Rob Faucette on Lester Balog

By Rob FaucetteMarch 3, 2024

Rob Faucette on Lester Balog
1:1 invites writers to reflect on a single work of art with focus, care, and imagination to expand how we view, receive, and write about art. 1:1 is organized and edited by Annie Buckley.

Probably the most famous photo of Woody Guthrie shows him standing with a guitar hanging at the ready, the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on the lower bout, as if he has come from a march, guitar-meets-picket-sign in one hand, cigarette in the other, exhaling smoke through pursed lips. At that precise moment, he turned around and was captured on camera by Lester Balog. I’ve long been enamored with this photograph, from the hand-painted message to the details of the surrounding people, and though I know about the life and work of Woody Guthrie, it was discovering several articles and other research by Carla Leshne that illuminated the life and work of Lester Balog for me.

Balog was a founding member of the New York chapter of the Workers Film and Photo League, which sought to enact social change through images. His family immigrated from Hungary to New York in 1922, where he joined local socialist and workers organizations, including the Hungarian Workers Club of the Bronx. It was there that he learned film projection and later became a projectionist and cameraman while assisting with posters and slogans during the Sacco-Vanzetti campaign. The first project Balog was involved in was as a cameraman on Passaic Textile Strike (1926), a film weaving fictional narrative with documentary footage of the strikers.

In the depths of the Great Depression, there was little presence in the media of the way it was unfolding for people, and so in 1933, Balog traveled to strikes and workers’ gatherings, projecting films of workers and strikes, filming as he went. In 1953, Balog was named in the House Un-American Activities hearings and, out of respect for the countless people he had filmed or photographed, destroyed hundreds of feet of his own film reels.

During the same time, American folk singer Woody Guthrie was performing in similar community halls, churches, and union halls. But while Guthrie’s legacy is well preserved in recorded music, writing, and images, Balog’s extensive work in film production and photography was almost completely destroyed by his own hand.

Balog’s image of Guthrie acts as a marker, a signpost to the atrocities that resulted from silencing people who spoke up against the norm. This photograph endures because the abuse of power endures, sometimes in subtler forms. Fascism is by definition restricted to government entities, but what does it mean when a CEO earns 1,000 percent more than their workers, or when entities such as the NRA, Big Oil, and Big Pharma wield disproportionate influence over politics to the detriment of broader society? It seems we’ve just outsourced fascism to big business while we suffer under the delusion of democracy.


Featured image: Photo of Woody Guthrie by Lester Balog, ca. 1943.

LARB Contributor

Rob Faucette is an artist, singer/songwriter, and animation art expert in Los Angeles.


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!