Working Conditions at The Ringling Museum of Art

Arts & Culture

Pictured: Bill Owens (American, born 1938), Industrial burger maker, Tri-Valley Area, Northern California, from the series Working, 1974-1976. Gelatin silver print, 6 7/16 x 9 1/16 in. Gift of John Chatzky and Debbie Mullin, 2021, 2021.51.31. © Bill Owen

One of the most universal elements of the human experience is this: everybody works. Most everybody, at some point in their lives, has to hold down a job. Whether it’s working as a cashier in a small-town convenience store or a corporate executive in a high-rise office, the act of working is a near universal experience. The Ringling Museum of Art is exploring this concept in their latest exhibition Working Conditions, which opened last Saturday and will be on view through March 3, 2024.

Working Conditions is an exhibition from our permanent collection of photography,” says Christopher Jones, the Stanton B. and Nancy W. Kaplan Curator of Photography and Media Art at The Ringling. “The objective is to examine the ways that different photographers have approached the idea of labor from the turn of the 20th century into the 21st century. It’s interesting to compare photographers in different cultures and time periods and how they frame this idea of labor.”

Some of the highlights of the exhibition include the work of Lewis Hine, a photographer hired in 1908 by the National Child Labor Committee to document the exploitation of children in the industrial workforce. “He often went into these environments as a sort of investigator. He would wear disguises or use subterfuge to gain access to these workplaces so that he could photograph children working. In many cases these were kids who were seven or eight years old working in coal mines or other dangerous conditions,” says Jones. “For Hine, labor was really a social issue that needed reform–his photographs helped this child labor committee in their campaign to create federal legislation to restrict child labor. He was one of the first to show early on how the camera could be used as a witness to document and persuade people.”

Another standout from the exhibition is the work of the American photographer Bill Owens, who chronicled the working atmosphere of post World War II suburbia. Owens, who worked for his local paper in Northern California, created own series “Working” in the 1970s when he was off the clock from his full time job. Owens’ photography explores the visual culture of the time and by extent, this new idea of the American dream after World War II. 

Pictured: Bill Owens (American, born 1938), Industrial burger maker, Tri-Valley Area, Northern California, from the series Working, 1974-1976. Gelatin silver print, 6 7/16 x 9 1/16 in. Gift of John Chatzky and Debbie Mullin, 2021, 2021.51.31. © Bill Owen

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