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Mechanic and Steam Pump, 1921

Mechanic and Steam Pump, 1921
gelatin silver print
titled in pencil with artist's 'Interpretive Photography' stamp (verso)
image: 9 5/8 x 7 in. (24.5 x 17.8 cm.)
sheet: 10 x 8 in. (25.5 x 20.4 cm.)
Christie's New York, April 20, 1994, lot 15;
acquired from the above sale by the present owner.
Judith Mara Gutman, Lewis W. Hine, Grossman Publishers, New York, 1974, p. 32 (variation).
Freddy Langer, Lewis W. Hine: The Empire State Building, Prestel-Verlag, Munich,1998, p. 18 (variation).
Alison Nordstrom& Elizabeth McCausland, Lewis Hine from the Collections of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., New York, 2010, p. 159 (variation).

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Lot Essay

Indisputably one of the most seminal American images of the twentieth-century, on offer in the present lot is a rare vintage print of Lewis W. Hine’s Mechanic and Steam Pump, 1921.

In this photographic masterwork, a Pennsylvania Railroad mechanic is carefully positioned within the lines and curves of the steam pump, dramatizing the symbiosis of human and industrial strength. While several similar negatives of this scene were made by Hine at the time, each with slight variations to the mechanic’s pose and to the camera’s angle, the series of variations are collectively regarded as the iconic image, Mechanic and Steam Pump.

The immediately evident ethos behind Hine’s image exemplifies the artist’s recent shift from a harsher documentary style of photography to what he referred to as ‘interpretive photography’. During the 1910s, Hine was a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). His documentation was used by the Committee while lobbying to end child labor and, eventually, this led to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which brought an end to child labor in the United States. Later, during and after the First World War, Hine photographed civilian war refugees in Europe for the Red Cross. It was after this project, around 1919 when he returned from Europe, that Hine decided to no longer engage in ‘negative documentary’ and stopped advertising his work as ‘social photography’, choosing now to officially refer to himself as an ‘interpretive photographer’—note the stamp on the reverse of the print on offer here. This new approach aimed not to overwhelm with criticism or accusations about American labor practices, but rather to celebrate the industrial workers.

Excited by his new artistic language, Hine embarked upon the ‘work portraits’—the series that includes the present image—and in June of 1921 he wrote to social reformer Paul Kellogg, editor of the magazine The Survey Graphic, describing the series as: ‘the very best thing I have ever done. The industrial lead I have been following, is tremendous and virgin soil.’ The Survey Graphic, in existence from 1921 until 1952, focused on sociological and political analysis and an enthusiastically receptive Kellogg printed images from the series in an article titled ‘Powermakers: Work Portraits by Lewis W. Hine’, published on December 31, 1921. The work was immediately regarded as an emotionally powerful statement about the American experience, and it continues to be celebrated as such today.

The rich ‘chocolate’ tonality of the present lot is characteristic of vintage prints by Hine. Also in keeping with vintage prints by the artist, it is unsigned and captioned on the reverse. Of the various negatives of this scene made, prints from this particular negative are most rarely seen. Other than when this very print sold with Christie’s in 1994, no other prints from this particular negative have come to auction.

Another print from this same negative was gifted by Samuel Wagstaff Jr. to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1984.

Lot Essay

LEWIS WICKES HINE (1874–1940) Mechanic and Steam Pump, 1921

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