Keeping Readers’ ‘Eyes on Labor’: Historian’s work delves into unionization of efforts in the 20th century

Less than 12 percent of America’s workforce is unionized today while just a few generations ago that percentage was three times higher.  Exploring the dynamics of organized labor’s visual representation in news photographs at the height of its rise in the mid-20th century is the subject of “Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class,” the first book authored by Carol Quirke, associate professor of American Studies at SUNY College at Old Westbury.

According to the publisher, Oxford University Press, “Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class” “narrates an essential chapter in American cultural history, offering a fascinating broad-stroke history of the relationship of photography to the complex and troubled history of twentieth-century labor and unionization movements. It examines a subject that is critical to understanding the Great Depression, the New Deal, and beyond.”

David Jaffee, visual editor of “Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society” and  Bard Graduate Center’s Head of New Media Research maintains the book offers: “insights [and]…nuanced reading of the visual record… is a wonderful work that will interest anyone who cares about consumer culture, mass media, and labor history.”  

University of California-Santa Barbara labor and feminist historian Eileen Boris, coauthor of “Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State” suggests that: “Quirke brilliantly shows the political significance of visual representation in the twentieth century; working-class use of photography for self-enhancement; and the shifting public profile of the labor movement during its turbulent and institutionalizing decades, the1930s to the 1950s. This powerful and original work is cultural history at its most potent.”

Quirke has taught courses in U.S. history, film and media studies, and visual culture in Old Westbury’s American Studies department since January 2004.  She earned her B.A. in History from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and her Ph.D. in U.S. history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.  She has published in American Quarterly, New Labor Forum, and Reviews in American History.  Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Quirke worked for a decade as a community organizer and non-profit director, helping coordinate a state-wide voter registration campaign, working for reproductive rights, and directing The Welcome Project, in Somerville, Massachusetts, which sought to respond to racism against new immigrants in a public housing development.