Efficiency can speed things up. It can also grind you down.
In the early 20th century, around the time Henry Ford was revolutionizing industry with the assembly line, management consultants Frank and Lillian Gilbreth examined workplace efficiency with time-and-motion studies. Following the lead of Eadweard Muybridge, who used photography to study the mechanics of motion, they attached pulsing lights to workers and used long exposures to capture movements.
Conceptual artist and photographer Mike Mandel wryly employed that technique in the 1980s in a book, “Making Good Time.” Some of those images are spotlighted in “Making Good Time 1989,” at Abakus Projects. The project followed his collaboration with photographer Larry Sultan on “Evidence,” a 1977 book of found photographs from industry, government agencies, and research institutions. Mandel and Sultan sequenced them into a forlorn consideration of humanity, technology, and the quest to quantify truth.
Here, Mandel’s Cibachrome prints are goofy, gorgeous, and tinged with pathos. In “Disk Drive Assembly,” shot from above, hands blur as they put together computer components. A bright, dotted fuchsia thread traces their erratic movement, squiggling across the picture plane. Compared to the handful of Gilbreth photos on view here, in which people take on simple tasks like sewing buttons, the movements are chaotic.
Mandel’s photographs reflect how our productivity-oriented society prizes efficiency, and they point to places technology just won’t cut it — such as the purely human, culture-laden ritual in “Robot Lights Chanukah Candles.” He reminds us of the impossibility of putting a number or time limit on human connection. In “Having a Talk,” his parents chat. Skittery blue lines haloing his father’s hair suggest he’s doing most of the talking. His mother, wearing a pale violet light, seems mostly to nod or shake her head.
The Gilbreths took a more humane approach to the workplace than their profit-oriented colleague Frederick Taylor (the author of “Principles of Scientific Management”). They are at the center of a 1948 memoir by their children Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr., “Cheaper by the Dozen,” which recounts their expedient child-rearing techniques; several movie adaptations followed. Mandel nods to that story with “Kids Brush Teeth,” depicting a circle of fuzzy youngsters with frenetic neon lines around their mouths. His images critique the Gilbreths’ quest for efficiency (”More waste = more fun” he writes in his artist’s statement). They also open the lens on a particular history of photography to offer a more nuanced picture of work and the human spirit.
MIKE MANDEL: MAKING GOOD TIME 1989
At Abakus Projects, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 1. 857-237-8532, www.abakusprojects.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.