I attended an art exhibit recently of photographs by Lewis Hine, a documentary photographer who catalogued the American immigrant experience and the American worker experience. Noses blobby or aquiline, cheekbones craggy or hidden in fleshy cheeks, bodies long and thin or squat and wide, the workers whose faces he carefully captured in light and shadow in the early part of the 20th century were at factory production lines, or high up in the skeletons of skyscrapers, or bent over careful handcraft, and reflected all the kinds of faces our heritages shape us into.
It seems like our culture idealizes and idolizes the rags to riches story, and in our dreams we’re the rich who’ve made it. But for most of us, it’s not rags to riches but rags to carefully chosen items from the Sears & Roebuck catalog to a good bargain in the Sears mid-winter sales, and a life lived as decently as possible, with a care to make things better for the kids, and then death, the great equalizer. Most of us are neither heroes nor villains, neither grand successes nor terrible failures.
As so many are finding through the test-your-DNA craze, we’re an improbable mishmosh of ancestry, a shmear of who made us, layered with the ways we’ve encountered the world.
A book by the door of the exhibit invited people to write tales of their own family immigration story, and people scrawled of a grandfather who came through Ellis Island and worked his whole life on the production line, another who made it through law school to end up on the Supreme Court. Hine’s photos show the lines of work, both wear and muscle, laughter and worry, fatigue and rapt concentration.
I listened to my fellow visitors imagining what it was like to be among the throng stuffing the staircases of Ellis Island’s intake building, or recalling a relative who’d worked at the same industry pictured, or noting the likeness between an old photo and a family face.
This is us.
We’re not the riches nor the rags but the way we live, the work we care about, the camaraderie we enjoy. Let’s idolize the doing, not the having-done, the what-money-we-made, and the look-what-we-bought.
Let’s take our funny faces, bulbous foreheads, thin lips, our beady eyes or wide-set, dark or pale, and look at each other with the kind of care Lewis Hine did, loving the variation of lines, loving the same fears and hopes glowing from all the different eyes. Let us now praise unfamous men. Let’s try to work at the hard work of getting along together.