Corporate Photography – Part I

Within this two part article I just want to outline some of the ways photography has been historically used by the corporation to control the worker and increase productivity. I am not trying to create any kind of conspiracy theory against the corporation on how it may or may not have exploited the worker but rather look to how photography was used to change the conditions of labour. The article also acts as research which informs my own photographic practice. Part one is concerned with the use of photography in the discourse of science to examine labour and create a more efficient worker. In part two, which will be published at a later date, I will look at how photography was used by the corporation as a documentary tool.

Photography was initially used by the corporation through Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management and consequently by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. Also Katherine Blackford’s application of pseudo-science to photographs of corporate applicants displayed the growing belief at the start of the 20th century of photography’s impartial attributes that could be applied to the worker to achieve more efficient results. By looking at these different areas I wish to demonstrate how the use of photography has naturalised the corporate culture in existence today.

At the end of the 19th century photography presented corporate managers with a means to legitimise their efforts in naturalising new methods of work. Elispeth H. Brown states that the use of photography is key “to the ways in which corporate managers have sought to secure the consent of workers, managers, and consumers in the unevenly successful project of rationalising American capitalism.” (1) The term rationalization, in the context of this article, is taken as the “use of visual imagery as a means of consolidating corporate power and naturalizing what was a relatively new model of economic life whose reach has since extended to every element of modern experience.” (2) By using photography’s affiliation with the real and its close connections with the discourse of science, corporations were able to justify their aims with impartial evidence in the rationalisation of work procedures. Corporations also drew upon “pictorial aesthetics to engineer emotional responses” from the workforce which helped assist “the rationalization of labour-management relations and consumer desire.” (3)

In the late 19th century Frederick Winslow Taylor’s introduction of scientific management to the workplace attempted to gain control over the worker. This method was not completely new but was an accumulation of discoveries regarding efficiency and science. Etienne-Jules Marey studied the working body under controlled conditions in the name of science in order to discover how fatigue affected the human body. These studies were furthered by scientists such as Armand Imbert. Imbert’s experiments were based on scientific methods and he proclaimed that science was “neither socialist in its essence nor capitalist in its nature; it is simply the truth.” (4) His findings based on physiological and psychological tests would help workers have better conditions and more equality. However, these studies ignored the prerogative of industry, which had a greater desire for methods that would produce higher profits. (5) These were the methods being pursued by industry in America which was seen as being an innovator in new ways of controlling productive output. As science moved into the realm of industry it was controlled in the workplace by the engineer and this “new, primarily middle-class professional who became the representative of modern technology” embodied the role of science and commercialism. (6) As an employee of the corporation, the engineers were directed by the corporations’ economic goals rather than those of Marey and Imbert. The close relation between science, photography and the truth which Imbert alluded to was now being used by the corporation to rationalise new work practices in the workplace in order to increase productivity.

As the mass production of products became more widespread towards the end of the 19th century and in order to gain higher efficiency levels the corporation needed to both standardise and rationalise working practices. This was made difficult by a workplace ethos known as systematic soldiering which involved the workers “keeping their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done.” (7) Taylor struggled with this soldiering for three years before reporting that he finally managed to increase productivity. This marked the beginning of the Taylorist approach in which lay the realisation that “to control the meaning of a ‘fair day’s work,’ he needed to shift the power from the machinists to the realm of science” (8). Taylor’s “fair day’s work” was based on “physically exceptional specimens” best suited to the job that was being timed. (9) This created an unrealistic scenario for workers as they were expected to perform to optimal standards at all times, thus ignoring issues such as fatigue. Ignoring this factor Taylor set about timing each component part and arrived at a piece rate for the total task. The whole process involved written instructions and the introduction of additional foremen to inspect the work, helping to shift control to management rather than the machinists. Taylor used half-tone photographic prints in publications such as On the Art of Cutting Metals in an attempt to demonstrate the standardised steps involved in certain tasks. The use of images to document the tasks may not have been successful in terms of the limitations of the still image to display efficiency. However, it does “represent an important step in the use of photography to document the labour process.” (10)

