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Lewis Hine (1874-1940) was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on September 26, 1874 to Douglas Hull Hine, a veteran of the Civil War, and Sarah Hayes Hine, an educator. Hine was destined to have a unique outlook on life. His father died in an accident in 1892, and forced Hine to help sustain his the family financially. His first job was in a furniture upholstery factory; he worked 13 hours a day, 6 days a week and earned $4 per week. Other jobs followed, such as a janitor in a bank, Hine said, where after several years I worked up as far as supervising sweeper. Hine experienced first hand the exploitation of young workers and he was determined to escape this type of life. He attended university extension courses where he met Frank Manny, who was principal of the State Normal School in Oshkosh. With Manny’s encouragement, Hine eventually became a teacher, and studied under two of the most recognized liberal educators of the time: John Dewey and Ella Flagg Young.
In 1901, Manny became superintendent of the Ethical Culture School in New York. He immediately appointed Hine as the nature study and geography educator. Manny also asked Hine to become the school’s photographer. As photographer, Hine’s primary job was to document the social and academic aspects of the school. Hine soon realized the power that photography had to reveal truth and reality, which made an ever-lasting impact on him. He envisioned photography’s potential as an educational tool.
Manny and Hine decided to designed one project for the students, which was to show them the importance of respecting the great influx of immigrants into the United States, which occurred during this period. The Ethical Culture School was specifically designed to cater to students of Eastern Europe. They thought this particular project would help the students, have the same regard for contemporary immigrants as they have for the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock. By late 1904, Hine made the first of many visits to Ellis Island to document this movement. This same year, he had developed a love and respect for the photography that he offered a new course of photography at the school. 1904 was an exciting year for Hine as he embarked on a career achieving what photography’s history now considers a most masterful portfolio, but he also managed to return to Oshkosh to marry Sara Rich. By 1905, he had received his master’s degree in pedagogy from New York University.
Within two years of being introduced to photography, Hine had published several articles for The Elementary School Teacher, The Outlook, and The Photographic Times, to promot photography as an educational tool. During these first years, Hine also attended the Columbia School of Social Work where he met Arthur Kellogg, who worked for the magazine Charities and the Commons. This introduction opened doors to more relationships and eventually Lewis Hine became a freelance photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), an agency that promoted and aided enactment of child labor laws. This was quite an undertaking, as many were against, often violently, the introduction of such laws. Child labor was extremely profitable and many business owners were unwilling to accept or adhere to the laws.
Until 1917, Hine traveled from the Northeast to the Deep South, photographing children working under extreme conditions in mills, factories, mines, fields and canneries. Most often Hine would have to disguise himself in order to gain entry into these places. His life would have been threatened if the factory owner disscovered his true identity, since many of them were violently against social reform. His guises would take the form of a Bible Salesman, postcard salesman, or an industrial photographer to record machinery. Once gaining entry, under constant pressure of being discovered, he would quickly note the child’s age, job description and all pertinent information regarding their unique situation. If Hine was unable to enter the workplace, he would wait patiently outside and photograph people as they left. Hine would then use these photographs for publication in magazines, pamphlets, books, slide lectures, and traveling exhibitions. Eventually these images helped convince government officials to create and strictly enforce laws against child labor. The impact of these photographs on social reform was immediate and profound. They also inspired the concept of art photography, not because of the subject matter, but because the images showed a stark truth that dramatically differed from an emerging artistic character.
Photography as an art form began with the influence of Alfred Stieglitz, who had organized the Photo-Secession group, which promoted a “painterly” style of photography. The characteristics of this type of photography were romanticized images produced in a “soft-focus.” Trickery of the actual image-making and its production were the heart of creating this type of photography. Hine once questioned the groups artistic methods, from their ivory tower, how could they see way down to the substrata of it all? Hine, from the beginning, considered his photography as an educational tool in addition to an art form. For Hine, the art of photography lay in its ability to interpret the everyday world, that of work, of poverty, of factory, street, household. He did not mean “humble” subjects; he did not mean “beauty” or “personal expression.” He meant how people live. According to Hine, the art and beauty lay with the people and recording the truth of the people. Pushing the boundaries of the thought of the time, Hine posed his subjects to look straight at the camera. One who viewed the image would have no choice as to look the subject straight in the eye. This type of confrontation was daring, but effective. Hine set new standards of thought, and many photographers began to see the power of these images and began to follow his influence. Hine gained recognition and was soon commissioned for other work.
During WWI, the American Red Cross hired Hine to photograph the relief mission to France and the Balkans. After the war he did work for the American Clothing Workers, the National Tuberculosis Commission, the Tenement House Commission, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Milbank Foundation, the Harkness Foundation and the Interchurch World Movement. Hine published a series of photo essays and played a major role in The Pittsburgh Survey, a survey of social and living conditions inequality of that industrialized city. From these various assignments came forth a portfolio, which Hine called “Work Portraits.” In April 1924, Hine received the Art Directors Club of New York Medal for photography. More published articles followed: including He Who Interprets Big Labor in the Mentor. In the 1930s, Hine worked for agencies such as The New Deal Agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the National Research Project and many more.
One of his most important and famous commissions was to photograph all stages of construction of the Empire State Building. This task added another dangerous aspect to Hine’s career; he would hang from cherry-pickers, balancing 100 stories high to achieve certain aerial views. He would swing out beyond the building to photograph and gather information of workers within the structure. Selected images from the culmination of these projects eventually became Men at Work, an excellent, pioneering picture book.
Hine also focused his camera on working conditions of women during the 1920s and 1930s. He photographed women in the workplace for the cover of Western Electric News, a famous series called the Shelton Loom Series. In addition, Hine photographed housewives; he believed, the homemaker deserves recognition as one of our workers.
The early 1930s marked our country’s greatest depression, and Hine so desperately wanted to take part with Roy Stryker, who led the FSA project of documenting the people of the depression, but was repeatedly denied. One reason may be that Hine never relinquished ownership or rights of his negatives.
Due to the depression, ownership of his negatives and the growing lack of work, Hine’s later years were spent practically as an “unknown.” Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland, an up and coming art critic, visited with Hine just before his death and organized a retrospective exhibit of Hine’s work, which re-exposed him as a photographic artist who’s vision and images made a major impact on the evolution of our culture.
by Lori Oden For The International Photography Hall of Fame