Called to testify in a 1981 lawsuit brought by a San Diego transit workers union against Aztec Bus Lines, photographer Fred Lonidier found himself explaining the finances of his art practice. The purpose of his testimony was to interpret some pictures he had taken of striking bus drivers to help determine whether the strikers had impeded access to a bus depot. The lawyer for Aztec asked whether he’d been paid by the union, and Lonidier said that he had not, that all the expenses came out of his own pocket. “I’m not engaged in a commercial endeavor in a straightforward sense,” he said. “I’m an artist. If my work ever sells, which it rarely does, it’s in a museum, a gallery, to a private collector…. Only on a very rare occasion does anyone ever buy a photograph from me.”
Such occasions, it seems, are less rare now than they were in 1981. Over the course of five decades, Lonidier has produced a vast and idiosyncratic body of work, principally as a participant-observer in North American labor struggles. During the past decade, that work has appeared not infrequently in modish galleries and Kunsthallen, a far cry from the union halls, libraries, and universities where he previously exhibited (a fact often recited in the press releases and bios issued by his new urbane venues). Not that anyone could begrudge him this recent art world embrace, but it is hard to ignore a certain dissonance between the content and context, between images of organizing workers and a market that is a picture of their antagonists.
Lonidier reproduced his testimony in the multi-panel photo-text installation AZTEC VS A.T.U. 1309: Long Ago In A Faraway Galaxy (1996), included in his recent exhibition at Michael Benevento in Los Angeles, a career sampler that comprised mostly lesser-known or never-before-exhibited works. Eighteen prints of the striking workers accompany as many panels of blown-up text from the artist’s testimony embellished with graphic design: highlighted passages, circled phrases and faces, and lines connecting bits of text and image. Annotations in a goofy faux-handwritten font say things like proof!; elsewhere, Lonidier calls his own testimony into question: so I say! amends an explanation of a particular picture. He seems to delight in the way the staid courtroom examination—with questions about his position relative to his subjects, how we can know what a photograph really shows or means—echoes the bugaboos of photoconceptualism.
Lonidier has frequently employed this photo-text format in examining workplace injuries or the ravages of NAFTA. Examples on view here tend to be anecdotal: in 3 Art Talks (1975), he relates, among other experiences, attempting to take a picture at a Lee Friedlander lecture, before the famous photographer called Lonidier out for forgetting to remove his lens cap; a contact sheet with a black frame, followed by the back of a bald head, illustrates the incident. His is a charmingly casual, even artless approach to image, design, and language. We can see this anti-, or amateur, aesthetic as a tool for demystification of the sort that animated a number of students and teachers at the University of California, San Diego in the early 1970s. The group included Lonidier, who received his MFA and joined the faculty in 1972, as well as Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula. Galvanized by the anti-war and feminist movements, they sought to reconcile social documentary photography’s political engagement with Conceptualism’s scrutiny of the production and circulation of images.
The other key body of work in this show comes out of Lonidier’s revisiting of his vast archive, much of it recording student activism and an atmosphere of experimentation from those early San Diego days. More intimate, Female Photo Resistance II (2022) is a video slideshow devoted to an unnamed subject who appears to be a photo student and Lonidier’s girlfriend. We see her in class, installing a show, lying in bed, and sitting on the toilet as intertitles narrate the power dynamic of artist and muse: “She didn’t like me to photograph her.” The self-criticism, tongue-in-cheek from the start, disappears in a profusion of images. A salient instinct in Lonidier’s art is to make space for irony and folly alongside serious political commitment.
Lonidier’s levity is striking because it is so at odds with the expectations of the activist-artist, and because his work, maybe despite itself, is also tragic. His career has coincided with a sustained bipartisan attack on American workers and the evisceration of the labor movement he has portrayed. The decline in union membership since the early 1970s has accelerated the barbaric inequalities in wealth and income that have been such a boon to the market for contemporary art and the institutions it sustains.