Mattis now spends his time researching photography collections and curating shows drawn from his own holdings. His wife, Judith Hochberg, who also has a Ph.D. (in linguistics) from Stanford, works at IBM; they live in Westchester County, New York, and both devote great effort and income to buying photographs, a passion they nurtured in the early 1980s while both were at Stanford.
The two own more than 10,000 photographs. Such a huge collection almost necessarily varies widely in value and rarity. Among the most valuable photographs are eight vintage prints by Diane Arbus; others include vintage prints by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, and, of course, Lewis Hine.
"It's the real thing, vintage, we had it tested," Mattis told me when I visited him two years ago, pointing at a large bronze-toned print from Hine's Empire State Building series. "Note the signature, in white ink, in block letters, on the front of the photograph." (Many of the Hine prints that came from Walter Rosenblum, Mattis has found, have a cursive signature, in pencil or gray ink, on the back.)
The story of Mattis, Hochberg, and the Rosenblums began in December of 1988, when Mattis and Hochberg bought their first two Hines through a dealer in Los Angeles (one of the six who made the demand against the Rosenblums). Both images now rank among the photographer's most famous: Powerhouse Mechanic (a.k.a. The Steamfitter), circa the early 1920s, which shows a muscular young man in a singlet bending at the waist and holding a wrench to a bolt on a steam turbine; and Steelworkers at a Russian Boarding House, circa 1908, a group portrait of six handsome, moustachioed men in Pennsylvania. A year later Mattis and Hochberg acquired another well-known Hine, Three Riveters, Empire State Building, circa 1931, through another dealer. They were thrilled by the quality of the material. "We knew that Hine belonged to the pantheon of great photographers, but the prints we had seen at auction or at other dealers hadn't appealed to us," Mattis says. "There hadn't been a body of beautiful prints like these. The market needed them. We thought they were amazing."
They ranged from $5,000 to $15,000 each and were signed "Hine" on the back. What's more, all bore the stamp "Photograph by Lewis W. Hine from the Walter & Naomi Rosenblum Collection." To Mattis, this was the clincher: "It was the best possible provenance, from the two top scholars of Hine."
Mattis was already familiar with the images he and Hochberg had bought, because all three had been reproduced in Naomi Rosenblum's A World History of Photography, which has a special section on Hine. No other photographer in the book's 671 pages—not Brady, Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, Weston, Adams, or Henri Cartier-Bresson—receives such lavish pictorial attention. Among the eleven Hine photographs reproduced is a full-page Powerhouse Mechanic. According to the credits next to the pictures, all came from a private collection. Mattis remembers thinking, perhaps naively, that having bought prints previously owned by Walter and Naomi Rosenblum, he probably now owned "the vintage photographs used for that book."