Talyor’s use of photographs also depicts the capturing of a method that was once artisanal but could now be controlled for the purposes of producing more capital. This reflects the circumstances that his scientific management was created under. Taylor’s methods embodied the bourgeois ideology as did the later studies by the Gilbreths. As well as increasing production, Taylor also believed that the introduction of his new method would augment worker satisfaction. Anson Rabinbach noted that “Taylorism assumed that by offering higher wages as premiums for productivity, the “natural” unhappiness of workers could simply be compensated by nonwork—related material rewards.” (11) Taylor’s method ignored internal politics of the work place and was more concerned with controlling the physical body than that of the mind of the worker. Gramsci noted that once the worker has managed to adapt to the Taylorist regime “not only does the worker think, but the fact that he gets no immediate satisfaction from his work and realises that they are trying to turn him into a trained gorilla, can lead him to the train of thought that is far from conformist.” (12) Gramsci’s point was soon noted by corporate management. However, instead of totally dropping the Taylor system, it was combined with elements that stressed the “human factor” to help fill the gaps inherent in Taylorism. (13) This was an attempt to try and alleviate the alienation that inevitably became part of the labour process.

While Taylor was carrying out his experiments, Eadweard Muybridge was studying the working body in motion. Their studies played a key role in what would become a more extensive effort to advocate mass production using photographic technologies. Similar experiments were also carried out by Etienne-Jules Marey and later by the Gilbreths in an effort to gain control over the working body. The ethics behind Marey’s experiments differed greatly from those of the Gilbreths’. Marey’s study sought to look at “human energy as a dormant wellspring made available by the scientific study of the laws governing human motion and used for the betterment of physical and psychological health.” (14) While Frank Gilbreth’s study also lay in the discourse of science, his idea was to use labour more efficiently to meet the goals of the corporation. The idea of such a project was that if the movement of a skilled labourer could be recorded these movements could be reproduced by any worker to produce the same results, thus helping to increase productivity and produce larger profits. Once recorded, these actions were later mechanised, thus removing the need for skilled workers as they could be taught to any unskilled worker. Though Taylor made utopian claims about his system improving the way of life under the guise of increased productivity, his system was met with stern resistance in the workplace. It would take a different method to change this and motion studies offered a more gentle way “to rehabilitate scientific management’s shattered reputation while deftly positioning the Gilbreths’ firm as its leading practitioner.” (15)

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s work, which was largely based on Marey and Muybridge’s earlier experiments, sought to produce a working body that could be defined in terms of functionality. Though Frank Gilbreth did his best to distance himself from the earlier experiments, it is clear that his work was heavily influenced by them. (16) The Gilbreths recorded their motion studies using a cyclegraph which involved attaching small lights to the moving parts of the body. The movement of these lights would then be recorded on the image showing the movements involved in the task. An example of this work can be seen if you click here. The image shows the distinct light between the mapping the movement of the worker. According to Frank Gilbreth, the wavy lines “represented the mental, and therefore physical, hesitation that stemmed from inexperience or lack of habit.” (17) This would show the inefficiencies involved in the process, thus allowing for correction. The process could then be broken into its distinct movements to allow the knowledge of the skilled craftsman to be easily passed on to the unskilled labourer. Gilbreth’s photographs also reveal another issue, namely the anonymity of the worker. The worker has become a blur in the image, broken down into mere motions as if they were a piece of machinery. A loss of identity thus occurs within the image, which is allegorical in the sense that the worker can no longer relate to their labour. The photographs act as a metaphor for what the worker was becoming under the time-motion studies; a mere vessel for the required motions of labour. Under the condition of capitalism, Marx wrote that “the object that labour produces, its product, confronts it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer.” (18) The process of labour was now also becoming an alien being through the uses of scientific management and time-motion studies as it no longer belonged to the worker. The worker was left only possessing their physical body to sell, which would then be manipulated by the process of scientific management to perform certain tasks. According to scientific management, the motions of any labour could easily be acquired, making the worker disposable even after perfecting the given tasks. The individual can only sell their potential to perform the required motions and, hence, becomes a product of capital to be traded and bought by the capitalist.

While recording their reading of the working body, the Gilbreths also noted the importance the worker as an individual. They realised they needed to tread carefully as much of the ground work that was involved in the Gilbreths’ system was taken from the Taylor system; a system that had not been well received by workers and their unions. One of the Gilbreths’ suggestions was that each worker should have an individual record, similar to that of the one kept on criminals. The record would give the worker a notion of self-worth that their good work was being recorded. They were especially careful in putting a positive angle to this as the work record could also be used to choose only the most disciplined workers in times when jobs were scarce. Further measures included tapping into the narcissistic values of the individual by providing them with a copy of the photograph of the time-motion study that they had participated in. Despite what seemed as a sincere appreciation of the individual worker, these studies reduced the worker to a mere machine, devoid of any heart or soul. The weaknesses that defined the worker could now be replaced by mechanical means as demonstrated by the Gilbreths, thus removing their control over labour and allowing management to have greater control. Marx pointed out that “capital signifies the means of production monopolised by a certain part of society” (19). These processes also assisted in further monopolising production under capital.

