Bourke-White made hundreds of exposures that winter, although she deemed most of them failures. She constantly adapted new techniques and materials, such as the special-effects magnesium flares she used for artificial lighting. But the hulking darkness and mammoth scale of the mill presented countless challenges, and she struggled with shooting images inside its walls.
After five months of work, she believed that she had produced only a dozen great images of industrial subjects such as the “hot pigs,” towering smokestacks, two-hundred-ton ladles, and flying sparks. She conceded, “Despite my enthusiasm I needed orientation. I needed to go through a kind of digestive process before I could even choose viewpoints on my subjects.”
This “digestive process” can be seen in Bourke-White’s Otis Steel Works (1928), a photograph that distills the mill’s exterior to a series of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal forms. The image portrays the mill’s internal yard in a quiet moment—no cars carry coke down the railway tracks, and the smoke from the chimneys dissolves into a fine haze. Lively textures play against the heavy machinery: billowy smoke, smooth rails, hard earth. Puffs of white steam seem included by design, appearing as almost a living thing amid the massive manufactory.
Between the steel, iron, and smoke, it is easy to overlook the two minuscule workers in the distance, standing near the tracks like specters. Their diminutive portrayal is consistent with Bourke-White’s early tendency to focus on machines rather than their operators. Even when she includes workers in her images of the mill’s interior, as in this work, they are visually subsumed by machinery, as though they are merely more of its moving parts.