Carolyn Polizzotto, The Factory Floor: A Visual and Oral Record, 1900-1960

Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1988 251 pp, RRP $25.00

Catherine Snowden

Some photographs in this book were faked from the first. One of the most blatant, ‘Pouring Metal, Metters’ Foundry’, has been retouched, says the author, ‘to give the impression that the pour is actually taking place. In fact the resulting smoke would have obscured the process almost entirely’. (74)

Elsewhere she is more direct. In her introduction to Chapter 3, The Iconography of The Factory’, she writes,

When retired workers look again at old photographs of the factory floor, their first comments have always to do with how unnaturally clean and tidy it looks! The unfamiliar sight prompts memories of the often frenzied preparations which used to precede a photographic session. (107)

It’s not just a matter of aesthetics – of spoiling a good picture. Rather, the owners’ memories, crafted by their photographers, deny the workers’ experience altogether. Len Vickridge for instance, commenting on an image of metal pouring in Joyce Brothers’ foundry in the late 1930s, says:

By midday the pall of smoke would be everywhere, you had to crouch down under it in order to see. We worked stripped to the waist. Our only protective clothing was pigskin flaps tied to your wrists, you’d drop them down over your wrists when you had to touch the hot metal. With the sparks there was a lot of damage to your eyes. The heat was terrible, it was an unlined shed and with the furnace on Often you’d see a man standing quietly outside for a moment, till the faintness would pass and he could go back in. (76)

Using this contentious approach of setting photo memory against mind memory, Polizzotto has taken on an interesting and difficult task. For there is a particular problem with these images: between the turn of the century and the 1950s, the owners of each of the factory floors discussed in this book commissioned several sets of images. They set out to construct a certain reality of factory work. Then, in preserving the photographs, they took the process a step further: they ensured that this view became ‘the truth’. here, in image after image are their versions: carefully arranged realities of cleaned up factory floors (or sketches where the photo looks a mite too revealing); women in uniform as ‘white coated operatives’, or in light dresses, and men often pale shirted, except in some cases, where dark (blue?) workers’ gear is allowed – but that’s usually only into those blatantly retouched images. The message is there through the years, reaching its apogee in the 1930s and 1940s: the factory is a pleasant, safe, scientifically organised workplace; factory work is clean, calm, a privileged occupation In a palatial domain.

Polizzotto’s aim in ‘letting the people speak’, is no less than to restore the experience of the worker – to render it visible once more, and so to include in the flat, photo-dominant record, other, sharper realities of the factory floor: the noise, the smoke, the heat, the destruction, the rats – and the people. A question that she asks on the way, is how some workers learnt to accept, even collude in perpetuating the bosses’ versions of their experience – just, she argues, as they welcomed the paternalism of the management or failed to politicise themselves (12; 242) As the reader, you have a voice in this argument; you might question in turn, the conclusions the author reaches about this apparent collaboration. You might wonder about the relative influence of old photographs and new oral histories in appropriating the past. One thing is clear. The conflicts, however muted, continue unabated into new-cultural arenas; this book is the new factory floor.

In her analysis, Polizzotto shows how frequently the images have been planned, cleaned up, falsified. (112, 126-7) The example above is typical of how, by deliberate manipulation, photographs can make even common experiences disappear. The bosses’ factory is one reality – here an image of women making pillow slips at Joyce Bros in 1938, ‘the apparent calm of this work space’, and the ‘dutiful poses of the women’, constructs a ‘picture of containment and control. (129) On the facing page, Muriel Adams and Jessie Viner describe their reality: accidents where workmates at the cutters lose fingers and thumbs, screaming as their hands go into the rollers.

Polizzotto has been assiduous in this kind of analysis throughout the book with most of the images bearing some sort of countervailing comment, whether from the oral record or the author’s comment. These uncover more complex stores of information, on gender relationships for instance. Men are the supervisors and the ‘machine minders’ while the position of women in the factory hierarchy was of adolescent girls in the patriarchal family – with lower salaries and lower status, the particularly repetitive nature of the work, and the shorter terms of employment, especially the sackings at some factories when they reached 17 and when work was slack. (63-66, 80-86, 112) It is in using these techniques that she and her informants have much to say about safety hazards: where open shafts and machinery belts catch hands, bodies, long hair, hands, aprons and even protective caps.

In spite of all this, Polizzotto has often stacked the cards against herself – and her workers. In presenting this record of factory work, she has used mainly the images from 6 plants in Perth and Fremantle (Arnott, Mills & Ware, GMH, Joyce, Metters, Michelides and Peters) together with the accounts of the experience from only 6 workers – 2 women, 4 men. There are occasional comments from other workers on the factory floor, from administrative staff, a union research officer (MWU) and an anonymous Fremantle wharfie. The author mediates between the two with brief introductions to each chapter and with sometimes lengthy photo captions of her own.

