Fred Lonidier

by Paula Goldman

(Paula Goldman was responsible for bringing Fred Lonidier's exhi­bition I Like Everything Nothing But Union to the Houston Center for Photographv from March 30 through Mav 6.)
Documentary photography designates a wide variety of work showing or analyzing events and social conditions. A truly doc­umentary work should be a com­prehensive view of a subject, one that presents the dynamics and reasoning behind a situation in addition to its appearance. Doc­umentary photographers range from observers to committed acti­vists. The observers tend to con­firm the viewer's preconceived notions: the poor arc helpless victims, the rich live in remote, elaborate surroundings. Their photographs offer no new ideas: they generate pity (an unproduc­tive emotion), or cynicism {which is worse, because the viewer re­signs himself to accept the situa­tion as unalterable). At its best, in addition to informing the viewer, a documentary can offer sugges­tions for improvements or show inspiring examples of people al­ready involved in positive societal change. Ideally, a viewer should leave the work with a fresh per­spective on the subject and per­haps some changed preconcep­tions. (He may even contribute time, money or write his Con­gressman.)
Documentary photography has long been affiliated with photo­journalism and the principle of objective, neutral observation. Photojournalists working for the news media have little time to research their subjects; they are thrown into situations and forced by time constraints to quickly grab a "slice of life". The photos are then edited primarily for emotion­al rather than factual content (depending on the publications editorial leaning), because pulled heartstrings sell papers. The public trusts the camera's intervention in a scene, and hence any "street" photograph taken for journalism \s treated as a document. Yet a "grabbed" photograph can do little to illuminate the true conditions of its subject.
The aspiration of documentary photography to fine art removes it even further from informational possibilities. Once it is isolated and hung on a gallery wall to be sold. The photograph becomes a commodity, rather than a commu­nication designed to convey infor­mation and spur change. As an object, the photograph relies on formal compositional strengths and emotional impact.
To create a documentary work that is capable of educating the viewer, the photographer must also be educated. He must have some idea of how things got to be how they arc. A photographer with little or no socio-political background in his subject has little choice but to approach his subject formally or stylistically to achieve graphic impact. An aesthetically effective picture can produce sym­pathetic, even indignant, emotions in the viewer, but without produc­ing understanding of the causes and effects. An emotional reaction that functions primarily as cathar­sis for the viewer is not enough to put him in the subject's place, not enough information is present.
Fred Lonidier is a documen­tary photographer who has been personally involved with his subject for years. Lonidier deals with organized labor and the po­litical potential of grassroots movements. He considers himself an activist within the labor move­ment Che is also secretary-treasurer of his union local in San Diego) and creates his work for the union audience rather than for the art community. Text is an integral part of Lonidier's work, some­times in the form of captions or often as a parallel, complementary work that expands the meaning of the straightforward photographs.
Lonidier's most rcccnl work, / Like Everything Nothing But Union, was exhibited al The Houston Center for Photography in April. The work was commis­sioned by the San Diego-imperial Counties AFL-CIO Labor Council for union members and is perma­nently installed in the Labor Council hall. To demonstrate the varied composition of the union, Lonidier shows individual workers at their jobs and in informal por­traits. Excerpts from interviews with union members accompany the photographs on printed panels. The excerpts express workers' perspectives on, among other topics, their working conditions political and economic influences on their lives, pride in their jobs and in their union involvement, and union positions on racial and sexual issues.
This project shows aspects of organized labor not readily appar­ent to the public. The diversity of the union members photographed and quoted dispels the misconcep­tion held among the misinformed that organized labor is a homo­genous mass of like-thinking blue collar males. Lonidier presents workers in unstereotypical roles: a black, female ironworker, a male elementary school teacher, a female college professor, a female horseshoer. Occupations not or­dinarily considered "unionized" are represented, such as sugar workers, recording engineers, and musicians.
The tone of the work is unde­niably positive: the workers' comments are full of constructive criticism and suggestions for improvements.
Lonidier's work not only in­cludes information on the broad scope of union activities, but enters the most important and most exciting realm for documen­taries: viable suggestions for im­proving the quality of life. Cynical affirmation is useless: documentarians interested in making a social contribution need to present new attitudes and alternatives. Photographers must offer inspiring visions in order to cause any changes. By thoroughly under­standing his subject, a photog­rapher can direct the power of the visual image toward positive social change.

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