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

  • OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Shedding Light on Photography

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

•  Develop a system for designating a light-to-dark value range in photographs and sunprints.

•  Create a graph relating to exposure time in their sunprints.






Overcome Fear

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.


•  Review the three works of art and discuss the time of day each photograph was taken.  What is the light source in all three of the photographs?

•  Look for the shadows and brightest areas in each photograph.  Compare and contrast the photographs, looking at the range of values from lightest to darkest.


•  Place sunprints made for the science project in sequential order, based on amount of time that the paper was exposed to the sun.

•  Develop a comparative numerical scale for lightness to darkness and rate each print.

•  Make graphs to demonstrate the outcomes, showing light ratings on one axis and lapsed time on the other.

•  Discuss and interpret the graphs.

Resources Available to Order

The Art-To-Go lending library features materials that may easily be integrated across the K–12 curriculum. Resources include DVDs, music CDs, children’s books, study guides, poster sets, and collection-based interpretive materials produced by the KFEC. Educators, community leaders, and docents from throughout Texas are welcome to borrow Art-To-Go resources. To place your order, search the online catalogue and add the selected items to your basket. After you have reviewed your basket, submit the order electronically.

The Learning Through Art program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is underwritten by:

Mercantil Commercebank

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