Update: Lewis Hine’s Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House sold for $81,250.
What you see: Lewis Hine’s Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House, a photograph printed circa 1921. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $70,000 to $100,000.
Who was Lewis Hine? He was an American photographer who used his camera to document society in hopes of changing it for the better. He captured images of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island; child laborers in Southern cotton mills; and the workers who constructed the Empire State Building. Hine died in 1940 at the age of 66.
Where does Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House rank among Hine’s most iconic images? “It’s probably one of his most important, if not his most important. It’s a significant photo,” says Daile Kaplan, vice president of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.
Why is it such a strong image? “The visual appeal of the photo is rather direct and stunning,” she says. “It has harmony, it has visual balance, and at the same time, he positions the worker in a way that he’s controlling the machine. It reflects a new visual vocabulary that addresses the machine age, but it privileges the person with the machine.”
To what extent did Hine shape the appearance of this image? “The idea of the photographer arranging the subject is to some extent, to me, a specious issue,” she says. “Hine used a Graflex camera, a handheld camera that predated the 35 mm camera. It had technical aspects that may elude the 21st century viewer. The images are not easy to make. The Graflex is not a cell phone camera. It’s not on a tripod. It’s made of wood. It’s heavy. In all likelihood, flash powder was required for illumination. The image appeared in ground glass, upside down. It takes a bit of mental acuity just to frame the photograph. There were very different handling issues. Capturing an image in an informal manner was extremely difficult with a Graflex camera.”
Hine made several attempts at photographing a laborer using a wrench on a machine. Why did this particular one succeed so well? “The elements of the machine are writ large in this image, and the physicality of the laborer is very beautifully defined. And it shows how prescient Hine was,” she says, noting that he shot the image around 1921, when the phrase “machine age” was yet to be coined. “He was essentially visualizing a cultural idea, and was at the forefront of articulating it in a pictorial fashion. He understood and saw the trend before it was verified or confirmed.”
This print was made circa 1921–exceptionally early. Just how rare is it? “This is a very rare, very rare print, a stunning image,” she says, noting that it’s the first she’s handled a Mechanic photograph of this vintage. “In the body of work he produced during this time, it’s uncommon to find a stamp by Lewis Hine [the stamp mark reads ‘Hine’s Interpretive Photography, Hastings-on-Hudson’]. It’s extremely uncommon and rare and it has all the beauty of the finest photographs.”
There was no collectors’ market for photographs in 1921, and there wouldn’t be one for at least 50 years. Why might Hine have had this print made then? “Photographers are always making prints from their negatives,” she says. “Sometimes they give them to their family members or colleagues. He was important in the social welfare community, the progressive community. Undeniably, he would have been proud of this image. This picture is a real winner.”
Are there other prints of this image made at later dates? “I’ve seen others, but nothing as beautiful as this,” she says.
What makes this print so beautiful? “The detail, the clarity, the ability to coax out the middle tones of the black and white–I think this print really sings. It stands alone,” she says. “It’s in excellent condition. It’s a stunning representation of the image, and the print itself is gorgeous.”
Why else will this Hine photograph stick in your memory? “It’s such a privilege to handle a photograph like this. In some ways, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kaplan says. “I’ve published two books about Lewis Hine. It’s an extraordinary privilege.”
Is it the finest Lewis Hine photograph you’ve ever handled? “When you work in an auction house, everything you handle is your baby,” she says, laughing. “Let’s say I recognize the integrity and the value of this image.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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