From a bedrock pit to the colossus of the Manhattan skyline, photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (American, 1874-1940) documented every foot of the construction of the monumental Empire State Building. In 1930 Hine began the treacherous ascent—safety belt in place and camera in hand—with the expectation of creating an ideal portrait of modern architecture. However, his resulting photographs of this year-long project speak more of the integrity of the workers who toiled to perfect the structure than of the glorification of the building itself.
Before receiving the Empire State Building commission, Hine established himself as a champion of social reform. His extensive portfolios depicted the holding rooms of Ellis Island, child labor-driven industries, and European survivors of the First World War, earning him the title “The Father of Documentary Photography.” Hine’s Empire State photographs build on this theme of the human condition amidst the quickening pace of early twentieth-century society. Here he reveals each worker’s individual dignity and inherent link to the fabric of the towering structure. The gestures, the expressions—the presence—of people in the images remind us that buildings, and the cities they shape, are only built under the direction and innovation of humankind.
The Lewis Hine collection at George Eastman House is the most frequently requested body of work in the Museum’s archives. It consists of nearly ten thousand original photographs, negatives, and artifacts. The Photo League of New York donated the work to the Museum in 1955. The photographs in this exhibition are modern gelatin silver prints made from copy negatives and were printed by Barbara Galasso, head of the Museum’s Photographic Services Department.