The big picture: the pursuit of happiness in Playland, California

·2 min read

As well as being a revered photographer who had a 1977 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Chauncey Hare had other lives. He worked for 20 years as a petroleum engineer for Standard Oil and then retrained as a clinical psychologist, becoming a pioneer of research into the soul-crushing effects of corporate life. As well as a book called Work Abuse: How to Recognise and Survive It, he was perhaps most famous for a series of portraits of young American families in their mod-con homes, strangely isolated with their white goods, and a related series of pictures of men and women in open-plan offices, wondering quite what they were doing there.

Though Hare, who died in 2019 aged 84, tended to see his psychoanalytic work as the antithesis of his art, the two strands of his life both flash-lit the alienating values of the consumerist US, the promise of the pursuit of happiness in suburbia. Janet Malcolm, writing in the New Yorker, described how Hare’s photographs, apparently deliberately mundane, seemed to “quiver” with a “sense of latent meaning” so that “everything stands for something else”. She compared Hare’s framing of his subjects to “the way a psychoanalyst works with free association”.

As the art historian Robert Slifkin notes, in a fascinating new book about Hare’s work, Quitting Your Day Job, there were only a few periods in Hare’s career when he devoted himself entirely to photography. These were months and years in which Guggenheim grants allowed him to take leave from the oil company. Otherwise, his pictures were mostly a weekend compulsion. Between 1968 and 1972, he was a frequent visitor to Playland, an amusement park near his home in Richmond, California. He always packed his uncanny gift for ironies. This picture of a woman riding a painted tiger on a merry-go-round incorporates enough of Janet Malcolm’s quivering symbolism for a lifetime.