black and white photo of office cubicles with a female office worker's head visible in the back over the cubicle walls
"Head of Female Worker Seen Over Office Cubicle, Standard Oil Company of California, 1976–77" (Chauncey Hare)

Under the Fluorescent Lights

Chauncey Hare captured the drudgery of office life in order to protest it.

Photography started as a hobby for Chauncey Hare. For 27 years, he worked as a chemical engineer at the Standard Oil Company of California, using his camera to escape the tedium of the office. By 1977, he couldn’t take it anymore. But before he declared himself a “corporate dropout” and committed to art full-time, Hare trained his camera on the world he hoped to leave behind.

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The working people in the series of photographs he shot at Standard Oil sit in mundane, if vaguely menacing, office environments, boxed in—sometimes even obscured—by a labyrinth of cubicles and other corporate furniture. They rarely look directly at the camera; many of his photographs seem to be taken from above. To look at these workers is to supervise, to surveil. Still, close inspection reveals glimpses of personality in the otherwise dreary tableaus—a playful cheetah print here, a holiday wreath there.

black and white photo of office cubicles with man in rolled shirtsleeves, tie, and dark sunglasses sitting at desk in foreground with typewriter
Self-Portrait at EPA, 1980

Paradoxically, the same medium that once served as a respite from the banality of Hare’s professional life soon came to feel oppressive in its own right. In Quitting Your Day Job, a forthcoming critical biography of Hare, the scholar Robert Slifkin connects Hare’s sly, arresting portraiture to the artist’s critiques of capitalist power structures, including the cultural institutions that embraced him. (Hare won three Guggenheim fellowships.) The photographer went on to disavow “official art” and accept a part-time job at the Environmental Protection Agency to support himself. A self-portrait from that time shows Hare back in an office environment, where a poster hanging on a cubicle wall poses a question that its surroundings implicitly answer: What’s bugging you? By 1985, Hare had given up photography altogether and become a therapist specializing in “work abuse.”

black and white photo of balding man with mustache and dark-framed glasses at desk holding pen with file cabinet, rotary-dial phone, and window in background looking out on a refiinery
storage room with dropped ceiling, fluorescent lights, holiday decorations, 3 rotary-dial phones in the middle of a bare floor, and dozens of white file boxes stacked along walls
Top: Office Worker Seated at a Desk, Standard Oil Company of California Refinery, Richmond, California, 1976–77. Bottom: Room With Document Storage Boxes, Standard Oil Company of California, 1976–77.

Before Hare died, in 2019, he saw to it that any future publication of his work would include the following disclaimer: “These photographs were made to protest and warn against the growing domination of working people by multinational corporations and their elite owners and managers.”

Despite his fears that they were being turned into drones, the men and women in Hare’s photographs remain distinctly themselves.

This article appears in the May 2022 print edition with the headline “What’s Bugging You?”