Musings On Photography

Intrigue in the World of Photography: The Case of the Faked Hines

This is completely unrelated to anything I’ve written about previously and has nothing to do with anything going on in the real world (I’m not very current-affairs-minded) but there was a recent episode of Fake or Fortune that brought up some interesting questions to do with fakes in the art world. So, naturally, several months later, here I am, typing away with my own two cents about intrigue in the world of photography. 

Because I have to keep reminding myself that this is a blog about photography and not art, I want to focus on the photography-related stories of forgery, fakery and general rakishness. And as I was reading my copy of Juliet Hacking’s Photography and The Art Market it occurred to me that here there were several cases of misbehaviour that I wanted to look at more closely…

Juliet Hacking, Photography and The Art Market, 2018

There aren’t as many cases of photography fakeries or forgeries as there astronomically scandalous affairs of art fakery but what exists in the little photography niche bears looking at because it has several points in common with the larger art world cases. 

I want to look at one in particular today and then will do another little mini-series (that I will probably not continue because I’m learning about my own inability to follow through with things) about cases of mistaken photographic identity in the art world. And there are a few so that’ll keep us going at least through November. 

This particular case concerns two individuals really. One photographer, one protegĂ©. In terms of photographic history he’s an important figure from the early 20th century and one of the first photographers to use photography as a means to provoke social change. His name? Lewis Hine. 

Quick Disclaimer…

At this point I’d recommend that you brew yourself a cup of tea and make sure that whatever device you’re currently reading this on is plugged in to a power source because you’re going to be sitting here for a while…

Lewis Hine and the NCLC

We know about Lewis Wickes Hine from his work with the National Child Labour Committee in the first two decades of the 1900s. Hine worked as an investigative photographer for the NCLC between 1908 and 1924. His job was to capture the working conditions of underage labourers, in other words, children.

The NCLC had been established in 1904 to enact child labour reform. While some US states had child-labour laws they were ineffectual and there was really nothing to protect children from being exploited. Children were cheaper labour than adults, were hardly likely to strike and far more controllable. But these kids still worked 12-18 hours a day, six days a week for $1. Which sounds terrible. 

“Declaration of Dependence by the Children of America in Mines and Factories and Workshops Assembled,” National Child Labor Committee
Library of Congress [1]

So the NCLC had a joint objective: to end child labour and establish free education for children, which finally culminated in the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which set federal standards for child labor. President Roosevelt signed the act on June 25, 1938. The law also established a minimum wage, standard work week, and requirement to pay extra for overtime work. This was the Living New Deal. [2]

Things had been in the works prior to the Act passing in 1938 but any potential measures that might protect these vulnerable children were swiftly nixed by groups with power to influence congress. In 1912, the government established the United States Children’s Bureau, which was charged with investigating working conditions and activating public opinion to oppose child labour, which showed that the NCLC and Lewis Hine’s joint operation in combatting the unnecessary and forced child labour through a combination of words and images had an effect. 

If we go back a few years prior to the 1938 act, we know that congress passed laws in 1916 and 1918 that aimed to enact a national child-labour law but the Supreme Court “declared them unconstitutional because they infringed on states’ rights and denied children the freedom to contract work.” [3] There has to be something ironic about that last bit. Then in 1924, Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have put in place a national child-labour law, only it was opposed by powerful lobbies; groups that had vested interests in keeping children powerless and overworked.

Hine The Photographer

Hine trained as as a sociologist and became a teacher before giving that up to focus full-time on work for the NCLC. Hine wasn’t the only photographer working in the realm of social reform; Jacob Riis’s photographs of New Yorks’ abominable slum conditions impacted Hine greatly, to the extent that Hine documented the awful working conditions of children. I mean, they were children. It was awful. 

It’s funny when you look at photographs of these children. All that natural innocence and child-likeness has disappeared under a veil of too-rapidly acquired adult habits, mannerisms and poses. There’s a kind of toughness that one might say was mirrored in Hine’s own approach to capturing their images. Because factory owners wanted cheap labour and the foremen enforced these principles, when Hine went to photograph these factories, mills and canneries, and was caught with his camera he was violently threatened, sometimes with death. Because he would never have been allowed to enter as Lewis Hine The Photographer, he adopted disguises; Lewis Hine The Postcard Vendor; Lewis Hine The Bible Salesman…

Lewis Hine, Boy making Melon Baskets, A Basket Factory, Evansville, Indiana, 1908
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs [4]

What remains remarkable in the face of this clear mortal danger is that Hine was able to capture the purity of these children’s expressions in the face of this clearly dangerous and physically overwhelming situation. We can obviously always read whatever we want into images, we see what we want to if we’re not too careful. But I don’t think that’s the case here. We know that these are children and yet they bear all the markings of adulthood. 

