LEWIS HINE'S LAST LEGACY

By Judith Mara Gutman

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A science teacher turned photographer, Lewis W. Hine expected to see human will transcend and transform the industrial landscape of the early 20th century. Time and again, whether his subject was a group of grimy child laborers at a coal mine or a woman in a canning factory, plain insistent human strength and dignity were powerfully evident in the eyes and in the carriage of the shoulders.

Lewis Hine has long been considered a pre-eminent pioneer of American photography. During the first few decades of this century, while Alfred Stieglitz did more than any American before him to turn photography into an art form, and Edward Steichen put that art form to stunning commercial uses, Lewis Hine employed photography to chronicle, with extraordinary poignancy and to notable effect, the social conditions of his day. Yet his last body of work - a sampling of which is shown on these pages - has never been exhibited and only a few of its photographs have been published. In this collection are the more than 700 photographs -part of the holdings of the National Archives in Washington - that Hine took in the mid-1930's for the National Research Project of the Work Projects Administration (W.P.A.).

Hine had been commissioned by the National Research Project, a precursor of present-day think tanks, to provide a visual record as it grappled with the problem of unemployment, which, as the Great Depression lingered on, stood at almost 10 million. Between December 1936 and July 1937, he photographed the industries, workers and communities that the project was studying. These photographs are a departure from the mellow tones of his early work and its emphasis on the people being photographed rather than their background.

They are probing compositions with bold tonalities and provocative, often surprising, ways of relating various elements. Machines are integral to the imagery. So are people. They share a picture plane. It is as if Hine had transposed the bluntness of a Grant Wood portrait and the bounce of Reginald Marsh figures to the factory floor. Sometimes, ominously, the workplace overshadows workers. And some pictures hint at a growing disillusion with the workplace and with the notion of the machine as a savior of mankind. The artistry of these photographs stems from an inner tension - so necessary in any work of art - that creates an intensity out of ordinary detail.

Hine's photographs for the National Research Project are important not only because they speak to us at a time when high unemployment poses anew the question of the role of technological change, but because they are an eloquent tribute to a man who consistently found that the human spirit imbued even the dreariest workaday existence with a simple, evocative beauty.

WHEN Hine took the job with the National Research Project, he had been photographing for a quarter of a century. An intensely private person drawn to public issues, he was born in Oshkosh, Wis., in 1874 and came to New York in 1901 when the optimism of a new century centered on urban America. He taught at the Ethical Culture School on Central Park West and subsequently earned a master's degree in sociology at Columbia University.

To use photographs as an aid in his botany classes at the Ethical Culture School, he learned about the camera, then organized an afterschool camera club that often went to Central Park to take pictures of specimens. The first photographs of his to catch the attention of the public were made when Hine took his camera club to the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan, where immigrants landed after their examination at Ellis Island. Hine also photographed urban slums and saw for himself the chaos of the new industrial society. But, swept up by the early century's faith in progressivism, he believed that all one needed to do was to ''instruct'' a society - expose its ills - and the ills would vanish.

In 1908, he left his teaching post and became the staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (N.C.L.C.), which lobbied for the abolition of child labor. Over the next eight years, he traveled throughout the country and took close to 5,000 photographs (mostly of children), many of which appeared in N.C.L.C. pamphlets. The children in these pictures - shown in the streets or in mines, mills and factories - seemed to sparkle, like so many diamonds in the rough. Hine's photographs contributed to the passage of the National Child Labor Law in 1916. Together with his photographs of immigrants, they had a profound effect on Paul Strand, an early photography student of his, and on the generation of documentary photographers - including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange - who came of age in the 1930's.

During the 1920's, the beauty and bounty of machinery captivated many Americans, including Hine. Machines, he hoped, could help create a society without ills, and he developed a romantic style - as in his photographs of electric generators for Western Electric - that reflected this optimism. That changed in the 1930's as a mounting economic depression haunted his -and everyone's - conception of the machine's omnipotence. When the National Research Project asked Hine to become its photographer, he wrenched himself loose from his previous assumptions and photographic style.

Hine and the project proved to be a winning combination. There was Hine, a romantic and purist, fired up by the possibility of depicting new facets of work; labor, he felt, was the soul of America. And there, not hidebound by economic theories or conventional research methods, was the project - a group of economists, sociologists and engineers brought together to explore the causes of the country's persistently high rate of unemployment. These intellectuals not only steered the project's course, they also provided the resonance for Hine's pictures.

Begun in the fall of 1935, the project by December 1936 had gathered 482 people in four offices: in Philadelphia (its headquarters), Chicago, Washington and New York. It was a staff that was caught up in the pioneering spirit of the New Deal and of the W.P.A. - itself a radical innovation. ''For the first time,'' recalls Harry Magdoff, who had been one of the bright young economists on the project, ''the Federal Government created jobs for people where they were, allowing them to do the things which they were good at doing and which were socially useful.''

At the time, many people believed that technological development was the cause of unemployment. Machines were the problem - they were displacing the workers. ''But there was no way of knowing that,'' says Magdoff, who is now co-editor of Monthly Review, an independent socialist journal. ''The labor studies were incomplete. We had to find out when, where and under what conditions labor did what - and under what conditions production rose or fell.''

