WERE we raised to believe that work is drudgery? To focus on the exploitation, the injustice, the inequality? Have we, children of the Computer Age, been brainwashed to believe that any work done with one's hands is somehow degrading? Four rich new photo books will leave most readers feeling as if we may just have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In these books, work looks like an exuberant dance.
From the cover of the National Geographic Society's Work: The World in Photographs (National Geographic: 352 pp., $35) -- which shows fishermen, arms outstretched in balletic coordination, perched on poles in shallow water along the southern coast of Sri Lanka -- we feel uplifted. The images here suggest that work gives rhythm and structure to our days. A photo of a Buckingham Palace guardsman reminds us that work is a kind of meditation, an effort to focus our considerable energies in a particular direction. Nor is the book without humor -- the geisha on the car phone, the elderly woman at the slot machines.
"Work" is organized in sections that take us around the world: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. It also features portfolio sections on agriculture, extraction and manufacturing. There is no denying that the photos of agricultural workers have a more human scale (in spite of the timeless, luminous landscapes, particularly in Asia) or that the extraction industries (beginning with Sebastiao Selgado's photo of gold miners in Brazil) seem the most degrading. But as the text by Ferdinand Protzman skillfully reminds us, there is a tendency to see the work of other cultures in such a light.
There is also the tendency to romanticize certain types of workers -- female weavers in Eastern Europe, say, or reed weavers in the Middle East. They seem to have so much more community in their lives than the economist at the Shanghai stock exchange. Indeed, the photos that show workers with the products of their labor have a particularly satisfying energy: the boy selling oranges on a burned-out police car in Afghanistan, the Egyptian woman with her unbaked loaves of bread, the fisherman on a Bikini Atoll beach with his catch.
Perry Dilbeck's The Last Harvest: Truck Farmers in the Deep South (Center for American Places: 100 pp., $32.50) has an entirely different focus -- local, not global. The photos are black-and-white, close-cropped portraits of 13 truck farmers (here, the word "truck" is used in the colloquial sense of selling from the back of a pickup, but also in the Oxford English Dictionary sense of barter) in the counties around Atlanta. Yet the message is similar: Work can provide a lifetime of fulfillment. The closer the worker is to his crop -- each of these farmers works fewer than 40 acres -- the happier he'll be. "I like to see things grow," notes Leavell Smith, one of Dilbeck's subjects, who has spent most of his life on the land he farms. Butter beans, okra, purple hull peas, collards, corn, melons, pecans; these are rarely far from the center of the picture.
Like the editors of "Work," Dilbeck focuses on what's fulfilling to these farmers, rather than on their increasing marginalization in the face of mechanized agriculture. In Black Farmers in America (University Press of Kentucky: 126 pp., $49.95), on the other hand, photographer John Francis Ficara and essayist Juan Williams take more of a Walker Evans-James Agee approach. The farmers they portray are an endangered species: In 1920, 14% of American farmers were black, working on 16 million acres. Today, only 1% of American farmers are black, working on 3 million acres.
Ficara photographed 60 black farmers throughout the South over a period of four years. He invokes Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's 1865 promise to 4 million newly freed black Americans -- 40 acres and a mule -- while reporting that this promise was long ago broken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (often called "the last plantation" by black farmers). His photos show people fighting for, and all too often losing, what they know and love.
The photographs in Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community (Kent State University Press: 160 pp., $19.95) feature migrant workers on a farm in northern Ohio that takes the notion of exuberance in work a little too far. As shot by Gary Harwood -- the book also includes text by David Hassler and a foreword by Robert Coles -- these pictures force a viewer to locate the line between empathy and respect and to question it. The Mexican migrant workers pictured here come each year to the 500-acre K.W. Zellers family farm. They bring their families; they are given houses and a community center and medical help and advice. Their children go to the local school. They look healthy and happy, but there is so much more to the story than the photos. Harwood's images make us wonder about what remains outside the frame.
In all these books, the faces are often tired but full of dignity. The very act of looking implies a freedom that does not exist when one is working for wages under a hot sun. Work is beautiful. We are lucky to have it. But at the end of a long day, make sure the end product is somewhere in the frame of consciousness. Make sure it is never far from sight. *