A Meeting of Minds: Rosenblum and Hine

So how did The Case of The Fake Hines come to pass? Walter Rosenblum was a young photographer and encountered Lewis Hine in 1939. They met at the Photo League in New York, where Rosenblum had recently become an associate. Hine tutored the young Rosenblum, “recommended him for free-lance work, and wrote a letter of introduction that said, ‘Here is a new and better Hine.'” [5]

“I always sought his company… and I was soon completely under his spell. We spent many hours in quiet conversation. I felt embraced by his presence. There were no formalities with Hine, no status games – just honesty and simple dignity. I had never met anyone like him.”

Walter Rosenblum [6]

The Photo League was a photography collective comprising some of the most famous names within America’s 20th century photographic history. Its mission, or objective, was to capture the human condition using the powerful tool of the camera to do so. It fits within the movement of social documentary photography, using the camera in order to document what was happening in society. It was active between 1936 and 1951.

The Case of the Faked Hines

At the end of the 1990s a case came to light that spread a pall over the vintage photography community and it concerned the authenticity of a series of supposedly vintage Lewis Hine prints which were proven to have been printed much later than Hine’s lifetime allowed.

The main suspect in this case was the aforementioned Walter Rosenblum whom dealers alleged had been faking Hine’s photographs by printing from the negatives that he kept and signing or stamping them on the verso (posh art language for the “back” of an artwork) and offering them as bona fide vintage prints.

If a photograph is a vintage print it tends to mean a photograph made very near to the time at which the negative was made. Imagine if Hine made a negative in June 1909 and printed a photograph from that negative one month after, for example.

After Hine died in 1940, in poverty and relative obscurity considering his impact on the entire United States of America only twenty years previously, his negatives were given to the Photo League by his son, Corydon Hine. After the League closed because it was suspected of Communist activity, Rosenblum stored the collection in his home before donating it to the George Eastman Museum. And that’s where the crux of the argument finds itself.

Authenticity and Inauthenticity

This question of authenticity reared its ugly head after a photography collector and theoretical particle physicist, Michael Mattis, had his prints tested, in 1999. Mattis was buying “vintage” prints from Rosenblum on the second-hand market, through dealers and auctions. The prints went for between $3,000 to $8,000 each. 

Mattis and his wife, Judith Hochberg, had purchased two Hine prints in 1998: Powerhouse Mechanic and Steelworkers at a Russian Boarding House. Mattis had started collecting Hine photographs in 1988 and continued until 1999. He bought around 12 Hine photographs in this 11 year period and eventually became suspicious of the abundance of high quality Hine prints that had suddenly appeared on the market. According to his scholars, Hine was never really overly concerned with the quality of his printing, preferring to focus on the content of the images over anything else, so the fact that the prints were shiny new raised some concern.

Although apparently Mattis was not the first to note the unusual high quality of Hine prints. Museum curators and dealers had been aware of museum-quality enlargements of Hine prints for about 15 years. And it was the high level of finishing on these prints that drew some suspicion.

What’s the Big Deal?

At this point I should probably point out that if Mattis’s suspicions had proven to be unfounded then the ultimate cost of his Hine prints would not have changed. This means that if after all that suspicion the prints really had been printed by The Lewis Hine then they may have increased or decreased with the ebbs and flows of Hine’s specific market, but only according to the whims of the time. However, if the prints had not been printed by Lewis Hine but by someone else, then the cost of prints would have plummeted. Because, let’s face it, who wants something that isn’t what it claims to be?

Let’s Brighten Things Up

Mattis took stock of this and contacted Paul Messier, then an expert in photographic conservation. Although Messier had been working in photograph conservation for over a decade, a means to test the authenticity of photographic prints didn’t yet exist. Which means at that point there was no way to establish whether a print was really what it claimed to be. 

“Here I was, a photograph conservator, an expert in the field, and I couldn’t tell you whether the objects in front of me pre- or post-dated Hine’s death.”

