Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, CT
Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
The White Furniture Co. of Mebane, North Carolina, the "South's oldest maker of fine furniture," closed down in 1993, putting 203 men and women out of work. The final months of its operation were documented by photographer Bill Bamberger and the poignant and revealing images are displayed in the exhibition Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory, on view at the Yale University Art Gallery from February 9 through June 14, 1999.
The exhibition was organized at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, by John Coffey, curator of American and modern art. Elisabeth Hodermarsky, assistant curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at Yale, is responsible for its current showing. She also wrote the accompanying illustrated brochure, which includes an essay on the project, an interview with Bill Bamberger, and a brief history of the White Furniture Company.
The demise of yet another family-owned factory in a small town could be considered a non-event in this age of massive layoffs, but Bamberger was keenly aware of the wrenching impact White Furniture's closing would have on his hometown of Mebane. The 112-year-old factory, known for the high quality of its fine reproduction furniture, was an integral part of the town, indeed, for several decades it had been the residents' principal employer. As early as the 1930s White's was known for its hiring and relatively fair treatment of African Americans. The White family controlled the business until 1985, when shareholders voted to sell it to Hickory Manufacturing. Eight years later the Mebane factory was closed down.
As soon as he heard the announcement of the pending closing, Bamberger sought permission to document the final months of White furniture's operation. Surprisingly, he was given fairly free access and began an intense period of recording the dynamic life of the factory. From rough mill to cabinet room, to sanding, to finishing, to shipping,Bamberger's images capture the concentration, confidence, and skill of the workers.
Particularly evident is the sense of camaraderie among the men and women - black, white, and Hispanic - many of whom had worked at the Mebane plant for 30 and even 40 years. In marked contrast are the final images of the dismantling of the factory, in which the same men and women, withdrawn and anxious about their futures, sign their severance papers and pore over their pension papers.
Early in the project Bamberger decided to use black and white for the candid shots of workers at their jobs and on breaks, and color for the more formal portraits of these men and women, photographed with the respect and dignity usually reserved for CEOs. Striking compositions - industrial portraits - of the factory interior and exterior are also in color.
"The White Furniture Company story is typical of the projects that interest Bamberger," says Elisabeth Hodermarsky. "The photographer chooses his undertakings carefully, knowing that he will devote several months, if not years to any given body of work. He is drawn," she adds, "to investigations of communities of people - and specifically to how life-changing social situations impact the lives of the people of those communities." The first of these projects, from 1979 to 1982, was Durham County Photographs, a social cross-section of the inhabitants of Durham, North Carolina. Later in the 1980s he explored the lives of students at Deerfield Academy, Massachusetts, a private boarding school that was all-male at the time Bamberger taught there. In 1994, he embarked on This House is Home, an examination of the significance of home ownership in the lives of three lower-income neighborhoods in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bamberger's work has been exhibited in museums throughout the United States and his photographs have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Aperture, Vogue, Fortune, and DoubleTake.
In the book accompanying the exhibition, Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory, Bamberger' s moving photographs are joined by Cathy N. Davidson's eloquent account of White Furniture Company's history and demise. Through archival material and interviews with six employees -- the CEO, an executive assistant, a middle manager, a supervisor, a skilled artisan, and a manual laborer -- Ms. Davidson, the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English at Duke University, traces the story of the factory.
Published by DoubleTake Books/W.W. Norton, the book is available in the Yale Art Gallery's museum shop.
From top to bottom: Jimmy Gross on His Final Day of Work; Workers with Their Pension Papers; Heat Lamps, Finishing Department; Four Post Beds, Cabinet Room; Machine Room, One Month After the Auction; Avery Sweeping the Cabinet Room Floor on His Final Day of Work; The Glue Reel, Rough Mill.
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