Corporate Photography – Part II

Part two concentrates on how the corporation has used photography as a documentary tool. In particular the role of photography in General Electric as David E. Nye’s has written a very interesting book on General Electric’s photography department between 1890 and 1930 called ‘Image Worlds’, which I shall refer to. Finally Lewis Hine’s post-1920s stylised work portraits used in new employee magazines, are key to the development of one class of corporate image.


During World War I advertising professionals realised the power of publicity to influence the masses on policies and sell ideas. This marked a beginning of corporations widely using publicity departments and hiring publicity experts in order to create an image. It was a change from the attitudes that were displayed by large corporations in the late 19th century such as railroad tycoon William H. Vanderbilt who “refused to concede any public right to information concerning corporate activities.”[1] Through public relations that were starting to dominate big business in the early 20th century it appeared that the corporation was now being more honest in their endeavour. However, public relations by its very definition intends to influence the public by controlling the information they receive rather than telling the truth.[2] Photography was used extensively as part of the public relations effort pursued by corporations to improve their image and create their picture of industry in the mind of the public.


As corporations began to use photography extensively, some large companies employed a photographic division, General Electric being one such example. Between 1890 and 1930, their photographic department created thousands of photographs, none of which were done through artistic expression but, rather, carried out at the behest of the management. The corporation’s control over its photographic history is a prime example of how it controls its ideological output. The images that were created at General Electric were aimed at different audiences, so rather than creating a chronological history, the photographs form sporadic documents of people, places and objects controlled by the desire of a free market. Instead of creating documents of the workplace, the aesthetic appeared to rule over function. For example, Nye has noted that in the early 20th century, while Lewis Hine was documenting child labour in the workplace, the General Electric photographers produced images of the same mills devoid of any workers. Thousands of photographs of machines were produced throughout the early 20th century and their creation required a great deal of consideration on the part of the photographer. Often at General Electric, a photographer would spend the entire day preparing to take an image of one machine, in doing so making aesthetic alterations to how the machine looked. This may have involved rubbing various solutions onto its surface to decrease glare or just ensuring that any handles or pistons were all aligned. The more mundane the image looked, the better. These images were aimed at displaying technological progress rather than the plight of the worker which is something that Hine was trying to represent in his photographs.[3]


The images of machines mainly appeared in magazines aimed at engineers in corporations such as General Electric. It was important to show the machines in isolation, which is why they were photographed cut-off from their surroundings. This heaped the focus on technological advance more than the social implications that were at stake. For instance, the magazine General Electric Review, aimed at engineers working for General Electric, took on the guise of a scientific journal but, like most journals aimed at engineers at the time, made no mention of debates on the social implications of scientific management and technological progress. Instead, it opted to concentrate on creating a professional identity for its own engineers, setting them apart from that of the working class.[4] The photographs in it were also in contrast to the images that were presented to the blue-collar workers’ employee publications in the same company. The images of machines devoid of workers in General Electric Review “encouraged engineers to think about their work as the automatic result of research and development, as something to which the rest of society responded without question, without resistance.”[5] Thus, it enabled the engineer to think of himself as the driving force behind industry rather than worker.


The employee magazine became prominent after 1910 in response to increased union activity and striking. Previously, management had known each of their employees by name but as corporations increased in size and new work practices were put in place through the establishment of scientific management, alienation between management and the workforce became progressively worse. General Electric introduced their employee magazine, Work News, aimed at the blue-collar worker, in 1917. Each plant had its own version of the magazine and the images inside mainly consisted of what workers did in their leisure time. Pictures of the workers on the factory floor or at their stations only ever appeared on the cover of the magazine, where a single worker was photographed at his station performing a task, eyes focused on the job at hand. The gazes in these photographs and those inside were orchestrated and constructed to erase any individuality unlike what appeared in images of workers in the late 19th century, such as the image in Figure 2.2.


There were two main classes of images that appeared in Work News, the first one of which presented “ideal workers assembled in identical groups, as citizens, athletes, or participants in leisure activities.”[6] The second class presented the worker as an idealised heroic figure in a portrait. The style of the work portrait was greatly influenced by the work of Lewis Hine who, as will be discussed later, attempted to portray the dignity of the worker. Also appearing in the magazine were portraits of individuals anchored by some text stating the promotion they received, a training course undertaken or their return from the army. Instead of trying to assist the worker to make sense of their place in the corporation and the realities of the ever changing workplace, the company shifted the focus to other areas. There is a certain distortion of the workplace in these images, one in which the employee magazine “became an index of its ideological situation.”[7] Rather than directly representing their ideology through the pages of the magazine, corporations such as General Electric attempted to distract the workers from the real issues which, as a result, assisted them in achieving their goals; increasing productivity and reducing strike action. [8]


Lewis Hine’s work portraits in the 1920s were seen as documents of workers’ lives under the new industrial capitalist era sweeping America. Though this may be truer of the work he did on the Empire State building around the same time, he was commissioned by private corporations to create work portraits. It was this work which affirmed the role of the worker with the industrial workplace and was “central to a new effort to rationalize postwar American labour-management relations.” [9] The influence of Hine’s work portraits can be seen in the images of both man and machine that appear in employee magazines today. Hine’s work for corporations such as Western Electric was included in employee magazines where the images were anchored by the “managerial rhetoric that privileged industrial “togetherness” and corporate family harmony over independent union organizing.” [10] Though Hine’s intentions for these portraits differed from that of the corporation, it is inevitable that in the context they appeared the aim was “to rationalize the subjectivities of big-business employees and to naturalize the business-state alliances that came to define the postwar corporate liberalism.”[11] It may seem easy to judge Hine’s images that appeared in employee magazines based on what they didn’t show, i.e. the growing trend of scientific management that took the control and craft of the work involved in many jobs away from the worker. But, unlike the Gilbreths’ photography, Hine sought to help the worker find satisfaction and dignity in his work. He believed that there was a greater meaning to the work being carried out by the individual and referred to this meaning in many of his captions. For instance, one of his captions read “the humble labourer with oil can and brush was needed to make the trains run safely.”[12] By implying that without the labourer the train would not run safely, he is elevating the status of the labourer within industry.


