And furthermore ...

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Friday, 11 May 2012


The day job
"Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do."
 Oscar Wilde
“It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”
Ronald Reagan

You have to wonder, was there ever anybody who thought their idea of the perfect job is to sit behind a desk signing pieces of paper all day? If that person existed then the way fate works they probably ended up being a test pilot, quietly bitter like most of us because things hadn’t quite turned out how they’d thought they would. ‘Pen pusher’ is so derogatory not many want to admit that’s what they do but how many solicitors seriously regard contracts as anything other than standard forms composed in a specific language which they merely have to append a signature and a date to? And don’t get me started on notaries. The old term, scrivener, is much more appropriate; it suggests some shrivelled old man scratching his autograph across a document for which the client has the privilege of paying out a small fortune. At least accountants, the archetype of the dull profession, can occasionally boast of working minor miracles with numbers. It isn’t the case so much anymore but public servants in Australia had Friday lunchtime to look forward to, when the hours slowly melded into the night and without the imposition of cell phones they felt no obligation to call home.

One noable thing about these photos is the paraphernalia. Every desk used to require a blotting pad, a jar of pens and various chrome items, some of which were there for appearances’ sake. One has to be suspicious of a very neat and minimally decorated desk. It suggests the occupant has time to put the chrome items in order. A cluttered desk – there aren’t many here – indicates the worker is busily moving from one task to the next, living by the principle that he knows in his own head where each piece of paper is should he need to find it in a hurry. Like a personalized writing set, a cluttered desk is also a sign of higher authority. Until the concept of time and management was invented, an untidy desk also meant a good worker. Such men are, or were - the computer has also robbed many clerks of their dignity – the best administrators, even if the rulebooks said they weren’t. For those types, wrestling order out of chaos was a matter of personal honour. The chaotic workspace was evidence of creativity; they were testing themselves against the monotony. When the chips were down, they were the ones to get everybody else out of the mess. Not surprisingly, they were also the ones who stayed longest at Friday lunch and burnt out with the loudest crash. 

 Throughout the long years of the 1950s and 60s American television relentlessly pushed the idea that a man behind a relatively clean desk was the ideal citizen. Whenever Ward Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver, both Darrins in Bewitched, and the father in My Three Sons were filmed at work they were in situation not far removed from the men in these photos find themselves. Primarily they were supposed to represent the middle class heartland but they also invoked a desirable lack of ambition. You only needed a few things in middle America – a family, of course, a house, a car and a stable desk job that would see you through to retirement. To ask for more was to demand too much. It is easy now to look back and think of that certainty as precious, but TV Land also promoted a world where you were expected to be grateful for small things, never question or doubt and certainly never push. Several of the men in these photos are in the Turkish military, which in the 1940s and 50s was a dark and strange place to be, but in the imagery at least they represent similar values to America; the one deigned desirable in the media anyway. They know their place.

There is a difference. Most of these photographs reveal a shabbiness American TV would never have allowed to show through in its imaginary world. The walls need a lick of paint, there is inexplicable stuff attached to some of them, most of these people are working in tiny, cramped and probably depressing offices. They are middle management; they will always be told they are respected for their loyalty and dedication but this is about as far as they will rise.

There are so many snapshots of men at their desks in Turkey they could be classified as a genre, and since there appears to be relatively few from America or Western Europe, you have to ask why. Maybe it was a small badge of honour in Turkey to be photographed at the desk, though not many of the men here appear to be in love with their work. If anything the pictures confirm they were experiencing the same drudgery as every other white-collar worker in the world. Excepting a couple, they look too casually composed to be promotional. Maybe, like the proliferation of Turkish snapshots of people in hospital, they are one of those incidental cultural expressions that no one thought worth commenting on at the time. Now digitalization has made photography so perfunctory we are left with unsatisfying speculation.


  1. FINE category! I am going to see if I have enough for a page in Lost Gallery! Great idea! And good research too.

  2. I'd be really interested to know if there are American snaps like these. I've never seen any in Australia or England. Put them up!

  3. I assembled all I had for a page called "The Office" There's not as many perfect examples as yours but each has an "office" feel to it.
    It's here:

  4. Nice. Glad to see they're out there. Do you have any of people in hospital? There's a lot here.


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