“The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee,” wrote Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911. Contrary to this declaration, his management system (known as Taylorism) prioritized capital over workers, streamlining their bodily movements to accelerate production. His obsession with efficiency—symbolized by the Ford assembly line—came to be seen as exploitative during the Great Depression.
Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times satirized the period’s automation, union busting, and mass unemployment. Similar themes appear in documentary photographs of factories and labor disputes. Meanwhile, corporations commissioned photographers like Charles Sheeler and Margaret Bourke-White to portray industry in a positive light. Machines were often celebrated as liberating humankind from manual labor, but they still had the potential to damage bodies. “Machinery should benefit mankind,” Chaplin cautioned. “It should not spell tragedy, or throw it out of work.”
Organized by Oluremi Onabanjo, Associate Curator, and Clément Chéroux, former Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz Chief Curator of Photography, with Kaitlin Booher, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Antoinette Roberts, Curatorial Assistant, and Dana Ostrander, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography.