Unknown photographer of the working life gets premiere


Activist photographer Steve Cagan has never had a solo exhibition on the West Coast, and he wouldn’t have had one still if he hadn’t instructed Jeanne Friscia in a class at Rutgers University in New Jersey 30 years ago.

Friscia ended up on the board of SF Camerawork, and starting Thursday, May 11, her former professor’s intense images will deck the walls of the nonprofit gallery overlooking Market Street.

“Steve Cagan: Working Pictures” covers four decades of hard labor, from the factories of Cleveland, where Cagan lives, to El Salvador and Nicaragua. Plenty of documentary photographers have covered these themes, but not in the way that Cagan covers them, which is to spend eight-hour shifts on a factory floor or live for three months in a Colombian village in order to get honest and unguarded portraits.

“Steve is not the kind to jump out of a helicopter, photograph a victim and leave,” says Friscia, as she hangs 160 images. “He gets involved and becomes part of the community.”

The operating precept of Camerawork is to exhibit the work of unrecognized photographers, and Cagan qualifies. Unless you were a reader of the long-gone Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday magazine, you’ve probably never heard of him.

“The kind of work I do has not been easy to publish or get exhibited,” says Cagan, 73, from his home studio. “My work is not commercial. It’s not what the photography art market is looking for.”

“Working Pictures” provides a comparison between a steel mill in Ohio and a bicycle factory in Havana. It also documents work that is for more than a day’s wages. Cagan lived among workers for peace and social justice in squalid refugee camps in Central America, and civilians dislocated by violence in long-running civil wars.

He’s been been shooting internationally since 1974, when he visited North Vietnam before the end of the war, in an attempt to humanize the enemy. Those six weeks were a short trip for him. He’s been to Columbia 16 times since 2003, to make sure the people he is photographing remember and trust him.

He’s got a lot of stories, and he’ll be telling them at Thursday’s opening reception, scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m., and again Tuesday, May 16.

“All of the work is about portraying people who are in struggle,” he says. “My goal is to make photographs that can be a contribution to those struggles.” Unknown photographer of the working life gets premiere – SFGate


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