Though the motion studies were an important part of the Gilbreths’ work, there is actually little evidence to suggest that they played any major role in creating a more efficient workplace. It was the processes from the Taylor system that helped most with long term gains in efficiency. Despite this, the photographic and film work carried out by the Gilbreths was heavily used in the promotion of their firm. In several lectures given by Frank Gilbreth, he used the cyclegraphs taken on various jobs to demonstrate improvements in efficiency. This helped set him apart from other agencies that were offering efficiency services at the time. It was also changing how the worker and labour was visualised. The once artisanal process of creation was being broken down into distinct movements that could be replicated by anyone who could read these images. This was to change the value of the worker and the craft involved in labour forever. The corporation was now gaining control over the working body and could use it to represent the process of capital.

Another scientific discourse that was applied to the corporate applicant at the beginning of the 20th century was that of physiognomy. This pseudo-science was applied to the hiring process by Blackford and involved examining a new applicant’s face in order to determine their fitness for the applied position. At its height, Blackford’s methodology was applied by nearly two hundred corporations in their hiring process. The process was a combination of standardisation introduced through Talyorism and Social Darwinism. Blackford’s agency “saw the face, head and body as an index to employee fitness.” (20) While photography was not generally used in a character analysis, as Blackford’s methodology relied mostly on reading a character in person, it did offer a way to legitimise and demonstrate her work in the absence of a subject. The photograph was seen by Blackford as important as it “froze the subject’s physiognomy in a static position”, which allowed her to bypass the facial expressions that might cloud the view on the soul. (21) This method of reading character found favour in scientific circles in the mid-19th century. Blackford did not agree with all eugenic beliefs, such as better breeding, but she did see physical “characteristics as both immutable and biologically determined.” (22) The idea that physical traits were inherited and confined to certain social groups was one of the core beliefs of the eugenicist. Photography was used as evidence or proof of the theories behind eugenics in the hope that it would be considered a legitimate science. However, the legitimacy of this science was questionable as David Green has pointed out that “recent studies have suggested that the development of eugenics, its content and its methods, were inextricably bound to specific ideological class interests.” (23) Thus, the form of eugenics employed by Blackford can be traced to a need for capitalism to create identifiable classes suited to certain tasks. After all, a prerequisite of capital is a class of people with only their labour to offer. Blackford claimed that the head was a map to the level of intelligence. Despite the claims of social Darwinists such as Blackford, the view that there is a link between the physical and psychological features of an individual became less popular as the 1920s wore on. Intelligence was still viewed as being measurable for most forms of work but, rather than using physical features to determine this, a new method known as aptitude testing came to the fore.

Any comment or feedback is appreciated. Part two coming soon. Thank you.


[1] Elspeth H. Brown, The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 2005), p.16

[2] Ibid, p.19

[3] Ibid, p.20

[4] Martha Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey, (Chicago; London,  University of Chicago Press, 1994), p.332

[5] Ibid, p.332-333

[6] Ibid, p.335

[7] Frederick Winslow Taylor, Scientific Management, (London, Harper & Row, 1964), p.33

[8] Brown, op.cit., p.7

[9] Suren Lalvani, Photography, Vision and the Production of Modern Bodies, (New York, State University of New York Press, 1996), p.148

[10] Brown, op.cit., p.10

[11] Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor : Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity, (Berkeley; Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1992), p.242

[12] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p.310

[13] Rabinbach, op.cit., p.243

[14] Braun, op.cit., p.347

[15] Brown, op.cit., p.66-67

[16] Ibid, p.88-89

[17] Ibid, p.93

[18] David McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction, (London; Basingstoke, The Macmillan Press, 1978), p.111

[19] McLellan, op.cit., p118

[20] Brown, op.cit., p.27-29

[21] Ibid, p.35

[22] Ibid, p28

[23] David Green, The Oxford Art Journal, Volume 7, Issue 2, 1984, p.14