Studying 41 plants in 14 industries in 14 communities, the project found that machines were not necessarily the culprit. In some instances, the work force had been dismissed without the introduction of new machinery. In some cases, the introduction of machinery had actually created jobs.

The project also made statistical studies of productivity changes in the country's major industries. Although similar studies had been done before, such a systematic and extensive survey was unprecedented, and the staff had to develop their own statistical methods. Instead of looking at productivity simply from the standpoint of management - the accepted practice among those who had adopted the scientific-management ideas of the engineer and efficiency expert Frederick Taylor - the staff was far more concerned with the human dimension in the workplace.

''Taylorism'' had been influential since the publication of Taylor's book ''Principles of Scientific Management'' in 1911. The problem, as Taylor saw it, was the way the worker worked. If he worked more efficiently - and theorists like Taylor had constructed charts to show how a worker should walk, bend, stand, sit, lift so that he would work more efficiently -then production would increase. As the Depression deepened, however, faith in the machine (and Taylor had reduced the worker to an appendage to the machine) gradually eroded.

By 1936, Americans were laughing at the notion of the worker as a cog in the giant industrial machine. That year, Charlie Chaplin's ''Modern Times'' was released and audiences guffawed as they followed the satiric trek of a worker caught in the rolling gears of a giant machine. They knew workers weren't the problem. Just as they had feared, it was all the fault of those crazy machines.

For the project staff, however, machines were no more the enemy than labor. New technology could create jobs, but to do this, according to the project's final report, production needed to expand enough ''to serve a social goal.'' When Hine started working for the project in December 1936, he took his cue from its staff. Traveling mostly through the Northeast, with 5 cents to the mile for his car and $15 a day for food and lodging (standard Government rates), he photographed the industries and workers under study. Buoyed by the staff and their ideas, Hine often created in his photo-graphs an uncanny and subtle esthetic tension that broke through the photographs' blunt reality.

It happens, for instance, in a picture of the Lancaster Brick Company in Pennsylvania. The delicate balance between men and machines is caught. But the composition of shadows, workers and setting is so taut that such intangibles as the workers' ambivalence toward the workplace seem palpably real.

Hine's project pictures differed from most machine imagery, which - reflecting the enchantment with the machine of the 1920's - still depicted industrial structures as great reservoirs of strength, beauty and bounty. Some of these images, like the paintings of Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, presented those structures with force as well as grace. Photographs by Margaret Bourke-White imagined the machine as an awe-inspiring storehouse. Paul Strand's photographs seemed to cherish the sensuous touch of steel. Hine, too, had produced his share of romanticized portraits of power. But when he worked for the project, he rescaled his proportions. Control and power still resided in the workplace, but they were neither in the struc-tures nor in the gears. They were in the ways that a worker and his work interacted. Together, they were the producers of plenty. In one of the masterful portraits that Hine did for the project, he depicted a 70-year-old worker delicately threading a 100-year-old loom. The worker commanded that workplace, and his delicate control of the threading operation held the workplace in balance.

The power to produce was, and still is, often linked with a craftsman, not an industrial worker. Hine never quite lost his affinity for craftsmen who produced with their hands. But as the project photographer, he saw factory workers who pushed, held, stretched and concentrated. He saw the skill of factory workers and the power that they could create right on the industrial line. He also found mill hands, cement makers and others humanizing their workplace in various ways. He saw a doll maker hold a doll's head in the palm of his hand as though it were a baby. Frederick Taylor would have been repulsed by this; Taylor and his followers saw no need for human feelings at the workplace. The project, however, utilized such information to understand how workers used and viewed their workplace.

Many of Hine's project photographs are ambiguous. A couple is photographed proudly - if somewhat self-consciously - sitting in the combination bed and living room of a company-owned house in North Point, N.C. With the man in a rocking chair and the woman at the dressing table, the room's empty space itself seems alive. The home is comfortably theirs, but a light bulb dangling from the ceiling agitates the scene.

In other pictures, even though machines and people are still in scale with one another, Hine seems to be quietly asking: Have these workers been made faceless by the machine? Has an operator - stretching to tie together a single broken thread on a 1,000-thread loom - been turned into a cipher? What about the press operator making plywood, or the hosiery ''toppers'' (those working on the knitting of the top part of women's stockings)? Are they little more than industrial tools?

No passionately excessive statements come out of these photographs. There is no sentimental outrage about downtrodden workers. But in these pictures Hine comes close to the workers' daily existence. Are they contained by their machines even as they are tuned to their machines' rhythms?

The project photographs were the last full body of work completed by Hine, who died in 1940. The project studied them and used them in its reports. Other Government agencies requested prints. But except for the publication of a half-dozen of these pictures in Survey Graphic (an illustrated monthly that carried social commentaries), they were known only within a limited circle of people. When the project's work was completed in 1944, Hine's photographs and the project's industry studies, reports and correspondence were shipped to the National Archives.

Today, these photographs attest to Hine's belief that work was the spirit of America. It was the craftsman's Yankee ingenuity, the immigrant's round-the-clock hours and the industrial world's Herculean capacity. He found that spirit with a camera - a tool that most people, including Hine, associated with tangible reality. In catching an intangible reality, however, Hine once more transcended the confines of both his camera and his photographic assignment.