“Walking and driving every day in my native Los Angeles, I look around and see an economically thriving microcosm of a multiracial, immigrant America. The Armenian American shoemaker, the Korean American tailor, the Mexican American machine operator working the late shift in the last zipper factory left in the country. As the great-grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, I can’t help but think of 2019 Los Angeles as a contemporary analog to my forebears’ late-nineteenth-century experience in Chicago or Boston.
It’s with my great-grandparents in mind that I’ve come to question how, in light of recent anti-immigrant rhetoric stoking wide debate across the U.S., their story might still be relevant today. Inspired by their work in the garment industry, I decided to consider immigrant Americans and first-generation Americans through the lens of the “small trades,” re-engaging with the historical portrait approach that masters of photography Eugéne Atget, August Sander, and Irving Penn used to study national identity, work, and class in their own times.”
In the photography exhibition Working America, artist Sam Comen presents American immigrants and first-generation Americans at work in the small, skilled trades as icons of the American experience. The subjects share stories of economic independence and struggle, belonging and exclusion, faith and fear, and service to both community and family.
A variety of themes are explored in the portraits and accompanying interviews, including the dignity of work, inequity among immigrant nationalities, the political relevance of labor migrants, the intergenerational legacies of inherited skills, and the learning of new skills to adapt to the new land of opportunity; and the relationship between a nation’s identity and the identities of the individuals who comprise that nation.
This body of work has particular relevance today in a political landscape where anti-immigrant and pro-worker sentiments figure prominently. Comen has revisited some of his portrait subjects more recently, to update their stories in the extraordinary context of the global pandemic and subsequently devastating economic hardship, adding new dimensions and timeliness to the project.
Working America is a meditation on American belonging and American becoming, it poetically acknowledges the lives and contributions of working men and women make as a part of our country and our collective experience.
About the artist
As a native Californian, Sam Comen has used his home state as a muse throughout his career and often looks to the places that define us for inspiration. He has long focused on themes of American identity, community-building, immigration, democracy, and social justice in his photographic work.
His portrait Jesus Sera, Dishwasher (2019) from the Working America series was awarded Second Prize in the prestigious triennial The Outwin: American Portraiture Today at the National Portrait Gallery in 2019, and his work was on view in there in the 2017–18 exhibition, The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers.
His photographs are collected by the Library of Congress, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and private collectors, and he is regularly commissioned by brands and publications internationally.
Working America will tour April 2022 through March 2027. The dates below reflect seven-week exhibition periods. Dates are subject to change; please contact MoreArt@maaa.org or (800) 473-3872 x208/209 for current availability.
- September 1–October 20, 2022 Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center
Enid, OK booked
- November 10, 2022–January 7, 2023
- January 28–May 25, 2023 Chandler Museum
Chandler, AZ booked
- June 16–August 11, 2023 The Queen Mary Museum
Long Beach, CA pending
- September 1–October 20, 2023 Truman State University
Kirksville, MO booked
- November 10, 2023–January 7, 2024 Rogers Historical Society
Rogers, AR pending
- January 28–March 16, 2024 Historical & Cultural Center of Clay County
Moorehead, MN booked
- April 6–May 25, 2024 Chippewa Valley Museum
Eau Claire, WI booked
- June 16–August 11, 2024 Kansas City Kansas Public Library
Kansas City, KS booked
- September 1–October 20, 2024 Refurbishment
Kansas City, MO booked
- November 10, 2024–January 7, 2025
- January 28–May 25, 2025 Irving Museum & Archives
Irving, TX booked
- June 16–August 11, 2025
- September 1–October 20, 2025
- November 10, 2025–January 7, 2026
- January 28–March 16, 2026
- April 6–May 25, 2026
- June 16–August 11, 2026
- September 1–October 20, 2026
- November 10, 2026–January 7, 2027
- January 28–March 16, 2027
- April 6–May 25, 2027
- June 16–August 11, 2027
40 photographic works and a video kiosk
Custom-Designed and Built Crates
ExhibitsUSA, Mid-America Arts Alliance
Out-of-Region Rental Fee
In-Region Rental Fee
Number of Crates/Total Weight
three crates estimated/TBD
The exhibition is fully insured by ExhibitsUSA at no additional expense to you, both while installed and during transit.