New York

Lewis Hine

Artists in this culture have always had a rocky relationship with work. Their own often goes unrecognized as such, and they tend to idealize or ignore the kind of work other people do. So for pictures of labor, we rely largely on photographers who may or may not consider themselves artists; among them, Lewis Hine stands out. Curator Barbara Head Millstein has assembled an important exhibition of photographs from the last decade of his career (the vast majority are dated circa 1930s). We all know Hine’s powerful critique of child labor; these images picture adults with much greater ambivalence.

As Hine renders it here, “work” refuses the abject pathos of Jacob Riis’s slums, the grind of Fritz Lang’s 1926 Metropolis, the peculiar bluntness of August Sander’s physiognomic typecasting. Taken in factories, most of the photographs are fairly close views, with a single figure and a machine each occupying half the composition. He depicts ordinary people doing jobs that seem demanding but not necessarily miserable. The didactic wall text tells us Hine wanted to describe difficult working conditions and the impending obsolescence of human workers, but it isn’t clear that this is precisely what he has done. In the Brooklyn Museum, sixty years later, the photographs and their subjects both fall short of and exceed Hine’s intent.

From picture to picture, what accumulates is the subjects’ concentration rather than their torn aprons. The most powerful series, described by the wall text as “Skilled Labor” and “Men and Women Operating Machinery,” stir and wrench us in today’s postindustrial era. Balanced against their mechanical counterparts in the frame, the workers do seem to “operate,” to control the machinery—looms and mills and things we no longer recognize—not the other way around. While not as heroic-looking as the workers he captures constructing the Empire State Building, the men and women come across as intelligent and competent. If Hine’s photographs aren’t preachy about the uplifting dignity of work, they certainly preserve the dignity of the worker.

Of the few pictures without human subjects, most depict machines, but there is little of the mechanical glamour of a Charles Sheeler or Paul Strand photograph; neither monstrous nor seductive, the cogs and wheels fall flat. Together with the empty images of worker housing, they remind me of vacation snapshots of scenery minus the family—unanimated and a little boring. Looking at documentary photography, we need a surrogate self in order to recognize and engage the version of reality offered.

And for the most part Hine gives it to us, pushing the sense of a distinct, valuable individual in each photograph. Only when grouped together do the semi-portraits represent a common experience (or, artistically, a “theme”). This particular relationship between the one and the many—now lost—is what Hine’s late work finally commemorates. What would a picture of work look like today? Perhaps people crowded together, as in Jeff Wall’s imagined Asian sweatshop; maybe office workers and data processors and receptionists sectioned off into tiny, identical cubicles—not exactly the reforms Hine would have hoped for. It’s easy to imagine the photographs, but difficult to conceive of any future nostalgia for the world they would document.

Katy Siegel