As a photographic chronicler of New York City—not to mention America at large—Lewis Hine falls somewhere between Jacob Riis and Walker Evans. Chronologically, to be sure, but also because of his street-side portraits, seemingly un-posed documentary style, and desire to use his images to fight for social justice. Among other subjects, Hine shot immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, the cramped masses stuffed into Lower East Side tenements, unfit labor conditions, newsies, and other child workers—but his photos of the Empire State Building's construction more than 80 years ago are perhaps the most compelling for us architecture nerds.
Men hang suspended on wires, perched on beams, and clutching ropes, far above the metropolis whose landscape they were revolutionizing. (At 1,250 feet, the ESB was, after all, the tallest building in the world from its opening in 1931 till 1970.) Hines called these ironworkers his "sky boys," and found them endlessly fascinating.
Two former exhibitions at the International Center of Photographyoffered a comprehensive picture of this artist-slash-reformer, gathering under one roof over 150 works that include a handful of his iconic ESB shots. "He had a romantic belief in the possibilities of America, epitomized by his heroic images of construction workers near the top of the nearly completed Empire State Building," writesTimes critic Ken Johnson. "The soulful optimism he sustained and projected from first to last may not convert the coolly cynical viewer, but it's something to admire."