Few photographers can claim to have changed the course of history, but such is the case with Lewis Hine, an American photographer whose exceptionally powerful early-20th-century images, documenting scenes such as poor working conditions and the arrival of migrants into the United States, were a powerful tool for social reform and helped changed the child labour laws.
“These are important and scarce prints, with Hine’s hand stamps; a few have his handwritten notations and one is signed,” says Swann director of photographs and photobooks Daile Kaplan. “A selection of images spanning his entire career is uncommon, and represents a rare opportunity for collectors and curators. The prints are fresh to the auction market. They were originally in the collection of the late New York photographer Isador Sy Seidman.” Estimates for the 24 prints start at $3,000 and will feature in the Icons & Images: Photographs & Photobooks sale on Thursday February 15.
Hine, who died in 1940, was appointed photographer to the National Child Labor Committee in 1908, where his work in factories, mills and workshops made him a hate figure for owners, forcing him, at times, to shoot in disguise. Hine captured shocking images, including child workers in the cotton mills of Carolina – such as lot 45, estimated at $10,000-$15,000.
But exploited children were not his only preoccupation: the work for sale also includes images of construction workers balancing on steel girders as they built the Empire State Building (lot 63 is estimated at $10,000-$15,000) and those of blue-collar workers – the most important print in the sale is Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House, estimated at $70,000-$100,000.
Another obsession was immigrants arriving at Ellis Island; the auction includes two powerful prints, one featuring an Italian family in the baggage room and another of an Italian grandmother, both estimated at $5,000-$7,500.