Derrick-Man / from the series Empire State Building, 1930
Lewis W. Hine, American, 1874–1940
Gelatin silver print
Image: 9 9/16 × 7 9/16 in. (24.3 × 19.2 cm) Sheet: 9 15/16 × 8 in. (25.2 × 20.3 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Mundy Companies, by exchange

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Learning about Landmarks

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Explore photographs as a source of information about the past.

•  Conduct research using photographs.




Social Studies


Observe Details


Connecting to the Work of Art

Lewis Hine’s photographs of the Empire State Building document the technological achievement of that era’s tallest building and celebrate the human skill and courage that went into its construction.  In this photograph, a man is seen working on one of the many derricks, or cranes, used in the construction of the Empire State Building.  Hine had to lean out from the platform in order to capture the worker in action, who maneuvers the pipe pictured in the lower right corner. 


In the early 1930s, to document the construction of the Empire State Building, Hine accompanied the building’s workers as they constructed what would become the tallest building in the world at the time.  For this photograph, Hine carefully positioned himself on the steel skeleton of the skyscraper. The vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, in both the stance of the derrick man and the steel structure, balance the composition.  The close-up also frames the figure; the vertical steel beams, providing a seemingly secure foundation for the worker.  In reality, the man’s elevated position is more dangerous than it appears in the photograph.


Hine’s empathy for human labor marks his entire career.  An ardent advocate for the use of photography in education, he photographed the immigrants at Ellis Island in order to teach his students the same regard for contemporary immigrants as they had for the Pilgrims.  He also documented child labor factories, knitting mills, mines, agriculture, and the street.  From 1917 to 1920, Hine traveled to Europe documenting postwar civilians and refugees for the American Red Cross.


In 1930, Hine accepted the job of documenting the construction of the Empire State Building.  In his late 50s, he climbed with the “sky boys” floor by floor, balancing his equipment on girders and swinging out in a basket at the hundredth floor to capture views from the top of the structure.


My six months of skyscraping have culminated in a few extra thrills and finally achieving a record of the Highest Up when I was pushed and pulled up onto the peak of the Empire State, the highest point yet reached on a man-made structure.  The day before, just before the high derrick was taken down, they swung me out in a box from the hundredth floor – a sheer drop of nearly a quarter of a mile – to get some shots of the tower.  The boss argued that it had never been done and could never be done again and that, anyway, it’s safer than a ride on a Pullman or a walk in the city streets.¹

1.  Walter and Naomi Rosenblum, America and Lewis Hine (Millertown, N.Y.: Aperture, Inc., 1977), p. 106.


  • What do you notice about this photograph? Look closely at the foreground and background and the difference in focus.

  • How does the artist use perspective? What angle do you think he was photographing from?

  • Describe the different patterns in the photograph. Do you see a relationship between the patterns of the steel and the man’s pose? And the ropes?

  • The artist only used one tone yet the different textures (clothes, human flesh, steel, rope) are highly developed. How do you think the artist achieved this?

  • Notice the cropping of the composition. How would this work be different if the scene was less of a close-up?


  • Consider the relationship between the different patterns in this image. How does the artist use line to formalize his image?

  • What does the artist achieve by having a sharp focus on the man and a soft focus on the building structures? Describe how the use of focus and the way that the man poses hint at a sense of heroics, power and strength.

  • Describe the movement and stillness in the work. Do they contrast or complement each other?

  • Do you think this photograph is a realistic snapshot, or is it posed or even reworked later?

  • The artist explored formal relationships of line and shape, yet at the same time the photograph evokes a sense of human endeavor and strength. What does the photograph tell you about the era in which the scene is set? What name would you use for this time of industrial construction? Does the artist celebrate this time?

  • Silver gelatin print is a type of analog photography. What are your own experiences with this type of photography? What are some general differences between analog and digital photography? What do you prefer? Or does it depend on the image?

Connecting to the Classroom

•  Study Derrick Man on the Empire State Building.  At what stage in the construction of the Empire State Building was this photograph taken?  How does the artist make the construction process appear labor intensive and challenging?

•  What is the age and condition of the Sawyer-Flood House?  What details in the photograph reveal the building’s age? Discuss this photograph as part of a project to record old buildings in Galveston, Texas. Why are such projects important? How does the photograph represent the time period in which it was taken?


•  Use the computer to research a particular event in history by examining photographs taken of that even (ie Civil War)

•  Working individually or in a group, select several photographs that exemplify several aspects of the event being researched. Use a graphic organizer to record details that characterize the event.

• Students pretend that they were photographers at that event. Using the information above, write  an article that could have been included in a news paper accompanying the photograph.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.