Featured in NOMA’s exhibition Atomic Number Thirteen: Aluminum in 20th-Century Design, this portrait by Margaret Bourke-White illustrates the hard labor involved in aluminum production. Bourke-White was the first woman war correspondent and the first woman photographer to work for Life magazine. Her photograph of the Fort Peck Dam appeared on the cover of Life’s first issue in 1936, one year after she was featured in a monographic exhibition at NOMA. Three years later, while documenting the working processes and conditions of the Aluminum Company of America, she made this powerful portrait of American labor. Louis Klinkscales, as Bourke-White explains in a pencil inscription on the back of the print, was a “shake-out man” responsible for knocking the castings out of the sand molds just after the molten metal had cooled and solidified. The sweat beading on the brow, the fogged and dust-covered goggles, and the respirator mask make plain the intensity of the heat and the inherent danger of the work.
The Aluminum Co. of America was a powerful company in the 1930s. In 1937, Life magazine published a brief article about an anti-trust suit that aimed to dissolve the company. That article was accompanied by another Bourke-White photograph of the “operating heads” of the company. The fact that she had access to both the boardroom and the foundry floor is remarkable in its own right, but the difference between the two photographs is a lesson in industrial labor divisions. In the boardroom portrait several suited men, engrossed in conversation, sit on leather couches and chairs, their freshly shined shoes sparkling in the light; the mark of hard labor is nowhere to be seen. In the portrait of Klinkscales, however, nothing is fresh or clean, and yet he remains unflinching in front of the camera. Bourke-White, who photographed both war and industry, here presents a protagonist who could exist in either sphere. At a glance, the respirator and goggles look much like the apparatus of chemical warfare, and the tight frame monumentalizes Klinkscales. It is a heroic image but with portentous overtones, as if the already tense relationship between labor and management could soon become something worse.
—Russell Lord, Freeman Family Curator of Photographs, Prints and Drawings
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