Men at Work: Lewis Hine's Photographs of the Workers who Constructed the Empire State Building

Term Paper 2005 16 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Construction of the Empire State Building and the Great Depression

3. Interpretation of Representative Pictures From Lewis Hine’s “Men at Work” Series
3.1 “Icarus Atop Empire State Building”
3.2 “Guiding a Beam”
3.3 “Portrait of an Unidentified Worker Holding a Bucket”
3.4 ”Taking a Break High Above Manhattan”

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

On March 17, 1930 a construction marathon began to build the tallest skyscraper on the planet. The erecting of a building that was even before its termination determined to become an American landmark was of course an interesting working field for contemporary photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Lewis Wickes Hine. But while the first pictured the gigantic buildings in New York, the latter took a different focus in his work. In the same way as in his earlier photographs of immigrants entering Ellis Island and children working day and night in American factories, Hine focused on the people in his later work. In his book “Men at Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines” he portrayed the workers constructing the Empire State Building and he looked behind the walls and steel beams to honor the people who made such an architectural wonder possible. Other aspects of his late project nevertheless appear contradictory comparing them to his early landmarks of social photography. In the “Men at Work” pictures he praises the modern worker as the centre of a new technologic, clearly capitalist era, neglecting the social reality of the Great Depression. How can Lewis Hine suddenly promote capitalism, without showing the other side of the medal – the unemployed, the socially excluded, the poor? For what reason did he not continue to portray the under-dogs of the system, picturing broke farmers in the Mid-West or unemployed workers lining up on New York’s streets, but instead started promotion work for big capitalist like John Jakob Raskob? This paper will look at four pictures from Hine’s “Men at Work” series on the construction of the Empire State Building taken during a six-month-period between 1930 and 1931. It will interpret them in their social context, trying to point out the intention of the photographer. Hine’s portraits will be discussed looking for reasons for the change of focus in his work. To conclude the paper, the question will be asked if this late series is really a break in his work or not rather a completion of an overall task. The photographs discussed in this paper were taken from Lewis Hine’s book “Men at Work: Studies of Modern Men and Machines” and the pictorial “The Empire State Building” edited by Claudine Weber-Hof.[1] Important secondary sources to produce this work were Alan Trachtenberg’s “Reading American Photography: Images as History“ and the book “The Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture” by Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright.

2. The Construction of the Empire State Building and the Great Depression

After only a year of construction work, the Empire State Building was inaugurated on March 1st, 1931 by president Hoover. Unimaginable today, the skyscraper rose on an average of four and a half floors per week. 2,500 to 4,000 workers hammered, riveted, measured and laid bricks on the construction site day by day.[2] The Empire State Building became the allegory of a decade filled with new inventions and new technology which fascinated not only intellectuals and politicians but the US public as a whole.[3] The will to construct the tallest building in the world might synonymously be seen as the will to overcome the heaviest economic crisis in the 20th century United States. During the construction of the Empire State Building, the nation was in the middle of the Great Depression. On October 24th, 1929 and on October 29th, 1929, collapsed the US stock market. The free fall of share values led shareholders to panic sales of their stocks. This initiated the collapse of the banking system, which was followed by a paralysis of the US financial system, and through global intertwinements, to a palsy of world economy. Because nearly no welfare system existed in the United States, many small investors, who had borrowed money to buy so-thought safe stocks, were stroke hard by the crisis. In 1932, one year after the finishing of the Empire State Building, 15.000.000 or 25% of the working population was unemployed. Especially problematic was the situation in the Mid-West because natural disasters stroke farmers at the same time as economic breakdown. Moreover, many of the construction workers, who Hine had portrayed so heroically in his book “Men at Work”, lost their jobs after the finishing of the skyscraper since the construction business nearly came to a full stop in 1932 and 1933.[4] The hopeless situation of those workers after the completion of the Empire State Building was quite dramatically illustrated by its first suicide victim. A former worker threw himself down the elevator shaft, after being informed that he will be laid down after the completion of the skyscraper.[5] This background should be held present when interpreting pictures from Hine’s Empire State Building series. Another important fact to keep in mind while analyzing Hine’s “Men at Work” pictures is that he designed his book for children. It includes pictures and text explanations to describe the different work tasks and won the Children’s Study Award for the best children’s book of the year.[6]

3. Interpretation of Representative Pictures From Lewis Hine’s “Men at Work” Series

3.1 The Sky Boy (often referred to as Icarus Atop Empire State Building)

Observing this photograph by Lewis Hine, our eye is immediately caught by a man climbing up a rope in the centre of the horizontally shaped picture. The full body of a male figure in his mid-20s is portrayed. He is holding on to the rope with his feet and one hand while the other hand is outstretched to arrange something on a rope clamp. The picture’s action is clearly concentrated in the centre of the photograph. Only the man, the rope and a small part of a steel girder in the left hand corner of the picture are in focus. The background is out of focus, but nevertheless buildings and a river, probably the Hudson River, can be made out. The houses that can be seen are small and the viewer looks down on them. It is obvious that the picture was taken in considerable height. Through the city outlook in the background, it is brought to the viewer’s conscience that the man portrayed is a construction worker climbing up a rope hundreds of meters above New York City. This impression is underlined by the picture’s caption telling us that this is “one of the first men to swing out a quarter of a mile above New York City, helping to build a skyscraper.”[7] The worker is wearing an overall, boots but no shirt. He does not seem to know that his picture is being taken as he looks up to the rope clamp. The viewer on the other hand is looking directly at the worker. He or she can see a human being clinging to a rope without any safety means, without anything under him to stop a possible fall. The worker’s hair is blowing in the wind, which makes the impression of the danger of the situation even more obvious as his task is even more difficult with the strong winds blowing up in such heights. The viewer is conscious when looking at the photograph that if the worker falls, he will be dead.


[1] The book „The Empire State Building“ was published in 1998 - long after Lewis Hine’s death. Besides “Men at Work” the photographer has never issued a book. Nevertheless, Lewis W. Hine is named as the author of „The Empire State Building“ because all the photographs, except for some incorporated in the introductory text by Freddy Langer, were taken from Hine’s “Men at Work” series. In the following the author of the book will therefore be cited as Lewis W. Hine.

[2] Freddy Langer, “Lewis W. Hine: Man and Work,“The Empire State Building, Lewis Hine (Munich/London/New York: Prestel-Verlag, 1998): 7-8.

[3] Keith F. Davis, An American Century of Photography: From Dry-plate to Digital (Kansas: Hallmark Cards Inc., 1995) 112.

[4] Jürgen Heideking, Geschichte der USA (Tübingen/Basel: A. Francke Verlag, 2003)296-300.

[5] Peter Haffner. “Der Drang nach Oben.“NZZ Folio: Die Zeitschrift der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung. Ausgabe 8/98. 22 April 2006 <http://www-x.nzz.ch/folio/archiv/1998/08/articles/haffner.html>

[6] Karel Steinorth, “Lewis Hine: Sozialrefomer und Pionier der visuellen Kommunikation,“Die Kamera als Zeuge, ed. Karel Steinorth (Zürich: Edition Stemmle, 1996): 26.

[7] Lewis W. Hine, Men at Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977) 2.


ISBN (eBook)
File size
461 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Martin Luther University – Institut für Anglistik-und Amerikanistik
Work Lewis Hine Photographs Workers Constructed Empire State Building American Photography




Title: Men at Work: Lewis Hine's Photographs of the Workers who Constructed the Empire State Building