By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
The portfolio for Walter Lubken, who documented 25 projects in 17 Western states as official photographer for the U.S. Reclamation Service between 1903 and 1917, includes one such exception. Canal leading to Holtville power plant in Holtville, Calif.(1909) rises above its prosaic title with a beautifully balanced composition that juxtaposes a broadly curving canal, a small boat on shore, and a sort of wooden pier leading to a platform with a man standing on it.
There's a similarly lovely image in the portfolio of Charles Fenno Jacobs, who was recruited by Edward Steichen to join the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The piece, called Man working on hull of U.S. submarine at Electric Boat Co., Groton, Conn. (1943), is a complex, layered composition that looks more like a monochromatic painting than a photo.
The best of the best are three pictures by Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, two of America's best documentary photographers whose work also qualifies as art. Hine is well-known for his photographs of immigrants being processed at Ellis Island, and in 1908, he became a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, an organization set up to expose child neglect and abuse in the workplace. His portfolio includes a few of those images of children, but the most powerful shot is one that seems simultaneously old (it was shot in 1920) and new. It's identified here as Power house mechanic working on steam pump, although I've seen it widely reproduced elsewhere under the title Steamfitter: a stylized portrait of a muscular male in a tank top adjusting a piece of heavy equipment. Hine is after an idealized image of the common laborer, but the picture wouldn't seem out of place displayed alongside, say, Herb Ritts's Fred with Tires.
Like Hine, Lange, who in 1935 became a staff photographer with the Federal Resettlement Administration (which was later renamed the Farm Security Administration), also had an uncanny knack for taking realistic pictures of the disenfranchised: migrant workers, the homeless, the unemployed. Two such images are included here. One, called White Angel Breadline, shot in San Francisco in 1933 or 1934, features a melancholy man with a tin cup standing along a railing, with hordes of other hungry people in line behind him.
The other photograph, Between Weedpatch and Lamont, Kern County, Calif. Children living in camp (1940), is a portrait of two small, sad-eyed children peeking through a hole in the wooden door of what is almost certainly a shanty. Like the best-known work of both Hine and Lange, it displays the photographer's empathy and compassion -- characteristics that place him/her in the ranks of the great humanist artists.