Let’s Have a Gas

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Esther Bubley, The City Cafe, Tomball, Texas, 1943-50 (126.1983)

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Harold Corsini, Street Scene, Cushing, Oklahoma, 1943-50 (94.1983)

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Harold Corsini, Farmers Shopping in Purcell, Oklahoma, 1946 (99.1983)

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Harold Corsini, Fire Department Personnel, Cushing, Oklahoma, ca. 1946 (98.1983)

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Todd Webb, Saturday Morning at 6th and Main, Monroe, Louisiana, 1947 (199.1983)

The Standard Oil Company was founded in 1870 by John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler. The company quickly secured a monopoly by controlling all necessities within their production, from purchasing a white pine reserve in order to manufacture barrels to  striking an insidious deal with railroad companies that secured the affordable transportation of crude. In Rockefeller’s lifetime, Standard Oil made over one billion dollars in profits. In 1911, however, the Supreme Court, under the Sherman Antitrust Act, ordered all trust companies of Standard Oil to become separate entities.

Following the company’s transgressions onto the fertile grounds of healthy capitalist competition, Standard Oil never quite recovered from the resulting dip in public opinion. In 1942, Assistant Attorney General Thurman W. Arnold accused Standard Oil of New Jersey of participating in cartel relations with German company I.G. Farbenindustrie. Further, prior to the war, Jersey Standard had developed a joint operation with I.G. Farben to research and develop the manufacture of synthetic oil from coal—a process that became integral to Germany’s war efforts due to a lack of domestic drilling.

To combat the dismal public opinion the mega company faced, Jersey Standard looked to the services of public relations guru Earl Newsom. Newsom considered securing the approval of millions a waste of resources, arguing instead that a strong public relations campaign need only focus on the thousands of white-collar “opinion leaders” who possessed a greater sphere of influence. According to Newsom, these intellectuals, executives, and professors were as conscious of the arts as they were influential. Thus, if Standard Oil used the arts to bolster the opinions of these well-educated “thought leaders,” the American public would follow suit.

Inspired by the success of the photographs of downtrodden rural areas across the country used to lobby for New Deal efforts, Jersey Standard reached out to Roy Stryker, the brains behind the now infamous Farm Security Administration photographs. Standard seduced self-proclaimed populist Stryker with the argument that he could show an “honest picture of the state of the U.S.” Stryker finally left his full-time position with the government in 1943 in order to undertake his project, which would become the largest documentary photography endeavor outside of any government initiative. Seeking to depict the importance of oil to American middle class life, photographers on the project set out for specific locations within Jersey Standard’s sphere of influence—namely New England and the western United States. Stryker set a goal of producing over 25,000 photographs for Standard Oil’s files. The images, however, scarcely left these files, as Stryker was far more adept at commissioning images than he was circulating them. At best, the photographs were distributed to magazines, newspapers, and textbooks upon request. In 1948, the project drew to a close, as the efforts of the production and dissemination of Stryker’s images rendered inconclusive results.

The failure of the images to appear in an influential art context was perhaps a reflection on documentary photography’s status as separate from the arts. Over time, however, the images accumulated historical value; and in 1983, the International Center of Photography brought these images to light with the exhibition Roy Stryker: USA, 1943-1950. Most of these images are as related to oil as they are to any other facet of American life at the time. Among the scores of images of lucrative American farms and city infrastructures are photographs of groups of people socializing. While these photographs sought to affirm Jersey Standard’s positive influence on the quality of people’s lives, the photographs ultimately offer an idiosyncratic glimpse at late- and post-WWII America, ironically furnished by one of the most treasonous corporations of the era.

Kate Levy ICP-Bard 2013

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