In 1958, a chemical engineer at Standard Oil in Richmond, California, started taking pictures to escape his dreary days at work. Soon, however, the camera became the center of Chauncey Hare’s life and a tool for raising his political awareness. Hare’s photographic work from the late 1960s through the 1980s—gritty black-and-white images of American workers in their homes and offices—revealed the despair and disappointment behind the unrealized American dream. The photos were also a huge professional success.
At a time when photography was still a contested newcomer to the world of fine art, Hare received three Guggenheim Fellowships (an honor then shared only by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans), a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a monograph published by Aperture. It’s an enviable list of accolades for any artist, especially one who is self-taught and works full-time. However, Hare’s photography is little known today, in part due to his own efforts. Disillusioned with the art world, he once called himself an “anti-official art artist” before bitterly denouncing his artistic work in 1985.
“What an artist is is so corrupted,” Hare wrote in 2005, “that it is a dangerous label to apply.” By the time he co-wrote a book on “workplace abuse” in 1997, Hare, now a clinical therapist, had removed all mention of photography from his biography. So what happened?
Quitting your daily job: the photographic work of Chauncey Hare (MACK Books 2022) by Robert Slifkin shines a light on the beleaguered, passionate and often conflicted life of this artist who ultimately fled art. Part biography and part analysis, Slifkin’s book brings together Hare’s photos, letters, essays and archival documents, as well as interviews with his former colleagues and acquaintances, to reconstruct and reconsider the conditions and the impact of his photographic production. At its core, the book deals with Hare’s complicated relationship with work: how his various creative and professional work roles overlapped, diverged, and even eliminated each other, and his concern for the status of American workers, including himself. likewise, in the face of the rise of business and technology.
In the book, Hare – who died in 2019 – comes across as a talented but extraordinarily difficult personality. After his exhibition at MoMA exposed the parallels between corporate power and the greed of the art world, he often rejects or sabotages future artistic career opportunities in reactionary ways. By the late 1970s, he was staunchly combative of the art system as a whole, demanding the return of works he had previously sold to MoMA, mailing defaced copies of catalogs of photographs to curators, and sending letters threats to museum staff. In 1979, he organized a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, handing visitors an “awareness guidebook” filled with his restless writing in all caps. It’s sometimes hard to tell if Hare is too paranoid or even unhinged, but it’s also fascinating to watch an artist succeed at the highest levels and then reject it outright.
While Hare’s behavior may at times seem extreme, it clearly stems from lived experiences and long-held beliefs: primarily, his own life as a disenfranchised worker pinched by an all-consuming capitalist economy. He rejected the art world to regain a sense of control. Hoping to ensure that his work would be used according to his beliefs, for example, he stipulated that all reproductions of his photos, including those in this article, carry a statement about the companies’ dehumanizing effects. Slifkin recounts Hare’s rebellions without attaching any meaning to sensationalism, reminding us that the questions his life and work raise – about the invasion of work into our daily lives, the unshakeable authority of big business and museums, and the struggles to achieve professional and creative success without losing one’s principles — staying deeply relevant.
Quitting your daily job: the photographic work of Chauncey Hare by Robert Slifkin (2022) is published by MACK Books and is available online.