Lewis Hine: The WPA National Research Project Photographs, 1936-37 @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 70 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung edge to edge against light gray walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made in 1936-1937. Physical sizes are roughly 5×7 inches (or the reverse). (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was co-published by the gallery and Steidl (here) in 2017. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: In 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, the National Research Project was founded as part of the larger Works Project Administration (WPA) of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the midst of a period ravaged by widespread unemployment and economic stagnation, its aims were straightforward – to investigate how innovations in industrial technologies were affecting the effort to get people back to work.

What was already becoming clear was that the stock market crash of 1929 and the broader depression that had throttled the economy were a result of steep declines in economic activity. What was less well understood was how the pervasive unemployment that gripped the nation was different from previous bouts of periodic joblessness. To bring America back, the government needed to know how new technologies were remaking different parts of the economy, and so a group of researchers, statisticians, economists, and sociologists was hired to evaluate productivity and growth in nearly 60 separate industries, looking for patterns in the evolution of both skilled and unskilled jobs.

In 1936, Lewis Hine was hired to be the chief photographer of the NRP and was tasked with visually documenting what was happening inside America’s factories, as supporting evidence to accompany the research reports the group was publishing. While Hine had made his name as a photographer with his groundbreaking images of immigration and child labor in the early part of the century, he had been out of work for three years when he landed the NRP assignment. Hine died in 1940, and so the more than 800 photographs he produced in 1936-1937 for the NRP would become his last major project.

This show pares that larger body of work down to 70 prints, providing a tightly-edited cross-section of Hine’s effort. And while the factory setting of many of these photographs will seem familiar to those who know Hine’s earlier work, these later pictures have a decidedly different tone. Aside from the rugged lunch-bucket romance of workers high atop the girders of the Empire State Building, Hine is most known for images of human vulnerability. In seeing young immigrants entering America at Ellis Island or children working in exploitative labor conditions, Hine pointed his compassionate eye at the powerless and those in peril, forcing us to look at real human situations that had been overlooked or deliberately ignored. In the later works on view here, Hine’s perspective is much more optimistic – what he sees is a new kind of collaborative cooperation between man (or woman) and machine, where the ingenuity and dedication of American workers is paired with technical innovations in industrial equipment, the combination leading to breakthroughs in productivity.

This difference in mood is particularly noticeable in Hine’s images of textile factories. When children were his subjects a decade or two earlier, he often composed his images to capture the world of the mills from their vantage point, so his eye was lower, making the endless rows of looms and bobbins feel hulking and even threatening. The kids were universally grimy and exhausted, and generally appeared overwhelmed by their working situation. His photographs sensitively exposed the very real dangers of these factories for children, and the hazardous conditions in which they were required to work.

His images of textile factories for the NRP have an entirely different feel. In them, attentive workers now manage the machines, which have grown in size, scope, and complexity. We see men and women (all adults) tenderly touching the threads on an intricate jacquard loom, carefully checking bobbins and resetting individual mechanisms, holding rolls of yarn in place, and ensuring lines of threads are perfectly arranged. The workers don’t look afraid, overwhelmed, or in danger, but fully in control of the machines, working in concert with them to achieve the desired results. The machines themselves are impressively massive, likely even bigger and more powerful than before, but it’s clear that the skilled workers are making things function efficiently – a sense of balance (or some might say teamwork) has been created, making the day’s work look that much more deliberate and well managed.

It was this kind of transition that the NRP was looking for. In Hine’s photographs, production has been overhauled, working conditions have been improved, and technology and innovation have created new opportunities for skilled workers, where their individual talents are better leveraged and the whole operation is now running more efficiently. Hine was free to explore his assignments in an open-ended way, so the images range widely, from immense (and often dark) locomotive factories, where workers wrangle hot steel that ultimately becomes long driving rods or huge circular sections of boiler tanks, to much smaller factories, where meticulous workers set eyes on doll heads, nail down webbing to chair frames, print numbers on watch faces, and use flaming torches to precisely bend glass tubing. Hine’s pictures capture a very real sense of burgeoning American craftsmanship and ingenuity, where tiny improvements in how the cabinet of a radio is cut or how glass jars are stamped out come from the interdependence of people and machinery, and ultimately lead to better productivity. Even when the workers aren’t actively doing something, it’s clear that they are relaxed and aware, ready to step in if needed.

What Hine’s photographs show us is that the spirit of innovation that got amplified manifold by America’s entry into World War II actually sets its roots in the bleakest days of the Depression. It was in those years when the search for solutions to industrial problems was transformed into a pervasive mindset (the kind that powers places like Silicon Valley even today), and when industrial research centers like Bell Labs got formed. As seen in these images, innovation was the solution to jumpstarting the employment engine, and in the process, it became a new American cultural touchpoint.

Hine’s 1936 image of Holyoke, Massachusetts, sets the pivot point – massive steel cranes criss cross the cloudy sky busily transforming the city, with the steeples of a church set in the distance, the angled struts crowding (and towering over) the place of religion. It’s a symbolic view of America’s changing attention, and of a new forward-looking balance being established. The best of the works in this show fill out the meat of this energized can-do spirit, celebrating workers and technical development in equal measure, and helping us understand the nuanced relationship between the two. While today we may take corporate-report style photographs of industrious workers for granted, in 1936, Hine was documenting the beginning of a new American age. Quiet self-reliant optimism brims from these well-made pictures, which deserve a more prominent place in the photographic history of American industry.

Collector’s POV: The 70 prints in this show are being sold as a single set priced at $125000. Hine’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, with prices in the past decade ranging from roughly $1000 to as much as $275000 for his most iconic vintage prints. That said, the market for Hine’s work was tainted by a forgery scandal in the early 2000s, so collectors still need to be careful with claims of vintage authenticity.

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