Friday, January 11, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: Westinghouse Works, 1904

Westinghouse Works, 1904 "Steam Hammer" (Library of Congress)

10. Westinghouse Works, 1904 (1904)
At a time when the horse was still a common mode of transportation,  giant mechanisms of industry thundered. Working for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., cameraman G.W. Bitzer captured these images of humans and machines at work, a compelling ballet of metal-working, in East Pittsburgh. Did Americans of the day take consumer goods for granted in the same way as we in the 21st century do? Have people always felt thus? Did the fact that a greater share of products were manufactured in the US, perhaps by yourself or a neighbor, give you more of an appreciation for them? These films are a huge comment on the changes that have shaped the global economy in the past century, especially when juxtaposed with the thought that an analogous present-day project would most likely feature Chinese or Bangladeshi women and children hard at work, in tandem with machines, making many modern conveniences possible for our oblivious American minds and bodies to enjoy and take for granted. 
This collection consists of 21 short films, each capturing a different scene within the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company and offered without explanation or much context. Three pieces in particular stick out:

I'm not sure exactly what is happening in this scene, but it is compelling and fascinating nonetheless. A great glowing hunk of metal is pulled from a furnace and repeatedly pounded with a giant hammer in a way that is hypnotizing and nearly cartoonish in its violence. It is dramatic to witness, though the drama is diminished somewhat when one realizes that the men in the film must have carried out this task so routinely that such an incredible display of metallic smashing and leaping sparks very well might have been ordinary in their minds. 

Here we see about 200 female workers passing by in a great river of stacked hair and ankle-length dresses in order to collect their time checks. Judging by the gleeful expressions on many of their faces, this might have been filmed at the end of the work day, though they could simply be mugging for the camera; I don't doubt the possibility that they were threatened with termination by their supervisor if they did not make themselves look happy at work. Though their faces flash upon the screen for only a few seconds apiece, I cannot help wondering about the thoughts that occupied them in that moment, and what kind of life they went home to each night. 

This piece is an entertaining and fascinating symphony of movement. The first visual rhythm so to speak is the almost exaggerated movements of a man working some kind of pulley. His action is theatrical and would be at home in a production of H.M.S. Pinafore. The next and predominant movement is the percussive pounding on the big ring by two to three men with sledgehammers, used almost like instruments. Though the film is silent, I can hear the sound of hammering that my mind is injecting into this viewing experience. 

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