One Boss, A Picture of Our Time

John Welch

Hunter Barnes, One Boss. Photo from RoadbookOn occasion a photo stops us in our tracks. Does the person in the picture stand in for a universally understood type or social condition? Or, are the traits and signs we read in the picture to be understood as something fundamental about humanity in our time?

One Boss—a photograph of a man with the phrase “ONE BOSS NIGGER” tattooed or marked on his chest—presents us with such questions.  When we encounter this picture there is an immediacy and directness between One Boss and us. His gaze and cropped torso seem to be pressed to the surface of the picture frame. We almost touch him with our eyes. What story does he tell us about himself, his condition and our times? And why the tattoo?

Hunter Barnes, the artist who made this picture, has included it in Roadbook, a soon to be published book on photography (Reel Art Press, fall 2015) in conjunction with an exhibition of his art at the Milk Gallery, New York, N.Y. Barnes has developed a reputation as a photographer who poignantly captures the humanity of sub-cultures and other unconventional aspects of American life—serpent handling faith leaders, gang members, motor cycle clubs in New York, Low Rider Clubs in New Mexico, prisoners and others on the fringes of mainstream society. See here.

The artist believes these people are often misrepresented or misunderstood and seeks to offer alternative views onto their humanity and their worlds. Always on the move, he stops long enough to see intently and to gain the trust of his subjects.

Walker Evans, Sharecropper, Alabama, 1930s. (FSA)Negro Boy, Florence, South Carolina, 1938. Cox. (FSA)His project recalls both documentary photography of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) with artists such as Walker Evans, and the many synoptic pictures of Americans by Robert Frank, who went on the road to record the 1950s scene.

We may also find in Barnes’ work an affinity with the work of German photographer August Sander who starkly represented ‘typologies’ of professions and social standing within his culture.  

Like these 20th century photographers, Barnes uses analog photography, shooting in black and white and carefully printing his own gelatin silver prints at his preserve in the wilds of Oregon.

Returning to One Boss, are we confronted with more questions about this man than the picture answers?

Because he wears overalls, no shirt and has the “One Boss Nigger” tattoo or marking on his chest, is he a southern sharecropper of the past? A shirtless worker in overalls in a hot factory in the north? Is his tatoo a reference to his status as Faint One Boss Nigger mark on subject's chestworker or supervisor? Or a street cred brand?

Or is One Boss hungry, troubled and homeless? The anguish present in his expressive face, in his clouded yet searching eyes, speak of need. His gaze and presence seem to ask something of us. Does he seek a connection to us through want of sustenance? 

In the definition of his torso and arms, however, we see strength and fitness not emaciation or hunger. What we project onto One Boss with no knowledge beyond the picture before us is informed by the pictures we have seen before, the histories we understand, the experiences we have lived and the world in which we live now. In short, we interpret images as much from our personal reservoir of filters as we do from what is actually before our eyes.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo CA, 1936. Dorethea Lange (FSA)This picture offers us no real clues to place or time so we are free to try on various associations and narratives for our subject.

One Boss is reminiscent of the well-known documentary photography commissioned to promote the social and political aims of Roosevelt’s New Deal—e.g., Dorethea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936) and Walker Evans ’s Allie Mae Burroughs (1934).Walker Evans. Annie Mae Burroughs, 1934. (FSA)

Led by Roy Stryker, Farm Service Administration photographers documented hardscrabble life in the rural South and the Dust Bowl between 1935-1944.

The FSA works are visual parallels of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and the period’s other works of fiction and prose about destitution, anguish, dignity and courage.
Gordon Parks at FSA Office, Washington, DC, 1943. (FSA)

The noted African American photographer Gordon Parks worked for the FSA and one of his most famous photographs, American Gothic, stemmed from this period.American Gothic, Portrait of Ella Watson, Washington, D.C., 1942. Gordon Parks (FSA) 

Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s (b. 1924) outsider view of American humanity in his seminal work, The Americans (1958/9) is also a part of the tradition of documenting the “other Americas.”

Cover. The Americans. 1958/9. Robert FrankLike many of Frank’s subjects, One Boss is an individual whose presence and photographic treatment re-presents to us a face of America—imagined or real.  In his case, where would we situate One Boss on Frank’s iconic New Orleans trolley car, and what state of African American being would he occupy there in the associations we bring to Barnes’ picture? How does One Boss' direct gaze out of the picture into our world help us to see something in the picture that may be at America’s essence? 

August Sander (1876-1964), a German photographer whose typological imagery could also be a referent for our meaning-making with a picture such as One Boss, sought a type of visual categorization of fundamental conditions—professional, social or economic—through portrayal of the individual farmer, pensioner, welfare recipient, etc.Welfare Recipient, 1930. August Sander. Gelatin Silver Print, NGA Collection.

Grandfather of 56 Children, Chesnee, South Carolina, 1937. Dorothea Lange (FSA)The exercise we engage as viewer assessing the picture before us is mediated and transformed once we have information from the artist or art historian about the subject of the picture—its context or the artist’s practice in making it. Hunter Barnes says that One Boss is a man he encountered briefly in Portland, Oregon when he was sitting on a friend’s porch there. One Boss asked if he might have water from a pitcher that was on the front porch. Barnes provided the water and says he could see that the man was having a particularly bad day in some significant way. He asked to make the photograph and was allowed to do so.

The photo happens in a fleeting moment, through a chance encounter, resulting in a picture that we may interpret through our various experiences and associations of what it is to be black, male, poor, homeless, hungry or distraught from our vast mental database of pictorial imagery and lived experience. We still know little of One Boss’ specific circumstances.  And, yet we may know many such men through visual referents that define their being in our collective imagination.

As the conditions of the “underclass” remain entrenched in a wealthy nation stalled by political polarization, a picture like One Boss is emblematic of more than the distress of a single individual. How does his social condition and humanity relate to our own and that of our elected officials—now and in future?

Related IRAAA articleRace, Love, and Labor: New Work from the Center for Photography

FSA Sampler


Dorothea Lange, Louisiana Negress (sic), July 1937Ben Shahn, Arkansas cotton pickersThe Farm Security Administration photographs are archived in the Library of Congress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arthur Rothstein, April 1937Ben Shahn, Itinerant photographer, Columbus Ohio, 1938

 

Margaret Bourke-WhiteUnknown FSA photographer

 

Russell Lee, Traveling Store, September 1938 Marion Post Wolcott, Florida Jook Joint

Gordon Parks. The artistry that Parks brought to documentary photography developed early in his career and is evident in the way he composed this shot for the FSA

 

 

 
FSA exhibit panel