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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 725-751

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"They all believe they are undiscovered Mary Pickfords" Workers, Photography, and Scientific Management

Richard Lindstrom


IMAGE LINK= Photography means "light writing." The image in figure 1 captures this meaning more sharply than most photographs. Made by attaching small light bulbs to the fingers of a subject and taking a long-exposure photograph, this "stereochronocyclegraph" uses light to write a picture of motion. That picture, however, is written in a mysterious language and demands a translator. The inventors of this process, management consultants Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, read that photograph as a scientific record of work. The Gilbreths deciphered secrets of efficient work in that maze of lights, claiming to convert such images into useful data for employers eager to reorganize and increase production. This narrative of the power of science and technology they called "scientific management." If the Gilbreths read these images as evidence of industrial progress, the more skeptical might find in them a portrait of the dehumanizing tendencies of modern industrial labor; the worker, after all, disappears, swallowed in a technological web. The Gilbreths' innovations in work analysis used light to write the worker out of the picture.

Such images have caught scholars' attention. Some see them as part of management reformers' attempts to use technology to control workers' bodies, identifying photography as a de-skilling technique. 1 Though compelling, [End Page 725] [Begin Page 727] these studies tend to overlook the complicated human interactions that produced stereochronocyclegraphs and to assign workers roles as objects, not agents. A more complete set of the images the Gilbreths produced shows that their photographic process often served purposes and assumed meanings quite different from those assigned them in contemporary books and articles promoting scientific management. Management reformers may have read the finished photographs in a manner that disciplined and de-skilled workers, but in practice photography was a more delicate process, requiring participation and intervention from workers. Understanding the role of photography in scientific management requires an examination of the various uses to which scientific managers and their subjects put it before, during, and after the photo sessions themselves.

Viewed from this perspective, workers reappear as actors in the story of scientific management. Photographs provided management consultants such as the Gilbreths with a powerful form of evidence for convincing factory owners, cultural critics, fellow engineers, and workers that their science-based approach could remake economic and social relations in the workplace. In this claim they capitalized on contemporary assumptions about photographic truth. But photography, like other technological innovations, was not simply a means by which employers could assert control over employees. Workers played an active role in photographic events. The Gilbreths' system was more than managerial control, and it worked only when workers cooperated. Thus scientific management, at least as seen in the light photographs of the Gilbreths, is better understood as a series of negotiations about the arrival of new technologies and management theory than as a simple imposition of managerial power over workers. The new photographic technique proved useful for the Gilbreths and for workers alike.

Scientific Management, the Gilbreths, and Photography

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were two of the earliest and most prominent practitioners of scientific management. That movement achieved its greatest prominence in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when many American businesses sought out new management methods to make production processes more predictable and labor forces easier to control. Management consultants, most notably Frederick Winslow Taylor, promised business owners a rationalization of production, improved productivity, and higher profits through close observation of tasks and reorganization of the workplace; to labor, they promised increased wages for the most [End Page 727] productive workers. Taylor and his colleagues contended that scientific management would ensure labor peace and prosperity. 2

Scholars have examined this movement from a variety of perspectives. 3 Some consider scientific management as a cultural phenomenon, exploring its relation to social movements such as Progressivism and the cultural import of the idea that human behavior can be discretely analyzed, predicted, and perfected. 4...


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