Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Luke Hartzell Swank did not become seriously interested in photography until the age of forty. Before then, he held various jobs and took occasional snapshots with his Kodak camera. Graduating from Pennsylvania State College School of Agriculture in 1911, he worked as a truck farmer, a police-dog trainer, in his father's hardware business, and as an auto mechanic and dealer. Between 1917 and 1918, he served in the U.S. Army. With the sale of his first photographs of a Bethlehem Steel plant in 1930, Swank launched a successful and prolific career that lasted until his death at age fifty-four.
Swank exhibited his work nationally, taught, maintained a commercial studio, and worked for many publications, including Vogue, House and Garden, Fortune, Life, and the New York Times. During the 1930s his work was widely exhibited, including solo shows at the Julien Levy Gallery and Delphic Studios in New York City. His twelve-foot-long photomural of steel mills was displayed in 1932 in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers. Swank also showed his work at Willard Van Dyke's "683" Brockhurst Gallery in San Francisco, the Brooklyn Museum Salon of International Photography, and in Pittsburgh at the Gulf Building Galleries, Kaufmann's department store, and Carnegie Institute of Technology.
Swank's subjects included steel mills, the circus, and life and architecture in urban, small-town, and rural Pennsylvania. In 1934 Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, wrote in an exhibition announcement: "Not only is Luke Swank interested in interpreting American life, but in revealing what is particular to American light and air. Therein, we believe, lies his artistry." Discussing Swank's circus images, Robert Doherty, former director of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, made an observation that is true of all of his work: "His seeing was very precise...a very elegant set of images."
In 1935 Swank became the official photographer for the University of Pittsburgh, where he also taught courses in photojournalism—among the first in the United States to be offered at the college level. Swank had a great respect for news photographers. In a 1934 interview in the Pittsburgh Press he said, "They [newspaper photographers] must take things as they find them. There is no fake about their work. That's what makes their work so interesting." Swank left the university in 1937 and opened a studio in downtown Pittsburgh with the financial assistance of his friend Edgar Kaufmann, department-store magnate and patron of the arts. Swank's photographs of Kaufmann's famous house, Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, were shown at the Museum of Modern Art. In the early 1940s Swank worked for the H. J. Heinz Company, producing many photographs for cookbooks.
Luke Swank was born on February 21, 1890, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania,
almost eight months after the infamous Johnstown Flood destroyed
everything in its path, including the Swank family hardware store, killed
his grandparents, and injured his father. The son of a prominent merchant
family, Swank studied horticulture and chemistry at the Pennsylvania
Agricultural College (now Penn State University). During World War I,
he served as an Army lieutenant doing research on chemical warfare.
After the war ended, he started to explore photography seriously; and
by the mid-1920s, he had begun his study of the circus, investigating
light and form in images and portraits. He turned to steel mills and the
people who work in them in the late 1920s.
Although serious about photography, Swank did not make his living
initially as a photographer. Until his mid-forties, he worked in the family
businesses. In 1930, he was selling cars for the family-owned dealership.
In late 1931, he contacted the New York art dealer Julien Levy, whose
gallery was dedicated to showing photography and the work of the
surrealists. Through Levy in 1932, Swank was invited to create Steel
Plant for the Murals by American Painters and Photographers exhibition
at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This was the first MoMA
exhibition to include photography. In 1933, Swanks solo show,
Photographs of the American Scene, opened at the Julien Levy Gallery.
Around 1935, after the Depression had taken its toll on the family
businesses, Swank moved to Pittsburgh and began to make his living
from commercial photography. He worked at the University of Pittsburgh
as a photographer and teacher. In 1936, he started to do commercial
projects for the H. J. Heinz Company; and in 1937, in partnership with
Edgar Kaufmann, Swank opened his studio at 526 Penn Avenue. Swank
continued his exploration of Modernism while making his living as an
advertising and editorial photographer until his death in 1944.