Lewis Wickes Hine
(1874 - 1940)
Lewis Hine was born on September 26, 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin(1). His parents, Douglas Hull and Sarah Hayes Hine, owned a small restaurant and the family lived upstairs in the same building. Little else is known about Hine's life before 1892 when he graduated from high school. Soon thereafter, Hine's father was killed in an accident and Hine was left in charge of the family. He began working a grueling thirteen hour, six day-a-week job at a furniture factory in Oshkosh, but was laid off when the factory went out of business. Hine then worked at a variety of odd jobs until he obtained a job as a janitor at a bank. He began studying stenography at night after work and was eventually promoted to the post of secretary to the head cashier. In addition to his stenography classes, Hine also took courses in drawing and sculpture.
Through his coursework, Hine became acquainted with Frank Manny, a professor of education at the State Normal School, who became both a friend and mentor. Manny encouraged Hine to give up his bank job and pursue his education in earnest. In 1899, Hine started college at the State Normal School, and the following year he transferred to the University of Chicago where he continued to work on his teaching degree. In 1901, Frank Manny was appointed superintendent of New York City's Ethical Culture School and he convinced Hine to join the staff as a teacher of geography and nature study. While teaching, Hine continued his studies for a Master's degree in education at New York University.
In the summer of 1904, Hine returned to Oshkosh to marry his fiancee, Sara Ann Rich and in 1905, he received his degree in Education from New York University. Around this time, Frank Manny also began to try and convince Hine to become the Ethical Culture School's photographer. Hine finally agreed and learned to use a box camera by trial and error. He became an enthusiastic cameraman, setting up a darkroom at the school and organizing an after-school camera club. He and his students followed the latest developments in photography through field trips to galleries such as Alfred Stieglitz's Studio 291. Manny became intrigued by the possibilities of using photography as an educational tool and convinced Hine to accompany him to Ellis Island to begin photographing recent immigrants. By the time the project was completed, Hine had taken over 200 photographs.
Following his work at Ellis Island, Hine began to pursue photography projects for groups who wanted to document conditions in the immigrant slums of New York including the Child Welfare League, the National Consumers League, and the National Child Labor Committee. In 1906, some of these photographs were published in the amateur photography journal, The Photographic Times. Through these projects, Hine was introduced to a number of prominent social reformers such as Florence Kelley, Francis Perkins, John Spargo, and Arthur and Paul Kellogg, editors of the social reform journal, Charities and the Commons. In 1907, Paul Kellogg asked Hine to participate in the Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological study of the working and living conditions of Pittsburgh's industrial, mostly immigrant, workforce. In 1908, Hine left his teaching position at the Ethical Culture School and began doing freelance photography for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). He was quickly appointed staff photographer for the organization, a position he held until 1917.
As the photographer for the NCLC, Hine traveled across the country documenting the role of child workers in a variety of industries. Since child labor was against the law (though the law was rarely enforced), factory owners and managers often refused to allow working children to be photographed, and at times, threatened Hine. Hine became expert at a variety of strategies for obtaining the pictures and information he needed. Often Hine would convince plant managers that he was a salesman or interested in the machinery the children were running, rather than the children themselves. Since he needed detailed documentation of his work in order to avoid charges of falsifying evidence, Hine sometimes took notes with one hand in his pocket while photographing with the other, or used the buttons on his coat, or the scale of nearby machinery to estimate children's heights. The data he obtained was presented in the form of extensive reports, lectures, and slide talks, and he often published brief essays on his investigations. In addition, his photographs were used as part of the NCLC's national publicity campaign to stop child labor.
In 1918, Hine resigned from the NCLC and accepted a special assignment from the American Red Cross to document relief efforts in Europe in the aftermath of WWI. When he returned home, Hine became a freelance industrial photographer and began producing a series of "work portraits" which focused on a positive portrayal of American workers and craftsmen, and often juxtaposed man and machine. During this period, there were also several exhibits of Hine's photographs at clubs in New York such as the National Art Club (1920), the Art Director's Club (1924), and the Advertising Club (1928). In 1924, Hine won a medal at the Exhibition of Advertising Art. He also was introduced to Roy Stryker, later head of the Farm Security Administration's (FSA) Depression-era photography unit. Though Stryker and Hine's relationship was cordial and Stryker eventually used a number of Hine's images in FSA publications, he refused all Hine's requests to work for the photography unit.
