Elegist for the Working Wounded

Earl Dotter documents America's deadliest work.

Every day tens of thousands of American workers are crippled, crushed, mangled, and poisoned while earning their daily bread. Their pain is private, hidden within the humiliating netherworld of workers' compensation insurance claims, surgeries, X-ray labs, and physical therapists' tables. No one seems to give a tinker's damn about the carnage or the humiliation—except for Earl Dotter, master photographer. The Quiet Sickness by Earl Dotter (American Industrial Hygiene Association Press, $48) The Quiet Sickness is an unusual and disturbing coffee-table book. Dotter has spent the last two decades quietly working in the obscure field of study known

as "industrial hygiene," a euphemism

for the horrors of injury, disease, and death due to working for a living. He

has dedicated his life's work to putting faces on the faceless, and in the process he has become one of the most significant and least known photographers of our time. This series of 150 black-and-white photographs documents the dangers of holding a job. In a photo-essay series on coal miners, we see a miner working a digging machine in a 30-inch-tall crawl space, an old miner grasping a copy of the United Mine Workers Union constitution with the deformed nubs of what once were his fingers, a doctor examining a set of sliced lung-tissue sections taken in autopsies of black-lung victims, and a grieving young widow as

she walks away from her husband's grave a few days after he and 25 others were killed in a pair of underground methane gas explosions. Wherever Dotter turns his viewfinder—

on loggers and millworkers in the Pacific Northwest, chemical workers in Texas, migrant farm workers in California and Eastern Washington, office workers in Virginia—we see the twisting of human bodies in the pursuit of corporate profit. This is a view of working life that is not welcome in some circles. In 1980, Thome Auchter, Ronald Reagan's newly appointed Occupational Safety and Health Administration director, citing the need for "objectivity," ordered the destruction of 135,000 copies of an OSHA pamphlet on brown-lung disease among textile workers. When the pamphlet reappeared, nothing much had changed except that Earl Dotter's photographs had been removed. Although Dotter's work invites comparison to Jacob Riis' photographs of New York City tenements and Dorothea Lange's heart-wrenching portraits from the Great Depression, this unquiet book will probably never gain much mass-

culture attention. The American Industrial Hygiene Association Press is

too small to grease the national chain bookstores and has little experience

in mass marketing fine art books. For now, it's available through Amazon.

com, or directly from the AIHA Press, 2700 Prosperity Avenue, #250, Fairfax, VA 22031. The phone number is 703-489-8888. Robert Leo Heilman is the author of Overstory: Zero and a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981, and of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades,

Local 831.

 
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