The Rational Factory, Labour, and the Fordist Visual Imaginary
By Rick Halpern
The first decades of the twentieth century were a remarkable period for heavy industry across much of North America and Europe. Mass production of goods such as rubber and steel – and consumer products like automobiles and radios – reached unprecedented levels. New technologies, most notably assembly lines, the adoption of interchangeable parts, and the redesign of factory buildings themselves, allowed not just a greater volume of production but economies of scale that transformed society as a whole. ‘Fordism’ – the label given to these new regimes of mass production and the culture to which they gave rise – both promised a new era of general prosperity and foreshadowed a world of uniformity and alienation. Numerous art forms, from the industrial murals painted by Diego Rivera in the 1930s to the movies of Charlie Chaplin humorously depicting regimented factory life, played off and commented upon the promise and dystopian possibilities of endless manufacture. Photography, too, contributed to the artistic effort to make sense of the novelty of mass production and express concerns about its regimentation and forms of control. Indeed, this period saw the making of some of the most powerful visual images of industrial life ever created. This essay looks at visual representations of factory architecture and shop floor activity to fashion an argument about the ways in which photography contributed to the culture of Fordism.
Any definition of Fordism must originate with the innovations Henry Ford applied to the building of automobiles in the 1910s. “Mass production”, he wrote, “is the focusing on a manufacturing project of the principles of power, accuracy, economy, system, continuity, and speed”. In addition to the moving assembly line, Ford pioneered a transformative shift away from steam to electric power and customised machine tooling (by the time his Highland Park Plant opened in 1914, Ford relied on 15,000 machine tools, a greater number than his total workforce of 13,000). These developments led to the reconceptualisation of industrial space itself. As historian Lindy Biggs explains, the new buildings were designed specifically to house assembly line production. Design and layout went hand in hand with materials handling and internal flow, so when drafting new buildings for these systems Ford’s engineers thought about the factories as a whole, seeing them as great master machines.
The new plants looked different from the industrial facilities that preceded them. No wonder that they attracted the attention of artists and photographers. One of the first and most talented was Charles Sheeler (1883–1965), who both painted and photographed Ford’s River Rouge complex in the late 1920s, emphasising the plant’s sharply angled lines, imposing towers, and the conveyors that moved parts inside the behemoth buildings (Figure 1). Sheeler, like many artists of the time, celebrated the new precepts of Fordist industrial design seeing the sleek new factories as a form of quasi-religious expression, going so far as to calling them the Gothic cathedrals of the twentieth century – a sentiment that comes through strongly in much of Sheeler’s work over the next two decades.
Perhaps the most elegant effort to apply the new concepts of industrial design to a mass production factory came from Italian architect Giocomo Mattè-Trucco (1869–1934) whose Lingotto automobile plant, built for Fiat in Turin between 1916 and 1923, drew attention from other architects, photographers, and curious visitors from across the continent. One Futurist designer called it “our liberation from esthetic terror”, and famed French architect Le Corbusier pronounced it “one of the most impressive sights in industry”, believing it could serve as guideline for future projects. Paying careful attention to the flow of materials, Mattè-Trucco’s reinforced concrete structure had five floors and housed a reversed assembly line that started at ground level and sloped up in helicoidal fashion through the building. Finished cars rolled off the line at roof level, where there was a racing track, surely the most unusual feature of the building and one that occasioned the most comment (Figures 2 and 3).
More important than the architect’s audacity of including a test track atop an auto plant is the way in which the visual culture of Fordism rapidly spread beyond the United States. Indeed, wherever ‘modernist’ forms of design appeared, Fordist sensibilities were deeply inscribed. To note two additional European examples, Renault’s Île Seguin factory southwest of Paris designed by Albert Leprade (1883–1978) and German architect Peter Behrens’ (1868–1940) tobacco factory in Linz, Austria – both erected in the 1920s – eschewed traditional forms and ornamentation, allowing the structure of these facilities to follow the functions carried out inside them. Simplicity, efficiency, and systemisation were the guiding principles.
While Fordist notions structured the built environment of the modern factory, sparking comment and attracting tourists who marvelled even from the outside at the sleek lines and patterns of glass, concrete, and steel, they had an even greater impact on those who laboured inside these giant new facilities. The visual aspects of this interior dimension – to say nothing of the experience of labour – is less documented and certainly attracted less attention at the time. Indeed, the paucity of images depicting sentient human labour in industrial photography is notable and raises important questions. How was labour represented in images of Fordist production? More importantly, where do we see agency or praxis on the shop floor? To answer these queries, it is first necessary to understand that the Fordist imaginary reduced labour to a mere input of production, a measurable and standardised commodity rather than an independent agent. Thus, visual depictions of the shop floor tend to see workers as regimented components of production, extensions of machines, or, in some extreme examples, as ancillary to the main story of the moving line, the forge, machine shop, or furnace.