In 1930, Hine was hired to document construction of the Empire State Building in New York. Assisted by his son, he produced a series of photographs which followed the project from beginning to completion. During this period, Hine also took on free-lance assignments for magazines, government agencies, labor unions, and private businesses, working for such groups as the Rural Electrification Agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Works Progress Administration. In 1931, a large exhibition of his work was held at the Yonkers Art Museum and in 1932, his book, Men at Work, a compilation of his earlier "work portraits", was published and chosen as the outstanding children's book of the year by the Child Study Association.
Despite these successes, by the mid 1930s, Hine found it increasingly difficult to get work. The rising popularity of candid photography made Hine's studied box camera photographs look old-fashioned, and there was little demand for his work. Briefly, in 1936, Hine was appointed head photographer for the National Research Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), but the project was never completed. Hine, did, however, pursue some other documentary projects for the WPA. By 1938, Hine was almost completely destitute and was forced to get public assistance in order to keep his house from being repossessed. Attempts to find work, or get grants for projects he wished to pursue, all failed. In 1939, a major retrospective exhibition of Hine's photographs was organized by the photographers Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland, and was held at the Riverside Museum in New York.(2) Also that year, CBS asked Hine to collaborate with them on a series of radio broadcasts about the working man. Despite this sudden flurry of interest in Hine, his financial situation continued to deteriorate and late in 1939, his house was repossessed. His wife, who had been ill for some time, died soon thereafter. Less than a year later, Hine died in New York on November 4, 1940.(3)
Hine's reputation languished until the 1960s when there was a sudden rebirth of interest in his work. In 1977, the Brooklyn Museum held a major retrospective of Hine's career organized by the photographer, Walter Rosenblum, and his wife, art historian Naomi Rosenblum. A monograph by the Rosenblums on Hine's work was published by Aperture Inc. that same year.(4) Since that time, Hine has taken his place in the history of photography as an innovator in documentary photography and a perceptive artist in his own right. Hine photographs can now be found in museums and private collections across the United States and his work is widely published.
Throughout his career, Hine used a box-type, 5 x 7 inch view camera and tripod. Magnesium flash powder and natural light usually served as his light sources. Though Hine took little advantage of new developments in photographic technology, he was innovative in the ways in which he used finished photographs. Hine was a pioneer in the use of captions to direct the viewer's interpretation of a photograph, and was one of the first to experiment with other combinations of text and image as well as photo montages. Hine's book, Men at Work, was particularly innovative in its use of full page bleeds, clear reproductions of photographs, and simple modern typography.(5) Along with his friend, Frank Manny, Hine also was one of the first to consider the uses of photography as an educational tool. Another unusual characteristic of Hine's work was his use of direct eye-contact in his portraits, a significant departure from the conventional portraiture styles of his time, and particularly, other photographers' pictures of immigrants and the poor. (6)
Lewis Hine believed that photography had the power to affect social change through straightforward presentation of situations in need of reform.(7) In his earlier photographs, Hine generally relied on composition and cumulative detail to convey his message, rather than choosing highly dramatic, pathetic, or sentimental subjects for his photographs. In contrast, the captions and texts Hine and others wrote to accompany his photographs often are much more rhetorically high-toned. They range from simple texts which direct the viewer's attention to important details, to emotional, strongly worded polemics on the subjects of the photographs they accompany.(8) Hine's photographs are variable in their ability to communicate without the aid of these captions, probably at least in part due to the conditions and often the speed with which Hine was forced to work. Also, Alan Trachtenberg has suggested that since Hine's photographs were taken within the context of larger documentary projects, an individual photograph's ability to communicate may have been less important to him than the message of the aggregate.(9) Still, in general, Hine's photographs are characterized by a clarity and immediacy of subject that communicates without the aid of words.