Paul Messier [7]

At this point Messier joined forces with conservator Valerie Baas and paper-fibre specialist Walter Rantanen. They developed three tests to establish the authenticity of the suspect Hine prints. These tests now form the canon of authenticity testing. They are:

  • Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs)
  • Manufacturer’s Logo
  • Paper Fibre Analysis

Each specific test analyses a certain aspect of photographic prints. Starting with the most obvious, paper fibre analysis tests the paper of the print itself because, as the fibres attest, some papers were not available in the time period in which the prints were purported to have been made. This means that if X had used a photographic paper from the 1980s to print from a negative made in 1920, and then tried to sell it as vintage, the test on the paper fibres would have discovered this…

Next, the manufacturer’s logo. This is relatively simple to discern. Effectively we use the same scenario as above but replace the fibre with the paper manufacturer logo. For example, if the paper used for the print only started featuring an Agfa logo after the 1950s, and you know that Hine died in 1940, it would have been unlikely that the original Lewis Hine had printed the work himself…

And finally the OBAs. I’ll do a separate workup of this because it deserves an entire issue of its own, given that the paper written by Messier and Baas et al contains a science which has muddled my brain. These OBAs are fluorescent additives in the paper that absorb ultraviolet radiation and reflect it in the blue area of the spectrum – light makes the paper appear brighter. The first occurrence of OBAs was detected in the early 1950s. [8] This means that if you had a photographic print that purported to be vintage and printed by the photographer in 1930 BUT under testing revealed the presence of OBAs, then you’d know with certainty that the aforementioned print couldn’t possibly have been printed when it was claimed. But science doesn’t lie. Remember that, yo.

Results

When the suspect Rosenblum prints underwent the above testing, applied by Messier, Baas and Rantanen, they all failed without exception. The papers contained OBAs, the paper fibre contained wood pulp, which wasn’t around during Hine’s time, and there was discovered a stamp on the verso of one print which could only have come from paper stock issued after Hine’s death. [9] Meaning that all the prints with Rosenblum provenance had not been printed by Lewis Hine. Which ultimately meant that the aforementioned prints were inauthentic. Point here: they are obviously “real” and derive from authentic Hine negatives, but because they were printed decades later by not-Hine they are described as inauthentic, or fake, Hine prints. 

Although Rosenblum admitted no wrongdoing, it’s still odd that the inauthentic Hine prints originated from him. If he had stated that he had been the printer of the negatives there would have been little concern or controversy. But since he claimed that the prints were made by Hine, and science disproved him…

Ultimately the affair was settled out of court and the details remain confidential. After Mattis had requested the tests that revealed that the Hines were fake, and hired an attorney, who negotiated a settlement with the Rosenblums, they agreed to reacquire the Hines, in exchange for two purportedly vintage prints by Paul Strand. Suffice it to say that Mattis was still on the receiving end of some Elvis-style telepathy (“Suspicious Minds”?) and had the two “Strands” tested. They weren’t vintage either. The settlement was then renegotiated.

Conclusions?

I suppose what really came out of this extraordinary case is that the scientific tests became an established and routine component of the field as it is now. The year following the discovery of the faked prints the Getty Conservation Institute sponsored a workshop in Rochester. Messier and fellow experts in the field of conservation science, chemical analysis, paper-fibre were invited to participate and deliver their thoughts on the field and what the most important research topics should be. [10]

What resulted was the consensus that focus should be firmly placed on identifying and classifying every photographic process; understanding the particular chemical and physical composition of different photographs would inform any future authentication issues; help conservators track the degradation of photographs; and support museums in the storage and exhibition display of prints.

References

  1. “Declaration of Dependence by the Children of America in Mines and Factories and Workshops Assembled” https://www.loc.gov/resource/nclc.04892/ [accessed January 18, 2020]
  2. Living New Deal, https://livingnewdeal.org/glossary/fair-labor-standards-act-1938/ [accessed January 2, 2020]
  3. Russell Freedman, Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, Clarion Books: New York, 1994, p. 94
  4. Lewis Hine, Boy making Melon Baskets, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018673841/ [accessed January 18, 2020]
  5. Russell, Kids at Work, p.86
  6. Ibid.
  7. Paul Messier quote in Sarah Everts, “Saving Endangered Photographs,” in C&EN, Vol. 91, Issue 8, February 25, 2013 (pp.9-14) https://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i8/Saving-Endangered-Photographs.html [accessed January 20, 2020]
  8. Paul Messier, Valerie Baas, Diane Tafilowski & Lauren Varga, “Optical Brightening Agents in Photographic Paper,” in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 44, Issue 1, March 2005, pp. 1-12 (p.2)
  9. Paul Messier quote in Sarah Everts, “Saving Endangered Photographs,” in C&EN, Vol. 91, Issue 8, February 25, 2013 (pp.9-14) https://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i8/Saving-Endangered-Photographs.html [accessed January 20, 2020]
  10. Ibid.