Working Machines: Postwar America through Werner Wolff’s Commercial Photography

May 15–Jun 15
    Werner Wolff, Untitled, [Giovanna Ralli at Tiffany & Co, 727 5th Avenue, New York, New York], ca. 1965 (gelatin silver print). The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre. © The Family of Werner Wolff
Werner Wolff, Untitled, [Giovanna Ralli at Tiffany & Co, 727 5th Avenue, New York, New York], ca. 1965 (gelatin silver print). The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre. © The Family of Werner Wolff

Drawn from the Werner Wolff Archive held at The Image Centre, the exhibition and accompanying publication Working Machines explore the practice of a commercial photographer in postwar North America. Wolff’s images of workers, commodities, and urban landscapes document the accelerated rise of capitalism through massive industrialization and consumerism in the 1950s and 1960s. The project illuminates the historical conditions and aesthetics of a practice rarely considered in the history of photography—one of a “generalist” photographer working for various clients, including the illustrated press, the advertising industry, and the corporate sector.

Werner Wolff, Untitled [Child playing, for “The Science of Toys,” John Hopkins Magazine], ca. 1954 gelatin silver print. Werner Wolff Archive, The Image Centre, Gift of the family of Werner Wolff, 2009 © The Family of Werner Wolff

In focusing on Wolff’s commercial practice, Working Machines omits a large section of the photographer’s archive, including his wartime production and personal work. The negatives, contact sheets, prints, and tear sheets included in this exhibition help trace Wolff’s professional practice and process from start to finish. Grease-pencil marks on contact sheets reveal interventions made to fit specific print layouts, underscoring the hybrid collaborative process by which commercial photography was being produced and disseminated.

Section 1: Commercial Photography and Consumerism

Commercial photography became a lucrative career for photographers in the postwar period, and Wolff’s practice during that time primarily comprised commercial assignments. Although Wolff was known as “the ultimate generalist” and he undertook assignments across a wide range of sectors, these images showcase the consistency of his technical expertise and his role as a photographer in selling the “American way of life.” This ideal was characterized by abundance, choice, and a lifestyle that promised the highest standard of living. While these images speak to the advertising aesthetics of the era, they also serve as a reflection on the role of the photographer in the development of American consumerism and capitalism.

Section 2: Industry and the Workforce

The years following the Second World War brought a significant transformation in American industry and its workforce that rapidly altered society and the economy, reshaping how people lived and worked in cities. This section of the exhibition highlights the postwar transition of industry from wartime production to the manufacturing of consumer goods, fuelling the booming economy and contributing to the suburbanization of American cities. At the same time, the workforce was being transformed, with the continued increase of women working outside the home and the growing number of white-collar workers. Wolff photographed the development of modern workspaces, illustrating the mid-century aesthetic of futuristic high-rise towers containing offices with repetitive elements, within which the corporations’ human capital toiled. Showcased are varying iterations of mid-century labour and industry. These images present human beings as “business machine” employees, cogs operating towards a greater purpose in a changing America.

Werner Wolff, Untitled [Manhattan skyline seen from the Hudson River, New York City], 1967, gelatin silver print. The Black Star Collection, The Image Centre © The Family of Werner Wolff

Section 3: Urbanization

Urban development was a key focus of politicians and corporations in postwar America. Throughout Wolff’s archive there are many depictions of iconic New York City locations, such as the United Nations headquarters, tunnels and highways optimized for commuting, and the newly minted World Trade Center, as well as images describing the development of sprawling suburbs. After the Second World War, New York City underwent massive urban reforms, the result of millions of dollars in federal funds directed to cities specifically for the purchase and demolition of tenement neighbourhoods. By 1960, New York had received a total of $66 million for slum clearance. The cityscape was reshaped by clearing and rebuilding on hundreds of acres, constructing more than 100,000 housing units, and creating major complexes such as the Lincoln Center and United Nations Plaza, symbolizing New York’s leadership in cultural and political affairs on an international scale.

Beyond their focus on New York City, these images embody a concept of mid-century urbanism that was pervasive across the United States. This vision presents a vertical, business-oriented city surrounded by highways that radiate out to suburbs full of single-family homes. Wolff’s imagery of the urban landscape demonstrates a carefully curated portrayal of ideals fervently promoted by the media and politicians—a vision of New York and America as a future-optimized destination, a home to abundance, choice, and the highest standard of living in the world.

Organized by the 2023–2024 second-year students of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Film + Photography Preservation and Collections Management program. All prints and materials included in this exhibition are from the Werner Wolff Archive and the Black Star Collection, The Image Centre.

Presented by The Image Centre

Werner Wolff (American, b. Germany 1911, d. United States, 2002) left Nazi Germany in 1936 for New York City, where he found work in the darkroom of the newly formed Pix photo agency. He later joined the US army, and regularly completed assignments for the wartime magazine Yank. With Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, Wolff was one of the first to photograph “The Eagle’s Nest,” Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. Returning to New York, he joined the Black Star photo agency and remained one of its key contributors for decades. His many assignments are chronicled in the Werner Wolff Archive, housed at The Image Centre at Toronto Metropolitan University, which includes negatives, contact sheets, photographs, transparencies, publication information, correspondence, and other related ephemera.