The current feature exhibition at the Grohmann Museum, A Working Ranch by Jim Brozek, is one not to be missed. The reasons are numerous: the world-class venue, the carefully selected images artfully arranged to create an atmosphere that pays homage to the worker and the artist, and the presentation of a striking visual mediation of life on an American ranch.
The advent of photography in the early nineteenth century brought with it a new way of seeing; both seeing one another and the world in which we live. Just as the current virtual revolution has expanded our worldview—making for a ‘smaller’ planet—so, too, did the photo revolution of the mid 1800s.
Following Daguerre’s refinement of the photographic process in the late 1830s, evolving beyond the early camera obscura and camera lucida of previous eras, photography has been an integral part of communication and artistic expression. In America, photographic development ran parallel to our industrial revolution, expansion westward, and the Civil War. Journalists and documentarians had a new method to relate—in pictures—the events of daily life, individual travels, and major national events.
A natural extension of the medium served not just the writers and artists that gravitated to the new form of communication, but also the early ethnologists examining culture in its many forms. Alongside the establishment of anthropology as a formal academic discipline in the 1880s and 1890s, photography had proven itself to be an important tool for research. Edward Curtis relied on photo documentation of Native American culture in his study of the indigenes of the American West. Franz Boas found photography to be a vital component in his work among the Native Americans and First Peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America.
The turn of the twentieth century brought further refinement in photographic documentation. Taken further into the field, photography was used with great success by Bronislaw Malinowski in studying the Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific. Many others utilized photography to some extent, but it was Malinowski who perhaps had the most impact on future scholars, as he and students of Boas also developed the method of participant observation that became a standard in future examinations of culture.
Participant observation emerged as the touchstone in cultural studies because its aim was to examine culture from within, as a direct participant in the lives of those studied. It created an insider’s view of culture, which allowed for a more intimate portrait of social life than the detached outsider perspective that previously dominated the field. Malinowski and others felt strongly that the way to best understand a group was on its own terms, by participating in work, play, and ritual as a member of the group. This also reinforced to the informants and members the researcher’s passion to learn about their lives from the inside-out, to walk in their shoes and better understand their worldview.
This concept of participant observation is particularly relevant to an examination of the photography of Jim Brozek. While not formally trained in anthropology or sociology, Brozek nonetheless has made participation an important part of his work. Brozek has made his career working alongside his subjects to more accurately and appropriately capture the nuances of work in many forms. One’s identity is to some degree intertwined with what they do for a living, and insomuch occupation equals identity. In this vein, Jim Brozek is everyman.
Over the course of his professional life Brozek has rarely been without his camera while working in a variety of situations. He has operated a combine, harvesting crops in East-Central Wisconsin. Added to this is his work on the ore boats of the Great Lakes, as a demolition man and carpenter on the west coast, in a variety of construction projects and, as featured in this volume, as a ranch hand in New Mexico in the late 1970s and early 80s. As jobs changed and new opportunities presented themselves, he made himself available to new experiences and remained a photographer and artist all the while.
In order to capture various modes of work and the inherent subtleties, much like a good painter, Brozek insists on developing an understanding of the subject. One cannot simply observe to produce work of the quality found here. Rather, it is through cultural immersion that his photos are produced. Supplementing his camera work are audio recordings made in interviews with his fellow workers, be they lakers or ranch hands. Through these methods of data collection, he has developed his own brand of participant observation that has served him well throughout his career.
In much the same way anthropologists approach their work, Brozek focused on many of the same elements used in examining social groups and subcultures: the material apparatus, societal norms, activities and the performance of joint tasks, and the common aims of the group. Work is thereby viewed as a function in satisfying human needs, but also speaks to the qualities of being human through one’s successes and shortcomings.
Jim’s ethnographic approach to work and photography, coupled with a fascination with cowboy culture, make for a special portrait of working life. Through his work, we are presented with a captivating visual ethnography of life on A Working Ranch.
GALLERY NIGHT EVENT - October 18th, 7pm - A Gallery Talk with the Artist