Naomi and Walter Rosenblum, New York, New York
Gift to Akron Art Museum, 1995
1997-1998: "A 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97-1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
1996: "Akron's Own Rings: Five Passions in World Art" 6/22/96-8/11/96, Akron Art Museum
Lewis W. Hine
Topping the Mast, Empire State Building, 1931 (printed later)
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
In Topping the Mast, Empire State Building two construction workers stand at the highest point of what became the world's tallest building on its completion in 1931.1 As the photograph shows, the building was set among a dense array of already existing structures, all with the same purpose: to provide office space in midtown Manhattan. The irony of erecting an office building of exceptional height that would remain more than half empty for years during the Great Depression could not have been lost on Hine. Like the moment captured in this image, Hine's documentation of the skyscraper's construction represented a pinnacle in his career; but like the building's fate in subsequent years, his was disappointing in the extreme as fewer and fewer commissions came his way.
Hine's interest in working people and what they produced had begun early in the century. Leaving a teaching position in New York, he chose instead to transfer his "educational efforts from the classroom to the world."2 His early projects depicted immigrants and their young children doing piecework in crowded tenement apartments and the unhealthy living and working conditions in the quintessential American industrial city of Pittsburgh. Between 1908 and 1916, for the National Child Labor Committee, Hine photographed children working at difficult and tedious jobs in mines and mills and on farms and city streets. His extensive documentation succeeded in making photography a significant element in campaigns for social change.3 Twenty-two of these poignant photographs are in the collection of the Akron Art Museum.
Photographing conditions among refugees in the Balkans and France after World War I changed Hine's perspective. He now wished to photograph skilled workers doing jobs that needed celebrating, in order, he wrote, to counter the prevailing idea that the nation's "material assets" were "the product of a bunch of impersonal machines."4 The commission to photograph the construction of the Empire State Building was well-suited to his outlook because this monumental project was one of the last to utilize the contributions of individual craftsmen.5 Between July and April of 1930, Hine, assisted at times by his son Corydon, was "pushed and pulled up onto the Peak, . . . the highest point yet reached on a man-made structure." He also described being "swung out in a box from the hundredth floor . . . to get some shots of the tower."6 Topping the Mast is a tribute not only to the workers but to this intrepid and gifted photographer whose only wish throughout a lifetime of photography was to create "a human document."
- Naomi Rosenblum, 2001
1. The Chrysler Building, completed earlier in 1931, was the tallest, but it was surpassed a few months later by the Empire State Building. See Carol Willis, "Chrysler Building," and "Empire State Building," in Kenneth Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 221, 375–76.
2. Lewis W. Hine to Frank Manny, "Field Note," around 1906, with added written note, 1938. McCausland Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
3. His photographs were used to illustrate the five volumes of The Pittsburgh Survey (New York: Survey Associates [Russell Sage Foundation], 1910–13). They also appeared frequently in a number of magazines, primarily The Survey.
4. Hine to Florence L. Kellogg, February 17, 1933; Survey Associates Papers, Social Welfare History Archives Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
5. A plaque in the lobby of the Empire State Building lists the chief craftsmen involved. Hine was recommended for the position by his neighbor, Richard Shreve, a principal in the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. Kaplan, ed., 34.
6. Hine to Paul Kellogg, November 25, 1930; Survey Associates Papers, Social Welfare History Archives Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; cited in Kaplan, ed., 37.
Kaplan, Daile. Lewis Hine in Europe. New York: Abbeville, 1988.
———, ed. Photo Story: Selected Letters and Photos of Lewis W. Hine. Washington, D.C., and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Rosenblum, Nina, and Daniel V. Allentuck, producers. Video, America and Lewis Hine. New York: Cinema Guild (educational distribution) and New Video (home distribution), 1984.
Rosenblum, Walter; Naomi Rosenblum; and Alan Trachtenberg. America and Lewis Hine. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1977.