Erich Hartmann Captures Humanity’s Daily Toil to Earn Their Bread

The photographs on view date from the mid- to late-20th century and attest to Hartmann’s fascination and empathy with the people on whom he turned his lens. “A large portion of my work is concerned with people, because people are the most inventive and news-making part of our lives,” he once said. “Yet I am as much attracted to the evidence of their presence and efforts, whether good or evil, as I am to the people themselves.”
Hartmann’s sensitivity toward his subjects is especially apparent in a poignant photograph, titled Our Daily Bread / Leonard’s Rest (1956). Here the photographer takes us into a humble American living room, lit only by the sun coming through a partially seen window. Its diaphanous white curtain has blown onto a rocking chair, which, in turn, leads the eye toward Leonard. He lies face down on a sofa, taking a rest from his backbreaking work of farming. The photographer shows us other laborers, too: a farmer wiping his strong, work-worn hands in a field; a dockworker straining his body against the hull of an incoming ship; a factory worker eating a sandwich during his lunch break.
Hartmann also shows us the bread these individuals work so hard to earn. In Our Daily Bread / Centralia, Kansas (1956), he focuses in on a woman’s hands as she kneads dough on a flour-dusted table. A woman in Ashkelon, Israel pulls a cart full of loaves along a dirt clearing, a young boy by her side. In marked contrast to the former two scenes, Hartmann captures a woman from behind, contemplating row upon row of shelves stuffed with packaged bread crumbs, cakes, and loaves in an American supermarket. All of these photographs could be said to lead to another—of a spare table, set with three soup bowls and two half loaves of bread. It recalls The Last Supper and suggests the deep spiritual resonances of this ancient staple.

Karen Kedmey
Our Daily Bread” is on view at Landesmuseum, Zurich, Aug. 28–Oct. 2, 2015.