Katherine Joseph

Labor Day: The Art of Work

From Oregon artists and museums, a look at the world of work and the varieties of labor

Today is Labor Day, the day we celebrate the American labor movement and its drive to guarantee living wages and safe, decent working conditions for all workers. It’s been an official federal holiday since 1894, through boom times and hard times, strikes and strike-busting, and massive shifts in technology and public/private economic strategies that have weakened the labor movement that inspired the holiday. A historic transfer of wealth away from the working and middle classes and into the bank accounts of the superrich threatens much of what the labor movement has accomplished in the past century and more. Nevertheless, the movement persists.

Art is skilled labor, and quite naturally, artists often depict work and workers in their art. Here’s a selection of Oregon pieces that celebrate labor in its many forms. The second and sixth images are from the exhibition Strength and Dignity: Images of the Worker from the Permanent Collection, at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through October 21.

IN THE FACTORIES, where the labor movement took root: Joseph Stella, Factories at Night, ca. 1936/1943, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, allocated by the U.S. government, commissioned through New Deal art projects, Portland Art Museum.

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‘Every Minute Counts’: a lost lens on America, rediscovered

An Oregon Jewish Museum exhibit uncovers the vibrant history-in-the-making images of photographer Katherine Joseph's 1930s and '40s

“EVERY MINUTE COUNTS,” the banner in the photograph shouts in big block capital letters, and the four women garment workers below, needles in hand and stacks of cloth surrounding them, make it clear they take the admonition seriously. Isolated and absorbed, yet also somehow bound into this activity together, they exude a serious and determined camaraderie. It’s 1942, and they’re on the home front, working in New York’s garment district, burrowed deeply in the rhythm of the duties of their small corner of the war effort.

This bold and striking image lends its title to the most recent exhibition at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Every Minute Counts: Photographs by Katherine Joseph, which continues through September 25, is also the final exhibition at the museum’s space on Northwest Kearney Street before it shuts its doors for several months to prepare for reopening in late spring or early summer 2017 at the old Museum of Contemporary Craft space on Northwest Davis Street, by the North Park Blocks. The new space will provide more than double the square footage, to about 15,000.

 "Every Minute Counts," garment workers on the home front, new York, photo by Katherine Joseph, 1942; © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg; photograph courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


“Every Minute Counts,” garment workers on the home front, New York, photo by Katherine Joseph, 1942; © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg; photograph courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

If you’ve never heard of Katherine Joseph, don’t feel bad: in spite of the wit and presence and proximity to history of so much of her work, not a lot of people have. Her photography in the 1930s and 1940s slides her neatly into a category of humanistic documentarists that also includes the likes of Dorothea Lange, whose images of Americans in the midst of the Great Depression became iconic, and Margaret Bourke-White, one of the most imaginative and socially revealing photographers for the old Life magazine during its glory years. But Joseph’s career was shorter – less than a decade – and as the war ended, so did it: Joseph hung up her camera, settled down, and raised a family. Even her children didn’t know until relatively recent years of her photographic fling with history.

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