The singular focus of Earl Dotter

Earl Dotter (Photo by Jacob Grun)

Sixty years ago, at age 19, Earl Dotter moved to California with the goal of becoming a state resident for the then-free college tuition. During his two-year waiting period, he worked at the Gallo Winery Glass Bottle Plant, “inspecting bottle samples for flaws as they emerged from their red-hot molds,” as Dotter, a longtime Silver Spring resident, has written. By 21, enrolled in San Jose State College’s graphic design program, he bought himself a Rolleiflex camera and started photographing as much as he could in the San Francisco Bay area.

By 1968, well on his way to an advertising career — a Mad Man, if you will — he entered the School for Visual Arts in New York on the recommendation of a college mentor. For a group assignment, his class worked with Young and Rubicam, the hottest ad agency of the era. Dotter recalled how they borrowed lyrics from a Bob Dylan song — “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you Mr. Jones?” — as inspiration on responding to the churning social changes occurring.

Over more than half a century, Dotter, 79, has focused his cameras on some of America’s most dangerous, stressful and difficult workplaces, documenting unheralded workers in jobs like coal mining, textile manufacturing, commercial fishing, asbestos, nursing, farming and emergency responders at the 9/11 World Trade Center site.

He’s climbed 80 stories to hang out of a New York building to capture the precise movements of a window washer and he’s traversed dark, damp and dangerous underground tunnels of Appalachian coal mines, focusing on the most dangerous job in America.

But in ’68, change could occur in a split second.

“Someone came into the conference room and said, ‘Martin Luther King has just been killed.’ And all the ad men split to their White Plains homes,” Dotter recalled while sitting at his kitchen table in Silver Spring. “I took the subway down to my Lower East Side apartment. As I got out at 14th and 1st Avenue, I saw the gray-white tiles covered in wet red letters: ‘The last of the nonviolent men are gone. Arise and kill Whitey, the eternal target.’”

Earl Dotter (Amy Liebman for the Migrant)

A few days later, Dotter saw that New York did not explode as predicted. “I started to photograph the aftermath of Martin’s assassination,” he said. “My instructor saw those pictures and sent me to … New York magazine in its first year of publication.” The fledgling photographer sold his first photos and within about a year, made the magazine’s cover.

But beyond selling a photo to a prestigious publication, that singular period in the aftermath of the King assassination became a defining period for Dotter: “That moment gave me the hope that I could become what I call a ‘socially useful photographer,’” he said.

And photography with a purpose became his life’s work.

Dotter worked extensively with the United Mine Workers of America, documenting both the laborious and dangerous work in the mines and the resulting chronic and fatal effects of black lung disease. His work has also been used by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and many labor unions. His documentary photographs of coalfields and other hazardous jobs became the exhibit “The Quiet Sickness: A Photographic Chronicle of Hazardous Work in America,” and later a book, which connected Dotter to the Harvard School of Public Health.

A photograph can change lives, and even laws, Dotter discovered. “First and foremost, [my photographs] personalize the travail of someone you might possibly know. Today, thousands of workers still die from occupational illnesses in the U.S. They don’t die in big explosions …. They die in their homes, after a long illness or they fade away in a hospital ward.”

“That toll is not largely known,” about workplace dangers and deaths, he said while explaining his commitment to this singular focus throughout his career. “If I can personalize my subjects, like this guy Lee Hipshire in West Virginia in 1974 I photographed him [and] by 1985, he was dead at the age of 56 from black lung disease.” That now-iconic photo of a young smiling man, his face covered in coal dust, gazing into the camera is in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. But in 2019, unbeknownst to Dotter or Hipshire’s children, the picture turned up in the Mueller report as an example of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. It had been used on social media ads without Dotter’s permission.

Earl Dotter (Photo by Deborah Stern)

Over the years Dotter, his wife, labor lawyer Deborah Stern, and his family affiliated with the Woodside Synagogue and then Tifereth Israel Congregation. The couple has been married 37 years and are the parents of four adult children, and these days split their time between Silver Spring and the Eastern Shore, where they are active in the Seaside Jewish Community in Rehoboth Beach.

Dotter also taught photography at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, and noted that many students these days are visual learners, so using a camera opens up other avenues of learning for them. As a photographer, he has shot thousands upon thousands of photos. He doesn’t miss the hours he used to spend in the dark room, though. These days he’s focusing on organizing his expansive archive — as well as that of his great-grandfather’s, whom he discovered serendipitously was an early photographer — to transfer to Duke University.

And Dotter’s life’s work became the title of his second book, published in 2018 — “Life’s Work: A 50 Year Photographic Chronicle of Working in the U.S.A.,” published by the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Dotter, a Jew-by-choice, who converted before his marriage to Stern, sees Jewish ethos in his career-long project of “socially useful photography.” “I encountered the Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, whose leaders were Jewish. I saw how they were repairing the world by giving opportunity to workers to have a fuller, healthier and longer life,” he said.

“I became familiar with Reconstructionist philosophy,” he added, “and to me that really fit like a glove because I feel that if we’re going to get close to God on this planet, we have to care for one another. We have to help our fellow human beings become all they can be.”

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