Pure Photography

For a moving, disturbing, invigorating, heart-opening experience, get over to the two downstairs exhibits at the International Center for Photography.  Not that the contemporary show of Zoe Strauss photographs isn’t interesting.  But the two historical shows are powerfully emotional, full of iconic imagery, and rich in a historical dialogue that remains crisply pertinent today.

ICP does a good job, as always, telling a comprehensive story about its featured photographer–now Lewis Hine.  Hine’s photographs raised the consciousness of modern America about the conditions of tenements in New York, the immigrant experience, and child labor.  His photographs were so compelling that they were the major reason child labor laws were passed.

Child Cotton Picker, c1913

Look at the age on this boy’s face.

A Straight photographer, Hine used his camera in a documentary fashion to let the straight, unmanipulated image tell the story.  So newsies selling pape’s at midnight at a saloon and boys settings up pins in a decrepit subway bowling alley are much more effective at swaying sentiment than the posters and flyers, also on display, for pushing and prodding the moral question.

My dad was a newsie, and Hine’s work brought some photos of a tough version of him and his brothers to mind.  Look at the impact of this Hine newsie image.

Newsboy Asleep on Steps, 1912

Gives me a sense of what my father’s childhood was like.

Hine’s famous Work series is on display, too, with dozens of images of men and women, blacks and whites.  Elegant and spare, Hine elevates the everyday to the elegiac.  These gorgeous images validate the heroic quality of work, as they celebrate the human heart in the machine.  He did as much as anyone, including Charlie Chaplin, to show the modern workplace as a hybrid experience of humanity and technology, in all its complexity.

                                Mechanic at Steam Pump, 1920
Riveters on Empire State Building, c1931

Riveters on Empire State Building, c1931

Old Time Printer at Foot Press "Joy of Work" 1905

Old Time Printer at Foot Press
“Joy of Work”

His Southern poverty and Depression era images, presented so calmly and cleanly, are
show-stoppers, every one.  Unlike many of the other documentarian photographers of the period, Hine wasn’t successful at getting government work.  He died in the kind of penury he depicted throughout his career.

Georgia Cotton Mill Widow and Family
She has nine children!

Tucked into a corner of the large Hine show is a one-gallery exhibit on JFK in imagery from 1963.  The show makes effective use of song and video, and the missing Zapruder frame is there, too.  Breath taking, literally.  I hadn’t seen it before. I guess I can even understand the drive to suppress it, as just too upsetting.  Conspiracy-theorists, of course, have their explanations, too.

But the Hine show is the reason to go to ICP right now.  The images and emotions they evoke are pure, heart-felt, and heart-breaking.  You’ll see photography as art, as propaganda, as truth, as sentiment, as story–all in one image.  It’s worth a linger.