Some of the most striking photographs of the shop floor from the Fordist heyday amplify the notion of the regimented worker. In the 1930s, Ford sent a series of images to the Harvard Business School for use in their case study approach to education. While Ford’s secretiveness about his custom machine tools meant that few photographers gained access to the inside of the plants, these images from both Highland Park and the River Rouge complex are unusual in the way that they capture parts assembly in detailed, almost artistic, fashion. Figures 4 and 5, below, are standout examples, with workers dressed identically, moving in similar fashion, and labouring on the same products. In both images, the photographer’s use of leading lines and angles, and the visual capture of the identical posturing of the subjects, accentuates the sense of labour as a component part of the larger master machine of the factory. Given the off-limits nature of the auto plant interior, the camera here – with its privileged access to the line – has become party to the alienation and regimentation of labour. Historian Erica Toffoli expresses this complicity in a powerful way, writing that the creation of these sorts of photographs both separate workers from the commodities they produce and freezes framed moments from the flow of time, thus abstracting them and enabling the reproduction and circulation of images.
Of course, workers, even those inside the early twentieth century’s rational factories, were never simply cogs in larger machines or merely inputs into mass production. But in the dreams of industrial engineers, they were but living extensions of their mechanical designs. Many of the photographs in the Harvard collection capture something of this managerial fantasy. John P. Mudd (1888–1955), an unusually talented but overlooked photographer, gained access to Midvale Steel’s Philadelphia plant. In several of Mudd’s shots, his decision to crop his photographs in such a way that headless workers’ hands and arms appear as extensions of machines amplifies the idea that labour is under the total control of Fordist design. Figure 6, for instance, depicts a worker’s arms moving levers. A note on the back of the photograph makes clear that this is a result of conscious deskilling: “The modern machine tool furnishes the operator with many feeds, speeds, and other adjustments. In former times a change in speed was made by removing a gear from the machine and substituting another from a collection hung on a rack nearby. Nowadays the shifting of a lever accomplishes the same result; the operator never sees the gear.”
In its mature form, Fordism was more than an approach to rationalising mass production and applying scientific principles to the control of factory labour. It was also a visual style that influenced modernism in urban architecture and, crucially, grew to become an accumulation regime that linked high volumes of output with a growing consumer market. Here too photography played a key role celebrating the look of the modern metropolis – Margaret Bourke-White’s (1904–1971) Chrysler building photographs and Berenice Abbott’s (1898–1991) shots of New York’s bridges, avenues, and skyscrapers come immediately to mind – and giving the Fordist imaginary room to revel in new forms of urban consumption. Perhaps the ultimate institutional expression of this phenomenon was the Automat, an urban cafeteria where food appeared in small glass-fronted cubicles with patrons serving themselves rather than relying on wait staff. Self-service streamlined food delivery and allowed efficiencies that kept prices down, but it was the experience and design of the Automat that made it such a success. As historian Nicolas Bromel describes them, Automats were art deco palaces of glass and bevelled mirrors that allowed busy city dwellers to dine quickly and comfortably in sparkling surroundings without having to interact with disrespectful waiters or see their food handled by careless cooks: “The neon lights and modern décor synonymous with the Automat reinforced the customers’ impression that the Automat was a scientific dining experience”. Mechanised service, inexpensive standardised fare, and a gleaming atmosphere “instilled in customers a new expectation of cleanliness and efficiency”.
If for no other reason, the repeating patterns and clean lines of the Automat drew photographers to them. Berenice Abbott repeatedly shot the one located on New York’s Eighth Avenue just below Columbus Circle (Figure 7), tending to focus on lone customers making selections or putting a nickel in the pay slot. Photographers as diverse in style as Elliot Erwitt and Hikaru Iwasaki also recorded similar images between the 1930s and early 1960s, choosing to foreground the consumer experience but always highlighting the Automat’s modernist design. A recurring trope was photographs of celebrities choosing their food item, having a coffee dispensed, or working a coin slot. Long after its novelty had worn off, the Automat continued to fascinate, as a secure fixture of the urban experience.
Tellingly, the Automat was never truly automated. Rather, workers applied themselves out of sight, behind the high-tech façade of the shiny glass cubicles. The antithesis of today’s open kitchen restaurants, the Automat and its visual representations pushed workers beyond the margins and completely out of the frame, holding forth a fantasy of mechanised food delivery in a spic and span laboratory-like setting in which workers were absent. Indeed, the Automat presented its fare in a seemingly pristine state, offering food, as one commentator noted, “that appeared to be untouched by human hands”. And yet, just out of view, Automat employees, under the direction of managers, laboured in a highly organised fashion that owed much to the sort of rationalisation that had been perfected in mass production industries.
