About Cleaning

William Henry Fox Talbot published The Pencil of Nature in 1844. This book, the first photographically illustrated publication that was commercialized, contained twenty-four calotypes. A short text, describing the picture and its photographic process, accompanied each plate. The Open Door is one of the most widely admired compositions and it appeared as plate number 6.

The photograph is a subtle play on interior and exterior. The interest of the photographer was not only an attempt to capture light and shadows, but also the form and the texture of the barn facade. However, the center of this composition, and the main subject of his picture, is a humble broom, which is the vehicle for his photographic essay. The ordinary and simple nature of this object has captured my attention and my thoughts in these days, not only because is spring cleaning, but also because of a series of coincidences.


Lee Sievan, Owner Moves You Free, 1940s (8.1990)

A very detailed book Picking up: On the Streets and behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (Macmillan, 2013) has been recently  published.  The writer, Robin Nagle, has been an anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation since 2006, and is also a professor of anthropology and urban studies at New York University. Her book is an extremely accurate and complete description of how Gotham’s garbage is managed. She introduces us to sanitation workers of all ranks, men and woman, uniformed workers who take care of our garbage. In 280 pages, she investigates the most important job in a city that generates the highest quantity of garbage in the United States.


Danny Lyon, Eddie Grant and Cleveland Sims. Washington Street maintenance men from the New York City Department of Urban Renewal, 1967 (2010.116.22)

Keeping in mind New York’s uniformed forces–“New York’s Strongest” as they are nicknamed–I have been thinking about who cleans our houses and offices and how they do it. How has the broom been transformed over the last few decades? These thoughts made me wish to see how industrial and domestic technologies have transformed the daily life of a housewife and the work of running a home.


Nina Leen, [Housewife Marjorie McWeeney amid symbolic display of her week’s housework], 1947 (1037.2005)

Another book  about “cleaning,” Laundromat (powerHouse Books, 2013) is mostly pictures. Unlike Nagel’s text-heavy took, this one has only a brief introduction and contains 187 photographs taken by Snorri Sturluson from 2008 to 2012 and represents all five of New York’s boroughs and most of its neighborhoods. The Laundromat’s charm, as the magic in the Talbot’s broom, is captured in Sturluson’s pictures with typology, most famously utilized by Bernd and Hilla Becher and later others including Hans-Peter Feldman, Ed Ruscha, Tomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky. His style is rigidly uniform, in contrast with the evocative Bill Wood image of a laundromat from 1960, and represents the generic identity of this typically American and British subject.


Bill Wood, [Interior of laundromat], 1960 (2010.14.89)

As we had seen in ICP’s exhibition Bill Wood’s Business, Wood largely captured the technology innovation during the boom years that followed World War II, but how often have you seen a “swiffer” in photography with the same sensitive observation used by Danny Lyon to represent a radiator, a chair, or a familiar object?


Bill Wood, [Floor Inc. employees demonstrating the company services], 1963 (2010.14.163)

Who will be the next photographer that will describe a vacuum cleaner robot with Talbot’s poetic qualities? Furthermore, who will be able to capture domotics in photography as Emily Dickinson domesticated the Mother Nature through the cleaning metaphor in the poemShe sweeps with many-colored brooms (Mother Nature, Nature)?

“… And still she plies her spotted brooms,

And still the aprons fly,

Till brooms fade softly into stars–

And then I come away.”

About Francesca Teodori

I live in New York, but I studied Contemporary Art in Italy and I specialized in Photo Archiving and Cataloguing in Milan. I love photography. I contributed writing and publishing photos, to art magazines and daily newspapers.
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1 Response to About Cleaning

  1. Mike says:

    Nice article Francesca!

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