Though most critics seem to agree that Hine's earlier works were fairly objective documentary photographs, there is disagreement about Hine's objectives in his later (post WWI) photographs. Hine has said that in these works, particularly his series of "work portraits", he was providing a positive view of industry to balance his earlier, negative portrayals.(10) These later works are often romanticized and overtly symbolic portrayals of the relationship between man and machine(11), but most commentators view them as simply a new phase in Hine's lifelong project to dignify human labor. Peter Seixas has recently argued, however, that these photographs may actually subvert Hine's original project by symbolically equating men with the machinery they tend and thus dehumanizing them.(12) Hine's late photographs of construction of the Empire State building, however, bypass these issues by returning to the clarity and objectivity of his earlier works.
(1)Biographical information has been compiled from the following sources: Judith M. Gutman, Lewis W. Hine and the American Social Conscience, Walker and Company, New York, 1967; Walter Rosenblum, Naomi Rosenblum, and Alan Trachtenberg, America and Lewis Hine: Photographs 1904-1940, Aperture Inc., New York, 1977; Alan Trachtenberg, "Lewis Hine: The World of His Art", in Photography in Print, Vicki Goldberg, editor, University of New Mexico Press, 1981; Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, revised edition, Abbevile Press, New York and London, 1981; Verna Posever Curtis and Stanley Mallach, Photography and Reform: Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee, Milwaukee Art Museum, 1984; Peter Seixas, "Lewis Hine: From 'Social' to 'Interpretive' Photographer", American Quarterly Vol. 39, Fall, 1987, pp. 381-409; James Curtis, Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1989; James Guimond, American Photography and the American Dream, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991; Russell Freedman, Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, Clarion Books, New York, 1994
(2)In conjunction with the show, an interview with Lewis Hine, "Portrait of a Photographer", by Elizabeth McCausland, was published in Survey Graphic 27, October, 1938, pp. 502-505.
(3)The negatives and prints from Hine's estate are now in the possession of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The manuscripts that Hine produced for the National Child Labor Committee are in the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.. A search of the George Eastman House database in January, 1997 did not locate either a negative or print of the MMFA photograph in the Eastman House archive.
(4)Walter Rosenblum, Naomi Rosenblum, and Alan Trachtenberg, America and Lewis Hine: Photographs 1904-1940, Aperture, Inc., New York, 1977.
(5)Naomi Rosenblum, 1981, p. 378.
(6)Alan Trachtenberg, "Ever-the Human Document", in Walter Rosenblum, Naomi Rosenblum, and Alan Trachtenberg, America and Lewis Hine: Photographs 1904-1940, Aperture Inc., New York, 1977, p. 124.
(7)Trachtenberg, 1981, p. 240; Curtis and Mallach, 1984, p. 9; J. Curtis, 1989, p. 8; Freedman, 1994, p. 19. Hine also believed that photography was a democratic medium for social change: "I have had all along...a conviction that my demonstration of the value of the photographic appeal can find its real fruition best if it helps the workers to realize that they themselves can use it as a lever even tho it may not be the mainspring of the works." (Hine in Trachtenberg, 1981, p. 253).
(8)Curtis and Mallach, 1984, p. 25.
(9)"The nature of his assignments and the function to which his pictures would be put served to diminish the independent value of any single image in favor of an amassing of images: so many accumulated details, so much truth, meant all the more irrefutable evidence. While each picture, then, had its own backing of data, its own internal story, it took its meaning ultimately from the larger story" [Trachtenberg in Rosenblum, Rosenblum, and Trachtenberg, 1977, p. 130].
(10)"In Paris, after the Armistice, I thought I had done my share of negative documentation. I wanted to do something positive. So I said to myself, 'Why not do the worker at work? the man on the job?'" (Hine in Rosenblum, Rosenblum, and Trachtenberg, 1977, p. 134).
(11)Trachtenberg in Rosenblum, Rosenblum, and Trachtenberg, 1977, p. 135; Naomi Rosenblum, 1981 pp. 363-364; Guimond, 1991, pp. 85-87.
(12)Seixas, 1987, pp. 405-406. Seixas also argues, however, that this shift in Hine's purpose was most likely a mostly unconscious response to changes in clientele: "When the prewar reform climate gave way to business as the business of America, Hine found a way to adapt his earlier themes to new purposes. Other than announcing his shift from "negative" to "positive" themes, he scarcely seemed aware of the divide he had attempted to cross" (Seixas, 1987, p. 406).
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