Keith de Lellis Gallery presents a solo exhibition
of 1930s industrial photographs by Harold
Haliday Costain, one of the leading American modernist photographers
of his generation.
Harold Haliday Costain (1897-1994) had a thriving
commercial studio in Scarsdale, New York when he produced some
of his finest work photographing the inner-workings of the sugar
and salt industries. His dramatic and precisionist images of mines,
factories, and warehouses were commissioned as publicity for the
International Salt Company and the National Sugar Refining Company.
In 1934 his work for International Salt took him to the mines
of Avery Island where he photographed the mining and processing
of rock salt into table salt. His studies of drilling and blasting
made for glorious illustrations of heroic miners illuminated against
the cavernous crystalline walls aglow with the photographer’s
strategically placed artificial light.
During the depression, the image of the American worker and workplace
became a staple for the media and big businesses who exploited
photography as a restorative antidote against the public’s
waning faith in national economic stability. Fortune
Magazine played a significant role in this effort. Its lavish
monthly publication was filled with beautiful photographs illustrating
stories of a bustling American commerce. Costain’s pictures
of the salt mines were featured in the November 1934 issue of
Fortune in an article titled “Salt of the Island…Oldest
and most romantic of U.S. salt mines is the Avery, deep under
the sea along the coast of Louisiana.”
In a 1935 memo to the photographer, the National Sugar Refining
Company stressed the importance of promoting an image of purity
and cleanliness in all its advertising and publicity. The instructions
to Costain were to “portray a plant which is spick and span
in every respect and workers which are in clean clothing…all
workers should be in white coats. This atmosphere is particularly
important because we are showing the place where an essential
food is produced”.
Costain took the request to heart, making images of immaculate
factory interiors, pristine in every way and lit so that every
element would come alive. He thusly photographed the sugar operations
of the Jack Frost Company in Long Island City, and its Edgewater,
New Jersey plant. His pictures of workers at conveyor belts and
managers weighing sugar sacks are treated with equal reverence
in the solemn and efficiently run factories.
Costain was world-renowned in the 1930s as a prolific and award-winning
artist in salon exhibition photography. His professional and multi-faceted
career had earlier engaged him as a cinematographer in silent
films and later as an architectural photographer. His strength
in both of these fields proved excellent training ground for the
challenge of creating compelling images that emphasized both the
drama and scale of workers in grand interior spaces.
Everything about Costain’s pictures communicates a subtle
message that the companies producing these essential products
were organized and created quality goods with the utmost care
in a perfect environment. Costain, a perfectionist himself, labored
over every detail and created images that are an ideal marriage
between art and industry.