978 by Aperture.

My copy of Protest Photographs was buried in one of those many piles of books in my office, so I went looking online to see what I could find. There was a 2011 article about Chauncey Hare and Marianne Wex, another artist whose work I recently have been looking at. Much like the piece in American Destiny, Hare’s seemingly curious actions are being mentioned: “Hare staged a one-man protest outside the exhibition ‘Mirrors and Windows’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979 […] Hare was protesting, amongst other things, against Philip Morris’s sponsorship of the show and the inclusion of one of his images in it.” This action was described by Jack van Euw (“who oversaw the 2009 publication of a new Steidl edition”) as “career suicide.” Seeing those words and feeling queasy about the exclusion of the wealthy in Aperture Magazine’s supposed survey of the socio-political landscape of the US then had me write my piece.

There’s a problem spelled out here, and it’s the problem that I feel many artists would love to pretend it doesn’t exist: if what you believe in at least in theory is at odds with the way the art market (and, by extension, the larger world of art photography) operates, how do you go about it? Hare’s solution was clear: he would protest the corporate sponsorship of a show he was in simply because his work centered on what he saw as the central problem of American work life, namely how said corporations were exploiting their workers. For others, that simply looked like “career suicide.” I can’t help but notice how whenever you read or hear something about this photographer, there appears to be a tacit understanding that, well, Hare was certainly being a bit too difficult there.

Apart from finding a select few pieces about Hare, my internet research also led me to a copy of Interior America for $1. It was an old library copy I was informed, which was all the more of a reason to buy the book. What library would remove this book from circulation? I found out when the book arrived from the UK. In addition to this fine book being not available to students any longer, somehow these days it’s also economical to send the book thousands of miles for something less than the price of a fancy coffee. It boggles the mind (well, mine anyway).

Books that were published many years ago don’t get reviewed any longer. Maybe that’s something we ought to change. After all, when they’re still fresh, when the inks have barely dried and the PR hype is at its most relentless — is that a good time to review a book? I usually take my time with a photobook before I review it. A book might only reveal its true value after a fairly long period of time (or it might turn out to be just as lousy as the first impression indicated it would). The books I come back to usually aren’t the ones that are immediately appealing to me (there are exceptions, of course). There is this story that when The Americans was published, it got panned by critics, only to later reveal itself as a masterpiece. Whether or not this story actually is true is a lot less interesting to me than the larger idea behind it, namely that the passage of time can help us evaluate art (or photography — photography can be art, but often enough it is not).

Chauncey Hare’s introduction to Interior America is worth the price of the book alone. Protest Photographs also opens this way, but it is a different text, one written by the Chauncey Hare who had resolved his life — away from photography. The 1978 introduction, in contrast, is raw and brutally honest. It’s the kind of essay that is rare coming from photographers, even from those who write well (who are, admittedly, in the minority). If you had any questions where this particular photographer might be coming from, it provides answers to all of those. It makes clear the connections between the photographer’s biography and his work.

Here is a man who deeply believed in what he was doing in and with his photographs, a man who would happily distribute leaflets outside of SFOMA, career consequences be damned. That incident was still in the future when the book was published. But anyone who read the essay could not really have been surprised. In a Postscript to his introduction, Hare writes “the photography world is not unlike the corporate situation from which I narrowly escaped. Hardheartedness and organizational thinking have stifled creativity and instilled conformity in many photographers. Success, most easily achieved by seeming to ‘extend tradition,’ seems to be more important than clear perception and truthful representation.” Hits home, doesn’t it?

One of the many interesting aspects of Hare’s introduction is his willingness to disclose his methods. He freely admits to making sure he would get his picture, even if that involved a bit of deception — people often had no idea his very wide-angle lens would capture them. A man who happened to walk into a picture tells the photographer off: “You sonofabitch.” Hare: “That was the picture I was there for. That, to me, is magic.” I suspect many people will be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of pursuing an idea that is rooted in deep humanism by means which at times are not.

According to the photographer, the cover picture of Interior America constituted the true beginning of the work. It’s a photo of a man named Orville England, with whom Hare later became friends: “acceptance by Orville gave me an increased measure of self-respect and self-trust — qualities suppressed in the aggressive, authoritarian coampany of my engineering peers.” While I was familiar with many of the photographs from the later Steidl version, the 1978 book unfolds in very different ways. It is not the almost sociological collection of people in their homes. Instead, it sketches out the larger landscape in the form of details from people’s homes and views of houses or even parts of towns outside. The variation ultimately makes the book a lot easier to engage with, and a lot more interesting than Protest Photographs. There is a flow to the work that the later book simply doesn’t have.

And not much appears to have changed in these 39 years since Interior America was published — at least in terms of what is being depicted. Fashions and household equipment aside, the book feels very contemporary. The issues it speaks of have not only not disappeared, they have been pushed to the forefront, with so far mostly far-right demagogues and neofascists eagerly (and currently successfully) exploiting the fact that the country’s major parties have sold out those depicted even more to the corporations whose influence and role Hare was protesting against.

Here then is another reason why looking at books published in the past is a good idea. If this particular book somehow had been published last year, with photographs taken in the same way, only, let’s say, 30 to 35 years later, it would make as much, maybe even more sense than when it was published in 1978. If photographs are able to change the world, the world might not have been told. To rely on photographs as being world changers, or to assume that the world will change simply won’t do. The world will only change if we all engage in making it happen. Chauncey Hare tried his part, and he eventually gave up on a world of photography that he perceived as being hostile to what he was after. As I noted elsewhere, the challenge is ours: We can either attempt to get some meaningful change done, or we can watch from the already irrelevant sidelines as even more people are getting crushed into the dirt (to use Senator Elizabeth Warren’s words).