During his time with the Red Cross publicity department, Hine’s work became much more upbeat to that of his pre-war images of working children in America. This change could also be attributed to the conditions that he operated in after World War I. Hine found that a close bond had been formed between big business and the American government. The aspirations Hine and others once had for industry “had been institutionalized within corporate industry itself” and Hine was left to try to represent the worker as a distinct individual; the driving force behind an ever more mechanised industry.[13] This change in his style was seen by corporations’ publicity departments as being a useful tool in their campaigns to create a “positive celebration of American ideals and programs.”[14] Hine was no longer concentrating on the conflict between labour and capital but, instead, tried to stress the dignity of labour through his work portraits. Hine felt this would help the skilled worker feel a sense of accomplishment in their work. In 1923, Hine started working for Western Electric as a photographer for their employee magazine. At this stage, the employee magazine was seen as essential “for building employee loyalty, furthering labour management ‘cooperation’ and in some instances disrupting unionization efforts.”[15] Corporate managers were more knowledgeable of photography’s indexical nature to portray ideological values, which helped to change the corporations’ identity, and the employee magazine was a key factor in creating positive emotions towards the corporation. The setting up of welfare capitalist programs which improved conditions for employees helped change the perception of the corporation among workers, too. Though these programs played an important role, photography was still considered a “potent ideological tool, providing a human face to the otherwise soul-less corporation.”[16]


Hine’s images portray the worker as a heroic figure something that had engulfed the “broader visual culture of capitalist realism in 1920s business journalism.”[17] The work portraits were used by the corporate manager to distract from the alienation of the worker in a society that was now seeing a noted rise in mass production. The portraits brought back the notion “of the skilled craftsman in maintaining a virtuous republic.” Such representations were used by painters in the 18th century before waged labour and mass production rose above skilled craftsmanship.[18] Hine’s intimate portraits were in stark contrast to the reality of the factory floor, where rows of workers performed repetitive tasks. Photography helped to create an emotional response and sell the corporate managers’ rhetoric that appeared in the pages of the employee magazine. This was combined with Taylorist strategies to create high productivity levels that were necessary in a society were mass consumption was now being trumpeted to the general public.


With the realisation of the photograph’s power to harness worker loyalty, some employee magazines contained a number of work portraits each issue which “individualized and idealized a single worker”. This assisted the creation of a “corporate paternalism” that allied the worker to a ‘family’ which was run by the corporate style father figure. [19] Among the other types of photographs in the magazines, there also appeared images from employees’ leisure time. Such images created an allegory of the family unit in which there would be no arguments over wages, hours or conditions. Within the pages, images of the employees’ family members also began to emerge, deeply embedding the ideology of the modern bourgeois family. Brown states that these photographs;

“attest to the flesh and blood of discrete individuals, but the conventions of domestic photography and the ideologies of sexuality and kinship overdetermine the image and insist that the reader organize the represented individuals into a social grouping of cultural significance: the modern nuclear family.”[20]

The notion of the family unit held within the bourgeois mindset was used by the corporation to create an image in which they became part of the family themselves.


It is clear from the uses of photography appropriated by the corporation in the past that it was not just used to document and inform but, rather, to meet the requirements of increasing productivity. The application of a scientific discourse was used to standardise and rationalise work practices, virtually turning the worker into a machine. Although many of these experiments were initially resisted, there was little a class of people with only their labour to offer could do. Photography was also used in various publications to help sell a positive image of the corporation to various groups while standardisation practices were being initiated. In this case, the photographer’s role was to follow the instructions of management and produce an image to explicit specifications. At General Electric and other corporations, photographs of the worker were used to depict an artisanal type of character at his workstation. Hine attempted to create an image of a dignified worker but the portraits commissioned by corporations weigh heavily with managerial rhetoric shrouded in efforts to get new work practices accepted and distract from the real social issues that were transforming the workplace. There were few, if any, photographs of workers on the factory floor operating lines of machines. If machines did appear in images, they were devoid of workers and published only in magazines meant for engineers and investors. The machines were explicit examples of technological progress and the workers next to them would possibly have given rise to the social issues surrounding this advancement which the corporation was keen to avoid. This avoidance was most prominent in the pages of the employee magazines where mostly group portraits appeared of workers in many case in uniforms. The poses were constructed to remove any semblance of individuality that was prominent in earlier photographs.


[1] Brown, op.cit., p.131

[2] Matthew Healey, What is Branding? Essential Design Handbooks, (Mies; Hove, RotoVision, 2008), p.120

[3] Nye, op.cit., p.31-58

[4] Ibid, p.62

[5] Ibid, p.69

[6] Ibid, p.87

[7] Ibid, p.91

[8] Ibid, p.71-92

[9] Brown, op.cit., p.120

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] James Guimond, American Photography and the American Dream, (Chapil Hill; London, The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), p.87

[13] Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs, (New York, Hill and Wang, 1989), p.219

[14]Brown, op.cit., p.135

[15] Ibid, p.138

[16] Ibid, p.142

[17] Ibid, p.148

[18] Ibid,p.150

[19] Ibid, p.142

[20] Ibid, p.144