Collection Spotlight: Untitled from International Nickel series, W. Eugene Smith


Title: Untitled from International Nickel series

W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978)

Nationality: American

Date: c. 1967-1968

Medium or technique: Silver Gelatin Print

Image Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Richard L. Sandor in honor of Julie and Penny Sandor, 1986.1.2

At the end of the 1960s sociologists started using and popularizing the term “post-industrial” to refer to the modernization of Western economic and social life. The miners in this untitled photograph from the International Nickel Company by W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978)  are captured in 1967-68, a moment poised between the nation’s “golden age of industry”and the “post-industrial age.” Smith’s photography gives a captivating insight into the years just before the “post-industrial”—and the ways in which artists were visualizing labor in this apparent transition period.

The Untitled photography shown here is part of a series Smith made between 1967 and 1968 while on a commercial job for International Nickel, a mining company with sites in Manitoba, Canada, upstate New York, and London. International Nickel ran print advertisements for their company in popular magazines like Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Review, and hired Smith to shoot all of the photography. In these ads published in Time magazine, what we see is not industry going away, but rather industry re-branded as a blend of cutting-edge science and a healthy, family-oriented lifestyle. One ad “I once worked above ground” shows a heroic close up of a Canadian miner, and a small family portrait of miner Bill Anderson and his children playing in the snow in Thompson, Manitoba. In a short quotation, we get a sense of the intergenerational aspect, commonly associated with mining. Anderson explains, “My father’s an Inco pensioner. So was his father. You should have heard them talk about how tough mining was in the old days.” Yet there’s an indication of something different, as he continues, “At college they showed us it’s a science.” The ad follows:

“A science. Because of men like Bill Anderson. Men who accept the challenge of bringing the world the nickel it needs. More and more nickel to make other metals stronger, tougher, more corrosion-resistant. To make over 3,000 alloys perform better, longer. Nickel, its contribution is quality.”

3 - Main frame
“I Once Worked Above Ground” advertisement for International Nickel with photographs by W. Eugene Smith. TIME, January 5, 1968. Courtesy of Repository and Digital Curation, Northwestern University Libraries.

These ads ran in the United States during the height of the Cold War, just a year before Apollo 11. Taken from a historical perspective the ad’s celebration of science, metal alloy development, and its everyday heroes resonates with military-industrial messaging.

Despite the humanist vibe the advertisements give, Smith’s striking images also often also give a distanced or anonymous view of workers. Smith’s photography grapples not only with changes in the processes of industry, but with the mechanical challenges of image making below the surface of the earth. In this Untitled photograph, Smith’s use of a dramatic chiaroscuro aesthetic suggests subtleties of change in the industrial work experience during this period. For example, it was in the mid-1960s that machines started to replace humans and pit ponies in mines. Cloaked in shadow, these Canadian miners are at once anonymous appendages to the machine and heroic technicians. Through the mobilization of photo-mechanically produced shadows, Smith starts to register, even subtly, the uncertain relation between the subject of the miner, his body, and the tools of work.

–Talia Shabtay, Block Museum Graduate Fellow 2016-2017 

Smith’s photograph, and a reproduction of the Inco ad pictured here, were recently exhibited at the Block Museum in Mining Pictures: Stories From Above and Below Ground.

The Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences.

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