Hine and the Empire State

A short note in L’Oeil de la Photographie (The Eye of Photography), one of series by former LIFE picture editor and photographer John Loengard, based on his 1994 book and current touring show Celebrating the Negative, set me thinking about the life and work of Lewis Hine, and in particular his images of steelworkers made during the building in 1931 of New York’s Empire State Building.

At the bottom of the piece in L’Oeil there are links to several other posts in the series by Loengard, on negatives of celebrated images that he photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Wynn Bullock, Edward Weston, Joe Rosenthal, Robert Capa, Man Ray and Richard Avedon.  (It should be noted that the short quote on Capa rather perpetuates the myth around his D-Day images that has been so effectively researched and demolished by A D Coleman and his collaborators in the Robert Capa D-Day Project, though of course their in-depth research does nothing to diminish the power of  Capa’s images.)

Loengard in his note on Hine states that that the new art director of Survey magazine which had used his work over the previous 20 years “found his pictures old-fashioned“, wanting more graphic images.

You can see more of Hine’s work on the Empire State in various collections, including that of George Eastman House. There appears to be more on their older web site than in their new image licensing website (search for Empire State.) There is another good collection online at the New York Public Library.

You can read more about Hine on various sites. I’ve written only fairly briefly about him in various places, including in a longer essay on the New York Photo League, which inherited some of his work as well as his being influenced by his work. This piece, written in 2001, is still available (though slow to load) from the web archive, and includes this paragraph:

Hine occupied a special place in this pantheon of the League. His campaigning work from around the turn of the century, fighting for protection for children in the workplace (and the enforcement of existing laws designed to protect them) was the epitome of the type of photography the League existed to promote.

It goes on to state that “When Hine died in 1940, his collection of pictures and negatives was presented to the League” and gives some further information. You can learn more about what happened to his work in an earlier article by Vicki Goldberg in the New York Times about a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In it, Goldberg writes of Hine’s “daring and daringly designed images of men and steel and sky” which seems to match better what I see in the work than the opinion of the Survey art editor.

Goldberg goes on to write “Hine’s work sharply poses one of the crucial questions about photography: how much does esthetics count in documentary?” It remains a crucial question though my answer has been that aesthetics must be the means rather than the end. It was a conclusion that decisively altered my own work 35 years ago.

And Hine’s own end also perhaps has lessons. Goldberg writes that in his last years no one wanted his work; “he lost his house, stopped photographing and applied for welfare. He died as destitute as anyone who ever sat for his lens” and later in the piece, “Hine could scarcely sell a photograph at any price.”

Apparently at his death, “the Museum of Modern Art was offered his pictures but did not want them; George Eastman House in Rochester did.” Hine’s work wasn’t entirely lost from sight, and I first met him in the pages of the two early popular histories of photography, by the Gernsheims and by Beaumont Newhall, but the attitude of MoMA is still reflected in the art world today.

We saw it recently in the Arts Council England’s treatment of Side Gallery here in the UK, which lost its entire ACE funding in 2011, and Photofusion which lost funding in 2015. Side, like the Brooklyn Museum of Art which Goldberg states “put Hine squarely in the spotlight with a retrospective in 1977 after a nearly 40-year hiatus“, also exhibited his work in 1977.

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