Problems with Authority: Robert Slifkin on Chauncey Hare

Chauncey Hare, [Refinery worker seated at desk in front of wall with dials, Standard Oil Company of California, Richmond, California.] 1976-1977

For many people—maybe for most people—finding meaning in work is a problematic undertaking. As [Judith] Wyatt and [Chauncey] Hare note in Work Abuse, many workers resign themselves to unhappy work lives—working to live rather than living to work, as the old saying goes—and look for some relief in the time they are granted away from their jobs. These people typically “lead dual lives where work is something they put up with every day in order to pay for their other, more meaningful life, which they experience as their identity.” The authors go on to note that even “Creative people, writers, actors, and visual artists often make this choice, as do many others who identify with their hobby rather than the work they do to make a living.” No doubt speaking from a place of personal experience, a perspective that is surprisingly prevalent throughout the book, Wyatt and Hare recognize the almost insurmountable challenges faced by numerous people who are unable to find meaning in the part of the lives in which they not only invest the most time and energy but which frequently defines their very sense of self. Exhaustion and stress caused by their jobs lead them to pursue numbing and escapist activities: drugs and alcohol, the mindless entertainment offered by the culture industry, or perhaps somewhat healthier pastimes such as fishing and hiking (both of which Hare tried in his first years at Standard Oil before discovering the curative effects of photography). Such activities are diverting but not necessarily meaningful, or, as Wyatt and Hare powerfully put it, do not come from a “commitment to an endeavor that expresses your identity and your purpose.”

This almost existential search for meaning in one’s occupation lies at the core of Work Abuse and its stated aim of helping people survive if not enjoy their jobs and reclaim a crucial degree of autonomy in their lives. A similar quest motivates Hare’s account of his life as it appears in the three prefaces to his photobooks. In each text, Hare tells a story of a young man who searches for his purpose against great odds, someone who is born into a bad situation and who struggles to transcend these constraints and achieve a degree of public acclaim, only to realize that this triumph did not yield the fruits it seemed to promise and that he would have to renounce all that he had accomplished in the name of personal integrity to his vision and vocation. It is an archetypal story, something Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung (both of whom Hare cites in his introduction to his second book, This Was Corporate America) would have appreciated for its avowedly universal theme of an individual—and manifestly heroic—journey towards personal growth and autonomy.

Chauncey Hare, ‘Steubenville, Ohio’, 1971

Janet Malcolm picked up on these themes, describing Hare’s writerly voice as expressing a “sadness, bleakness, and flatness of emotional tone” that “puts one in mind of the final chapters of ‘The Way of All Flesh.’ Like Ernest Pontifex’s, Hare’s history is one of almost unrelieved pathos.” Malcolm’s allusion to Samuel Butler’s 1903 novel of intergenerational conflict is particularly apt, not only for the way it underscores the tragically romantic mood that permeates Hare’s literary persona, but also because Hare’s life and photography seem to have been driven by powerful Oedipal dynamics, not only between himself and his father but also in opposition to large corporate authorities that seemed to dominate his life: most notably Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) and later the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Aperture, the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Throughout Hare’s nearly thirty-year enterprise to achieve professional recognition and survive economically as a photographer, he sought to free himself from the weight of one patriarchal, authoritarian, and oftentimes abbreviated entity, only to exchange it with another legitimizing authority. Hare, it seems, was unable to imagine a meaningful vocation devoid of the sort of institutional endorsement and financial backing that organizations like MoMA, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) could provide. And yet he was ultimately compelled to renounce each of these forms of authority, and with them his claims to be a photographer, in the name of personal liberation.

Chauncey Hare, ‘Gertrude Hare standing in kitchen, Kensington, California’, 1968

Hare dedicated Interior America “to the those who are awakening to their own authority.” This message of self-liberation resonated across Hare’s practice both as a photographer and a therapist. But it is not entirely clear if Hare ever experienced such an awakening himself. Nor, more troublingly, is it clear if the newly awakened authority that Hare realized around 1977 when he quit his job at Standard Oil did not itself entail new forms of oppression and alienation. One might ask: is it even possible to be both anti-authoritarian and awakened to one’s own authority? If Hare’s decision to quit his job at Standard Oil and dedicate his life to the practice of photography represents the crucial moment of his own awakening, his decision the following year to subsequently enroll in the graduate program at the San Francisco Art Institute indicates that he continued to look for external sources of legitimization for his artistic vocation. Indeed, Hare would ultimately rack up three Master’s degrees in the decade after leaving the corporate world: the MFA from SFAI, an MA from Pepperdine University in Organization Development in 1986, and, finally, a MA in clinical psychotherapy from Sierra University in 1987. One might say that these institutionally sanctioned credentials held out the promise of investing his work (both occupational and photographic) with meaning, and, in the case of the MoMA exhibition and the MFA, of turning his work into art

Hare was a seeker. If, as his academic qualifications suggest, he spent much of his post-corporate life searching for some type of mastery within the established academic disciplines, this yen for greater illumination would likewise lead him to become a discipline of a number of spiritual gurus. As the ’70s unfolded, Hare would become increasingly involved in what he would sometimes call the “evolution in consciousness” associated with New Age movements. His writings from This Was Corporate America to Work Abuse are peppered with the wisdom of counterculture luminaries such as Carlos Castaneda, a renegade anthropologist at UCLA who in 1968 became a pop-culture phenomenon, and Jane Roberts, a medium from upstate New York who transcribed the words of a spirit named Seth in a series of books published in the 1960s and ’70s. Around 1970, Hare would be introduced to the philosophy of the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba through his colleague Hans Ludwig “Lud” Dimpfl, another chemical engineer at Standard Oil and one of the most significant apostles of the guru in the United States. If Hare’s growing interest in New Age spiritualism and eastern religious traditions seems opposed to the at once impassioned and ironic attitude of his photographs and their avowed documentation of alienation, it nonetheless registers his powerful drive to find greater meaning in his life and more particularly in his life’s work. (In this regard, Hare’s account in Interior America of sending a small portfolio of his landscapes to the “Mystic guru” of photography, Minor White, who told him he “was on the verge of a breakthrough,” takes on added significance. According to Hare, White returned the prints with scratches, perhaps auguring Hare’s immanent dismissal of the more pictorialist mode he had been pursuing up to that point.) Photography for Hare entailed a zen-like embrace of chance and a cultivation of heightened perception that was ego-less in its mechanical registration of the world and yet always guided by the purposive eye of the camera operator.

Chauncey Hare, ‘Self-portrait of Chauncey Hare seated at a table’, c. 1971
All images © The Regents of the University of California, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. These photographs were made by Chauncey Hare to protest and warn against the growing domination of working people by multi-national corporations and their elite owners and managers.


Excerpt from Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work by Robert Slifkin (MACK, 2022)


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