Man and machine have had a love/hate relationship since the late 18th century. The Industrial Revolution brought to the fore all that was good about machinery speed, consistency, jobs, cheaper products, social-class leveling, modernity and all that was badloss of craftsmanship, child labor, dreary work conditions, the numbing of the human spirit. The American photographer, Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), spent the last 10 years of his life attempting to document that very dichotomy. "There are two things I wanted to do," Hine once said. "I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected; I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated." The Marsh Art Gallery is currently displaying 108 of Hine's photographs. They are gelatin silver prints on loan from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Hine photographer, sociologist, humanist is best known for his unflinching photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island and precariously perched workers constructing the Empire State Building. There are a handful of these famous photographs on display at the gallery. This show, however, is more about his lesser-known and largely never-shown series of pictures of factory workers during the late 1930s. Hine had long been an advocate of better housing and labor conditions for the working class, especially focusing on reforming child labor laws. His method of broaching these topics was through realist documentary photography; the camera providing the tool to convey his social message. Beyond documentation, though, Hine clearly was able to weave his message with great artistry, beauty, and sensitivity. In the majority of the 5-by-7-inch prints of this labor series, workers stand poised next to their machines or stiffly and self-consciously at work on them. In a formulaic method, Hine gives the machine and the human equal placement and dominance in the composition. Although these shots were meant to prove poor working conditions in cities and rural locales from the Northeast to the Midwest to the deep South, it is not always apparent that the worker is being exploited and dehumanized. In a particular shot, a young woman stands next to her threading machine with her hand lightly resting on its edge, almost caressing it. Her hair is pulled back, there is a scab on her lip, her fingernails are dirty, and yet, she smiles at the camera with a look of mixed amusement and insouciance. In another, a woman, covered in lint and hand demurely tucked in her Hoover apron pocket, grins unabashedly. A young man, with curly carefree hair, bows to his machine, turning a wrench with fortitude and confidence. Many of these photographs were commissioned by the National Research Project to document a government study on the lack of re-employment opportunities for skilled workers due to increased technological efficiencies. Interestingly, Hine did take a few pictures of machines alone and devoid of human presence. These are eerie images of complicated steel monstrosities that seem even more powerful in conveying the contentious nature of the machine. They are also exquisite studies, formally speaking, of the play of light and shadow across varying surfaces. The last photograph is of a man destroying a machine with a sledgehammer. Called "junkers," these workers broke up old machines, like the loom in the picture, to be sold as scrap iron abroad. With glee and irony, the man kills the very machine that provides his living. The tension between man and machine could not be played out more succinctly than in this picture a perfect closing to a thought-provoking and well-presented show.
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