Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874-1940) is widely regarded as the founder of documentary photography. For decades, Hine used his camera to provide a visual representation of some of America’s most pressing social issues. His haunting photos of abhorrent child labor practices throughout the country compelled many philanthropists and liberal politicians into action. His compassionate “work portraits” helped humanize industry in the midst of increasing mechanization of American labor.
Georgetown University assistant professor Kate Sampsell-Willmann shows that Hine and documentary photographers like him were social critics who used their considerable artistic talents to propel a certain political viewpoint. In her careful re-creation of Hine and his work, Sampsell-Willmann places the photographer at the center of the core causes of the Progressive Era: expanding access to education, improving overall working conditions, abolishing child labor, etc…..Hine becomes a crucial part in a long line of American intellectuals like Walt Whitman, William James and John Dewey.
As director of information for the National Child Labor Committee, Hine traveled throughout the country photographing young workers. One of the photos in the book depicts a group of “shrimp pickers” from Biloxi, Miss. The children — all between the ages of five and eight years old — stare curiously into Hine’s camera. They are dirty, tired and barefoot. It’s strange to see children so young in such grown-up situations, especially almost a century after the photo was taken. The message of Hine’s child labor photographs, according to Sampsell-Willmann, is one of “innocence threatened.” Yet Hine’s work with the NCLC went beyond photography. He sought out mill owners and factory supervisors and asked them, on the record, about the conditions in their facilities. His ability to contrast these statements with his own images makes his work all the more important.
(Lewis Hine as Social Critic By Kate Sampsell-Willmann (University Press of Mississippi) Reviewed by SCOTTY E. KIRKLAND, Special to the Press-Register at blog.al.com)
Italian Family Seeking Lost Baggage, Ellis Island, 1905
Sweeper and doffer boys in Lancaster Cotton Mills, 1908
Trapper Boy, 1908
Modern Life: Edward Hopper and his Time at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam
For Lewis Wickes Hine the camera was both a research tool and an instrument of social reform. Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Hine studied sociology at the University of Chicago and Columbia and New York Universities. He began his career in 1904, photographing immigrants arriving in the United States at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. In 1908, he became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Over the next decade, Mr. Hine documented child labor in American industry to aid the NCLC's lobbying efforts to end the practice. Between 1906 and 1908, he was a freelance photographer for The Survey, a leading social reform magazine.
In 1908, Hine photographed life in the steel-making section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the influential study, "The Pittsburgh Survey." During and after World War I, he documented American Red Cross relief work in Europe.
Doffers at the Bibb Mill, 1909
Don’t Smoke, Visits Saloons, 1910
A barefoot seven-year-old newsboy for the Mobile Item
City's hardscrabble newsboys
Adolescent girls from Bibb Mfg. Co. in Macon, Georgia
A Group of Young Fellows Working in a Cannery, In Indianapolis
Sewing Class, 1st November 1912
Sprague Settlement House, Providence, Rhode Island
The director holds a deserted baby
Library of Congress
Rosy Phillips and Exie, 1913
Rosy Phillips (above), who, wrote Hine, was a "fifteen year old spinner in a Dallas cotton mill." Hine thought her name ironic, writing that "she was far from 'rosy' - thin, anaemic, prematurely old." That boy with her, he wrote, is her 12-year-old brother -- Exie, he thought the name. The boy told the photographer, "I can't get a steady job, but I can help her all I want to."
The american dream. It's hard not to think of the Statue of Liberty, in the New York harbour, greeting immigrants that have left their far-away homes, in search of a better life in the New World. They came from every walk of life. Many arrived still children on their parents' lap, looking around them at the strange and amazing environment of the big city. Early on, they started working and searching, deep down, for a chance in the land of opportunities.
More out of need than out of ambition, from a young age, future Americans gave their effort and youth to their nation, at a time when children were seen as small adults and child labor was considered a priviledge, America has grown as much thanks to its immigrants as thanks to its children, who became adults too soon and had no time to play.
Between 1908 and 1912, Hine photographed what he called the faces of lost youth: children of various ages, some only five years old, performing grown-up jobs. And they were not at all light jobs. We can find little boys and girls working in factories, stores, fishing boats, mines, from dawn to dusk, sometimes for over twelve hours... The photographer got to know each and every one of them: Michael, Manuel, Camille, Pierce. He got to know everyone's story. They posed for him, sometimes with naive pride, as if they thought themselves grown-up, but with all the sadness in the world mirrored in their eyes. The images are piercing; you can't help feel disturbed looking at them.
(CHILD LABOR: AMERICAN IN BLACK AND WHITE by seven at obviousmag.org)
Powerhouse Mechanic (a.k.a. The Steamfitter), c. 1920s
Records of the Works Progress Administration
Construction worker on the empire state building some type of wire
In the 1920's and early 1930's, Hine made a series of "work portraits," which emphasized the human contribution to modern industry, and included photographs of the workers constructing New York City's Empire State Building. During the Great Depression, he again worked for the Red Cross, photographing drought relief in the American South, and for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), documenting life in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. He also served as chief photographer for the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) National Research Project, which studied changes in industry and their effect on employment.
Throughout his work, Hine treated his subjects with the utmost respect. As he wrote in the introduction to his book Men at Work, “I have toiled in many industries and associated with thousands of workers. I have brought some of them here to meet you. Some of them are heroes, all of them persons it is a privilege to know.” The social and political facets, although they may seem at times to overshadow the artistic nature of the photographs, actually emphasize the elegantly spare compositions of the images.
His career focused on three issues: namely, the Ellis Island Immigrants; child labor; and his Work Portraits series, on which he spent the last twenty years of his career. During his life, Hine’s work was considered old-fashioned, and he spent a period of time on welfare, unable to pay off the mortgage on his house. Nevertheless, he continued photographing. A retrospective exhibit of his work was held at the Riverside Museum immediately before his death in 1940.
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