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White Gray Black

Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874–1940)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American photographer. Following several years as a factory worker in Oshkosh, and a short period at the University of Chicago, where he studied sociology and pedagogy (1900–01), he went to New York to teach at the Ethical Culture School (1901–8). There he acquired a camera as a teaching tool and soon set up a club and ran classes at the school, while improving his own skills as a self-taught photographer. In 1904 Hine’s interest in social issues led him to document newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island as a way of demonstrating their common humanity, for example Young Russian Jewess at Ellis Island (1905; see Rosenblum, Rosenblum and Trachtenberg, p. 43). Thereafter he sought to demonstrate the efficacy of the photograph as a truthful witness, accepting commissions from social-work agencies. Towards the end of the first decade he became official photographer on the Pittsburgh Survey, a seminal investigation of America’s archetypal industrial city, producing such images as Tenement House and Yard (1907–8; Rosenblum, Rosenblum and Trachtenberg, p. 56).

This experience, coupled with the fact that half-tone process printing had made photographic reproduction more accessible to popular and specialized periodicals, impelled Hine to leave teaching to devote himself entirely to the documentation of social conditions. During almost a decade as staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), he travelled throughout the USA photographing child workers in mills, mines, on the streets and in fields and canneries. These images, for example Breaker Boys in Coal Shute, South Pittston, Pennsylvania, January, 1911 (see Rosenblum, Rosenblum and Trachtenberg, p. 59), were used by the NCLC in periodicals, pamphlets, exhibitions (for a time designed by Hine), and as lantern slides for public lectures in an effort to bring about legislation regulating child labour. Hine’s photographs, however, transcend basic documentation in that he sought out poses, facial expressions and gestures that not only would be perceived as truthful but would also stir the viewer’s sympathy and spur them to action.

By 1918 the aftermath of American involvement in World War I had dampened enthusiasm for reform programmes. Hine joined an American Red Cross expedition to the Balkans, where he documented devastation and dislocation unlike anything he had seen in his native land. On his return he felt moved to portray the American worker with dignity, in what he felt was a positive light. While he was able to support himself for a period by supplying images to the Survey and a number of industrial magazines, his emphasis on the human element was not in tune with the era’s interest in the machine, and he suffered financially.

At the beginning of the 1930s, however, Hine won a commission to document the construction of the Empire State Building in New York. He portrayed the workers and the structure that grew from their labour with a sense of the drama involved in erecting the world’s tallest building (see Rosenblum, Rosenblum and Trachtenberg, pp. 107–16). This was the last major project of documentation that Hine was called upon to do. Despite the renewed interest in social imagery in the USA during the remainder of the 1930s, and attempts by Berenice Abbott and writer Elizabeth McCausland to arouse interest in Hine and his work, the photographer was largely ignored from then until his death in 1940.

Naomi Rosenblum
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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