It is here the trouble starts. The adventurous methodology starts to look a little limp. Most of the images are from the bourgeoisie: photographs or drawings originally commissioned to record changes (i.e. ‘progress’) and to present the best possible view of their factories under construction and in operation. Most of the oral histories are from the workers: six workers (and a few extras) have to counter the overwhelming official record: the ‘evidence’ so carefully recorded and preserved by the bourgeoisie, and now forming what Polizzotto calls an ‘excellent record’ worthy of preservation. Of the six workers, one woman, Murial Adams stayed only three years – in the early 1920s. The other, Jessie Viner worked for 20 years at Joyce Bros, and her comments are among the most assured and most truculent about promotion and pay and working conditions (62, 104). Of the four men, three were great success stories and are determined to be grateful to the companies – at least publicly. There are no dissenters here, no account even from the ‘bloke, still alive’ who rescued another worker from an acid bath: ‘pulling the skin off him as he was lifted out’ (94) The anonymous wharfie provides a grisly comment on that: ‘everyone thought Mills & Wares were so marvellous but …. they got their pound of flesh’ (68)

In this struggle, however, it’s more than a matter of numbers, the ‘size of the sample’ as a sociologist might put it, but the relative claims of photography and oral history to operate as the official memory of the past. And It’s about who controls the devices that appropriate the past and its mandate on the future. How that appropriation goes on does not have to be as blatant as a public showing of the Holmes a Court private art collection but can enter into quite small enterprises such as this. The factory owners knew what they were doing when they created and preserved such a full and ‘excellent’ visual record. But do they have the last word?

One problem with Polizzotto’s progress is that she sometimes loses – direction. She often writes for instance in a way which frees the bourgeoisie from responsibility for their actions. This can be as simple as syntax. In her crucial introduction to Chapter 3: ‘The Iconography of the Factory’, she explores the ways in which ‘factories presented themselves to the world’. Factories?? Clever little things! The following one is no less abstract: ‘management constructed a text for the outside world’. Who?! This is evasive language, dangerous stuff. Not only does it universalise the bourgeoisie and the workers (a nasty practice, which I too am following). It perpetuates (in reverse) the photographer’s de humanising, universalising strategy – and one that Polizzotto is clearly well aware of. Posing workers, often with their backs to the viewer, but sometimes in a passive or remote stance, the photographer (also unidentified) has made them, if not invisible, then mere ciphers in the scheme of things; subordinate to their machines. This was part photo- tactic: an extension into the early twentieth century, of the myth of ‘technical difficulty’ derived from the slow emulsions of the nineteenth century – and long after it was solved. It was too handy a device for perpetuating the ideal image of the passive worker. (As it was for depicting colonised peoples.) Partly it was related to the architectural design strategies of the 1920s to 1940s. Here Polizzotto has been unlucky in her timing, since it is particularly now that architects are making useful analyses of the intentions of their predecessors as well as the ideological effect of the architecture images of those decades. Tony Fry, for Instance, describes the process as the ‘photo-modern’ a fusion between architecture and photography where technology, work, the human form, and any idea of the social relations of production are deliberately reduced to aesthetics. (Transition, 20, 1987: 3-7) It wasn’t applied to the bourgeoisie, of course, as the rare pictures of the bosses in this book show. They tell quite a different tale: informal groupings, smiles, movement – how free they are to walk about, and to group themselves, how proprietorial? (47,218-9)

Clearly, this book, this alternate factory floor, is still seething with the struggle to extricate the workers’ memories from the owners’ domains – which can include the publishing world. In most books featuring ‘historic photographs’, it is through the tyranny of design that dominant ideologies continue to have their way, smoothing out the frictions of class struggle and submerging meaning in the aesthetics of layout. Lots of nice clean spaces appear between pictures, captions are cut short, extracts isolated’ to be ‘popular’ is to be distractingly and destructively luscious. (See for instance, the latest Photophile). Such approaches can separate visual and verbal texts from each other: protect photos from analysis, sweeten their message or treat it as unproblematical. Here Polizzotto’s contradicting methodology (and perhaps a good working relationship with her designer) has tried to avoid that ‘picture book’ or the ‘photo-as-illustration’ technique that many historians (or their designers) favour. Yet there remains one serious weakness m this methodology, and appropriately enough, it lies in its very strength of its contradictory technique. The design gives the clue. Pictures spring out of the page, taking precedence over the words. Pictures have the last confirming word. The extracts, the fragmented pieces of the factory workers’ memories do not truly grapple with the photographs. They stand at some distance and throw stones.

And ultimately, Polizzotto herself is uneasy with the results of what she rather modestly calls her ‘survey’. The marks of her doubts are there from the first: in her initial comments about her time frame: that by stopping in 1960, it misses out, by implication, on some ‘real’ class war conducted after that date – but not during the 1930s? (Here her evidence contradicts her.) These people, she claims, were not politicised, they were deprived of a sense of collective identity, they accepted, indeed welcomed the paternalism of management – and ‘if they had not, they would not have stayed’. Finally, she is surprised to find that the private mementoes and photographs of the workers only reproduce ‘with startling fidelity’ the public image of the factory devised by the management’. (241-2) The triumph of ruling class cultural hegemony? Perhaps not. Polizzotto has other ideas. She suspects a private reality that these workers do not care to express – at least in this form. So does this mean that the book has not, after all, caught the voice from the past, but is merely an extension of that official version of the factory floor – ‘publicly, the public image (that has) served them well It? (242)

It’s an interesting and exhilarating question, not a resolution. As Polizzotto admits, this work is an introduction. The struggle goes on.