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Friday, August 25, 2017

Lewis Hine

CHILD LABOR--top-left: a cotton mill; top-right: a cannery; middle-left: mine workers; middle-right: foundry workers; lower, middle-left: fishery worker; lower, middle-right: cotton pickers; lower-left: tobacco pickers; lower-right: dump scavengers. None of the children pictured above had yet reached their teen years.
Although it pains me to have to admit it, painters today have very little influence when it comes to effecting social change. There are, minor exceptions of course. The "HOPE" poster of presidential candidate Barack Obama comes to mind. On the other hand, that is not, and has not, been the case where photographers, motion picture documentaries, and videographers are concerned. Why the difference? Simply put, the public no longer trusts artists. Too many of them have delved into political and social propaganda, on their own, or allowed themselves to be used by those who need visual images to make their point (as discussed in my posting dealing with Factory Art). Unavoidably artists, find themselves positioned between their subject and the public viewing their works. As the now-antiquated saying goes, "photos don't lie." Liars do photograph, but that's a pretty subtle distinction. Of course, every professional photographer today, with a degree in Photoshop, is in the same position of trust as a painter, only less obvious and more sneaky about it.

Children as young as six often accompanied their
parents to work (ca. 1913).
Having discoursed on the present, let me note the obvious--this has not always been the case. Lewis Hine was a case in point. It might be going a little too far to claim that this brave turn-of-the-century photographer singlehandedly put an end to the egregious use of child labor, he nonetheless provided a visual public awakening to the execrable elimination of childhood as a trade-off for a meager livelihood. At the time, what he saw and surreptuously photographed, while not quite slavery, was pretty damned close to it. Hine used his camera (extremely crude by today's standards) as a tool for social reform. His photographs and legislative lobbying were crucial in the hard-fought effort to change child labor laws in the United States during the first half of the 20th-century.
The lucky child laborers worked in their parents'
tenement apartments doing piecework.
Lewis Wickes Hine
Lewis Wickes Hine was born in 1874. He grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After his father died sometime in the 1880s, Hine began saving his money to afford college. He studied sociology at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and New York University. He became a teacher in New York City at the Ethical Culture School, where he encouraged his students to use photography as an educational medium. Hine led his sociology classes to Ellis Island in New York Harbor, where they photographed the thousands of immigrants who arrived each day. Between 1904 and 1909, Hine took over 200 plates (photographs). In doing so he came to the realization that documentary pho-tography could be employed as a tool for social change and reform.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

--Emma Lazarus
A newsboy nearly dwarfed by
the papers he sold on the street.
As a photographic chronicler of New York City, not to mention America at large, Lewis Hine falls somewhere between Jacob Riis and Walker Evans. Chron-ologically, of course, but also because of his street portraits, seemingly unposed document-ary style, and desire to use his images to fight for social justice. Besides the immigrants of Ellis Island, Hine shot the cramped masses stuffed into Lower East Side tenements, unfit labor con-ditions, new newsboys, and oth-er child workers.

In 1908 Hine left his teaching position to become the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Over the next decade, Hine documented child labor, with focus on the use of child labor in the Carolina Piedmont, to aid the NCLC's lobbying efforts in ending the practice. In 1913, he documented child laborers among cotton mill workers. Hine's work for the NCLC was often fraught with dangers. As a photographer, he was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. At the time, the immorality of child labor was largely hidden from the public. Photography was not only prohibited, but also posed a serious threat to several major industries. To gain entry to the mills, mines, and factories, Hine often assumed various disguises. At times he was a fire inspector, postcard vendor, Bible salesman, or even an industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery.

Hine had a romantic belief in the possibilities of America, epitomized by his heroic images of construction workers near the top of the nearly completed Empire State Building.
Ironically, Hine is most famous for his stunning images of men working hundreds of feet in the air during the construction of the Empire State Building. Hine's construction photos of more than eighty years ago are perhaps the most compelling for architecture nerds like myself. Men hang suspended on wires, perched on beams, and clutching ropes, far above the city whose landscape they were revolutionizing. At 1,250 feet, the Empire State Building was, after all, the tallest building in the world from its opening in 1931 till 1970. Hines called these ironworkers his "sky boys," and found them endlessly fascinating.

Boys working in tobacco factories became addicted for life as soon as they were old enough to light a match.
Quite apart from his Ellis Island photos and those of the Empire State Building, Lewis Hine's real legacy is the collection of pictures he took of children in factories, fields, and sweatshops, highlighting the appalling conditions they were made to work under at the beginning of the 20th-century. Lewis Hine died in 1940 at the age of seventy-four. His powerful documentary photos, taken at great personal risk to himself, shamed America and helped change the laws surrounding child workers. Moreover, Lewis Hine changed forever our American attitude toward childhood.

A Lower East Side "bootblack"
documented by Lewis Hine.


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