In 1999 a major scandal involving the authenticity of photographs attributed to Lewis W. Hine (1874−1940) shocked curators, collectors, dealers, and auction houses. In a field where multiple copies of an image can be produced by a photographer, the issue of unauthorized copies can be problematic. Museums and collectors value the artistry of the original artist/photographer, but it is not difficult for an experienced photographer to create new prints from original negatives.
Today Lewis Hine is considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century and a pioneer of social documentary photography. At the end of his life, however, few people were interested in his work, and he died in financial difficulty. After Hine’s death, his son donated his prints and negatives to the Photo League, a group of socially committed professional photographers. After closure of the league, the collection was stored in the home of a member, Walter Rosenblum (1919−2006), before being donated to the George Eastman Museum.
Lewis Hine used his camera as a tool for social reform; his work is credited with changing the child labor laws in the United States and is represented in many museums. The largest holdings are at the Library of Congress and the George Eastman House.
The photograph shown here was donated to the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina by Naomi and Walter Rosenblum, Hine experts and respected members of the New York photography scene. It has two stamps on the back. One reads “LEWIS W. HINE / INTERPRETIVE PHOTOGRAPHY / HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON NEW YORK” and the other “Photography by Lewis W. Hine / from the / Walter B. Rosenblum Collection.”
Lewis Hine used four almost-identical negatives of Powerhouse Mechanic to create photographs that were exhibited during his lifetime. According to experts, Hine’s genuine vintage prints generally have low contrast and are in somewhat ragged condition. Most of the unauthorized reprints identified thus far tend to have higher contrast and are in pristine condition. Hine rarely signed prints, though in some cases when prints were made for exhibitions, signatures were placed on the front in the lower right corner. While signatures are uncommon, Hine was prolific about adding captions/descriptions of the images on the back in pencil.
Powerhouse Mechanic (also known as Mechanic and Steam Pump) is part of a series of photographs taken by Lewis Hine in 1920 and 1921, when he changed from a documentary style to what he called “interpretive photography.” Carefully posed, the images are among the most highly valued of Hine’s work. A version of this image, printed by Hine, was sold at auction in 2014 for $269,000.
Printed by Walter Rosenblum from the original negative by Lewis Hine
Gelatin silver photograph
Greenville County Museum of Art, Gift of Naomi and Walter Rosenblum
This is the verso of the photograph purportedly printed during Lewis Hine’s lifetime. You can see the version of Hine’s original stamp and that of Walter B. Rosenblum. The penciled inscription claims that this print was created in 1925, but the presence of optical brighteners in the paper clearly indicates that it was printed decades later.
Verso of Powerhouse Mechanic
Printed by Walter B. Rosenblum
Silver gelatin photograph
Courtesy of P. Messier
Examination of this photograph under ultraviolet light indicated the presence of optical brighteners, chemicals that were not added to photographic papers until about 1945, a decade after Lewis Hine’s death. The fiber content of the paper, identified by microscopy, also indicates a late date for this print.
Packages of unexposed photographic papers
Photo courtesy of P. Messier, Paul Messier Reference Collection of Photographic Paper
After the scandal involving Lewis Hine photographs broke, two photographic conservators and a forensic scientist from the FBI worked on developing techniques to identify photographic prints created after the lifetime of the photographer. They classified the texture, thickness, gloss, color, paper fibers, and fluorescence and documented the history of manufacturer’s logos commonly printed on the back of a wide range of photographic papers. This technical information can help determine the date of the photographic paper and therefore the authenticity of the photo. As part of their work, the world’s first reference collection of photographic papers was created; today it contains more than 5,000 examples that date from the early 20th century to the present. The package of paper on the left dates to the 1960s while the one on the right dates to the 1940s.
This print by Lewis Hine is part of the largest scandal of its kind in the history of photography. In a case settled out of court in 2001, Walter Rosenblum, a past president of the Photo League, retired professor, and a recognized expert on Hine, was accused of having printed and sold hundreds of modern versions of Lewis Hine’s work to six dealers. While it would not be illegal for Rosenblum to have sold copies printed from Hine’s original negatives if he identified himself as the printer, he claimed that the photos were printed by Hine.
Messier, Paul. “Impact of Authenticity Scandals on the Field of Photographic Conservation.” PhotoNews Zeitung Fur Fotografie, October 2008.
Messier, Paul, Valerie Baas, Diane Tafilowski, and Lauren Varga. “Optical Brightening Agents in Photographic Paper.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 44, no. 1 (2005): 1−12. http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/articles/jaic44-01-001.html
Woodward, Richard B. “Too Much of a Good Thing.” The Atlantic, June 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/06/too-much-of-a-good-thing/302751/