Published: January 20, 2004
Fifty stark images of brawny men balanced precariously above the Manhattan skyline manipulating heavy cables, girders and massive steel equipment are currently on view at the Morris Museum in the exhibition “The Rise of a Landmark: Lewis Hine and the Empire State Building.” The silver tone photographs depicting the American laborer in situ transcend Hine’s original assignment to record the construction of what was then to become the world’s tallest building into eye-grabbing art.
When sociologist, educator and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine was engaged in 1930 to record the construction of the Empire State Building, he brought a very different twist to the project. What was on the face of it a simple recording of the construction of a building, albeit a spectacular one, turned out to be works of art that also portray the men who built the edifice, a story played out against the sky above 1930s New York City.
“‘The Rise of a Landmark: Lewis Hine and the Empire State Building’ celebrates one of the most beloved buildings in the world and a familiar view to residents of the tri-state area,” said Laura Galvanek, curator of exhibitions at the Morris Museum. “This exhibition highlights the magnificent architecture of the Empire State Building, the men who built it and the master technique of photographer Lewis Hine.” The exhibition will remain on view through March 14.
These are the sorts of pictures that compel those of us who cannot resist pausing alongside a construction site to peer through the fence at the progress within. They celebrate labor, the building that is emblematic of New York City and the city itself. In the 1930s New York was wide open and in these images one can see from the tops of the buildings right down to the passersby on the streets below.
The image “A Group of Workers” presents men whose strong faces are filled with pleasure at a job well done. More than 20 men are pictured within the skeletal frame of the building. The viewer feels their camaraderie and satisfaction.
In “Icarus,” an image also called “The Sky Boy,” a proud worker in overalls straddles a cable a quarter of a mile above the city with the Hudson River and its docked icons of luxury, a row of ocean liners, and New Jersey in the background. The cable on which he stands slices diagonally from the top left to the lower right of the image, bisected by the river and the far horizon to frame the worker midair.
In another graceful view of a worker reaching out from the girder on which he stands, the worker holds onto a cable with his right arm, his left extends downward against a foggy sky as if to touch the tip of the newly completed Chrysler Building. Girders, cables and wood plank decking converge in a series of lines that draw the eye to the man again and again. In still another, a lone steelworker in the lower left of the image is poised atop a girder on the 86th floor against the background of midtown New York looking north up Fifth Avenue. Only a few skyscrapers are visible; New York was still a low-rise city.
Designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates for the Empire State Corporation, the 102-story Empire State Building has been an icon since its completion in May 1931. The cornerstone was laid by Alfred E. Smith, former governor of New York, on September 17, 1930, and the building opened officially May 1, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in Washington to turn on the building’s lights.
This was the time of the Great Depression; the stock market had crashed six months earlier and thousands of men were unemployed, yet here was this new project: the construction of the tallest building in the world. Its mast was designed to moor dirigibles. The entire project was a brave statement in the face of a dark time.
The Empire State Building remained the tallest in the world until 1972 when the first World Trade Center tower was completed. Stunningly, the building took only 14 months (or seven million man-hours) to complete. What is more, because of the depressed economy, the anticipated cost was $50 million but in the end was less than half that: $24,718,000.
It was Hine’s neighbor, Richard Shreve of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, who proposed that he make a photographic recording of the project. That, too, was no small feat. Hine was 56 when he swung out from the Empire State Building in a specially designed basket that hung out a quarter of a mile above Fifth Avenue to make his pictures.
The graphic elements integral to the construction of a skyscraper set these photographs apart from much of Hine’s other work. For much of his life, he had used his camera to document social injustice. His was the lens of a trained sociologist that focused on tenement life, child labor and labor and immigration abuses. His aim was to right the wrongs he saw.
Hine was trained in sociology and got his education at the University of Chicago. He arrived in New York in 1901 where he taught nature study and geography and made photographic records of school activities. Hine began to explore the use of the camera in teaching, and published several articles on the subject in 1906. His first project was to photograph immigrants at Ellis Island. Later projects included photographic investigations and documentation of child laborers for the National Child Labor Committee; “The Pittsburgh Survey,” a study of steel making conditions in that city; and work for the American Red Cross during World War I, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration.
Only later in life did he begin to use his camera to record the praiseworthy aspects of life around him. His photographs of the Empire State Building and the men who built it were a first for him.
In Men at Work, his 1932 book of photographs of the Empire State Building project, Hine wrote, “Cities do not build themselves, machines cannot make machines, unless back of them all are the brains and toil of men.”
In “Riding the Ball,” a muscular young workman clad only in cutoffs and boots with a pair of sturdy gloves clings to the ball of a crane as the sun glints off his shoulders. He seems to smile into the sun with pleasure as he is borne aloft suspended at a 45-degree angle between the two cranes that frame the image.
“The Rise of a Landmark: Lewis Hine and the Empire State Building” is a traveling exhibition of 50 black and white images from the George Eastman House, the owner of the Lewis Hine collection, which was donated to the museum after The Photo League of New York was dissolved in 1951.
According to Galvanek, the George Eastman House’s Lewis Hine collection of photographs of the Empire State Building is the one most frequently requested for traveling exhibits such as this. She said that showing Hine’s photographs fits nicely with the current thinking about building and rebuilding in New York since September 11. The exhibit raises questions about architecture and people’s connection with it, she said.
The museum has scheduled a series of collaborative seminars between architects and area high school students that explore the impact of architecture on the citizens.
On Sunday, February, 29, at 2 pm, John Tauranac, author of The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark and the recent New York From the Air, will present a slide lecture on the history and architecture of the Empire State Building at the Morris Museum. A graduate of Columbia University and New York University, Tauranac is an adjunct associate professor of art at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, where he teaches New York history and architecture. The cost for the lecture is $8 for museum members and $10 for nonmembers (includes admission). Call 973-971-3720 for additional information.
The Morris Museum is at Six Normandy Heights Road. For information, 973-971-3700 or .
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