Indeed, Horn & Hardart, the parent company, spared no detail in its drive to standardise food service and regiment cafeteria work. It developed recipes and processes in central commissaries, regularly performed spot checks to maintain quality control, and wrote detailed manuals that dictated even small tasks such as proper plating and garnishing. The genius of the Automat was not that it dispensed with labour but that it perfected a modern, machine-age form of packaging. As American studies scholar Carolyn De La Pena put it in another context, by “erasing labor and emphasizing machines, the new physical space encouraged an intimate experience of industrial production that produced pleasure. The exchange elevated customers’ importance within the automated system and syncopated production and consumption needs between man and machine”.
Even the few extant photographs of the Automat’s food preparation area suggest that while work needed to be performed to sustain the ‘front of house’ illusion, even ‘back of house’ labour remained invisible. Figure 8, showing a later-twentieth-century view of the Automat kitchen on New York’s 42nd Street, reveals a spotless facility, with bright fluorescent lights, shiny stainless-steel counters, uniform but empty plates, and an uncomfortably narrow galley. Cramped compared to the spacious dining area on the other side, the kitchen is notable for the absence of cooks and, in this image, the absence of food. Clearly, both have been removed, pushed beyond the frame of the photograph, in preparation for the shot. Again, the camera allows the viewer privileged access to the usually off-limits world of work, but what is seen is artifice, a picture that conforms to an imaginary domain of industrial perfection.
Industrial photography in the twentieth century, especially in its early decades, did not simply reflect the new Fordist principles structuring production and consumption. It helped constitute that new order in important ways. By creating, reproducing, and circulating images of novel sites of production and consumption, photography naturalised this emerging regime and shaped a modernist visual culture. The photographs of Ford’s Rouge complex or Mattè-Trucco’s Lingotto plant allowed for a new way of seeing the factory, one that, because of the giant scale of these facilities, eluded the unaided eye and stood beyond the sensory grasp of the individual. A wide focal length could capture the entire plant or a significant portion of it in a way that an abstract blueprint could not, enabling viewers privileged visual access to the structures of mass production. Similarly, shots of the shop floor allowed viewers a glimpse into the heart of Fordist production, but in a way that obscured the social dimension of labour and obliterated any sense of agency beyond workers’ diligent attention to the line. So too, the camera rendered visible the Automat’s invisible back of house – but even this Wizard of Oz like peek behind the curtain distorted the reality of the necessarily loud and messy kitchen environment. Photography’s association with visual realism meant that these mirages could be presented, intentionally or not, as natural and genuine. No doubt the technical marvel of the camera itself – its precision tooling, sleek design, optical engineering, and diminishing size – contributed to the illusion, rendering the medium a perfect component part of both Fordist practice and imaginary.
 Ford quoted in Jonathan Levy, Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States, New York: Random House, 2021, 329.
 Lindy Biggs, The Rational Factory: Architecture, Technology, and Work in America’s Age of Mass Production, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, 118.
 Futurist quote from Nicolai Ouroussoff, “A Modernist Icon in Italy is Resurrected for the 90s”, The New York Times, 25 July 1993; and Le Corbusier quote from “Fiat Lingotto Factory”, Architectuul. Additional photos of the Lingotto plant can be viewed here.
 Erica Toffoli, “Alienating Exposures: Photographing the Activity of Labor”, Photography and Culture 13:2 (April 2020), 197.
 Item 3997, Box 54, Industrial Life Photograph Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Cambridge MA.
 Nicolas Bromell, “The Automat: Preparing the Way for Fast Food”, New York History 81:3 (2000), 302–303.
 Iwasaki’s images are interesting, as he shot Japanese Americans consuming food in New York just after the period of WWII internment. The anonymity of the Automat’s service experience made little distinction of race or ethnicity amongst customers. Iwasaki photos, Online Archive of California, War Relocation Authority Photographs.
 Jane and Michael Stern, “Cafeteria”, The New Yorker, 1 August 1988, 42.
 Bromell, “Automat”, 303–304; and Carolyn De La Pena, “Eating Technology at Krispy Kreme”, in John T. Edge, Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt, and Ted Ownby (eds), The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, Athens GA: University of George Press, 2013, 203.
Rick Halpern is a social historian whose work has focused on race and labour in a number of national and international contexts. His most recent book length publication, co-authored with Alex Lichtenstein, is Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid (Indiana University Press, 2016). He also has written about meat and meatpacking, sugar and plantations, and regionalism. Currently, he is researching the long interplay between photography, race, and class over the course of the twentieth century. He is the Bissell-Heyd Chair of American Studies at the University of Toronto.
Further articles in the Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor series on TRAFO:
Hala Auji and Nurçin İleri, Envisioning Work: The Visual Cultures of Labor – Call for Contributions, 05 April 2022
Citation: Rick Halpern, The Rational Factory, Labour, and the Fordist Visual Imaginary, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.06.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/38784