… or part of the history of Lewis Wickes Hine.
He was born on September 26, 1874 to Douglas Hull Hine, a Civil War veteran, and Sarah Hayes Hine, an educator. Hine’s unique outlook on life seems predestined. His father died in an accident in 1892 and this forced Lewis to start helping support his family. His first job is in a furniture upholstery factory – he works 13 hours a day, 6 days a week and earns only $4 a week.
Several job shifts follow, where Hine experiences the exploitation of young workers first hand. He is determined to change this way of life. He began studying sociology at the University of Chicago, where he met Frank Manny, who was the principal of Oshkosh Public School. After encouragement from Manny, Hine eventually becomes a teacher.
In 1901, Manny became the head of the Ethical Culture School in New York. He immediately appointed Hine as a nature and geography teacher and asked him to become the school’s photographer. As a photographer, Hine’s main task is to document the school’s social and academic activities. Hine soon realized the power of photography to reveal truth and reality, which had an ongoing influence on him. He clearly envisions the potential of photography as an educational tool.
Together with Manny, they developed a project to involve the students and to show them the need to be aware of the importance of the great influx of immigrants that happened at that time in the United States.
In 1904 Hine began photographing at Ellis Island, showing a representative sample of Eastern and Southern European immigrants in a dignified and sympathetic manner. These images, made under difficult circumstances with bulky, primitive technique, present a powerful, humanistic argument for open immigration at a time when nativist (A political program in the USA in the 19th century that prioritized the interests of native citizens over those of immigrants.) sentiments against the foreign-born are on the rise.
That same year he returned to Oshkosh to marry Sarah Rich. In 1905 he received a master’s degree in pedagogy from New York University.
Between 1904 and 1909, Hine created over 200 plaques and realized that documentary photography could be used as a tool for social change and reform.
Within two years of being introduced to photography, Hine published several articles in The Elementary School Teacher, The Outlook, and The Photographic Times to promote photography as an educational tool. During these early years, Hine also attended the Columbia School of Social Work, where he met Arthur Kellogg, who worked for Charities and The Commons magazine..
Lewis and Arthur’s acquaintance opens many doors. At some point (1908), Hine stopped teaching and began working as a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), an agency that promoted and supported child labor laws. Passing and enforcing such laws seems quite difficult at this time, because for many businesses, child labor is extremely profitable and they simply do not comply with them.
By 1917, Hine traveled from the Northeast to the Deep South, photographing children working under extreme conditions in mills, factories, mines, fields, and canneries. Most of the time, Hine has to disguise himself to enter these places. Otherwise, his life would be in danger if the factory owner discovers his true identity, as many of them are against social reform. His cover images are a Bible seller, a card seller, or an industrial photographer taking pictures of machinery. Once inside the factory, and under the constant threat of detection, he quickly jots down the child’s age, job description, and all information regarding their specific situation. If he can’t get into the workplace, he waits patiently outside and takes pictures of people as they leave.
Hine used these photographs for publication in magazines, pamphlets, books, lectures and traveling exhibitions. Ultimately, these images help convince government officials to create and strictly enforce laws against child labor. The impact of these pictures on social reform was immediate and profound. They also inspired the concept of fine art photography, not because of the subject matter, but because the images showed a clear truth that was drastically different from the artistic nature of photography at the time.
Empire State Building
One of his most important and famous assignments was to photograph all stages of the construction of the Empire State Building. This assignment adds another dangerous aspect to Hine’s career, requiring him to hang from towers, balancing 100 stories above the ground to capture certain aerial views. He hangs outside the building to photograph the construction workers.
The selected images become the “Men at Work” project.
An interesting fact is that Hine never gave up the copyright of his negatives at the expense of agencies, magazines, etc.
Due to the Great Depression, ownership of negatives and increasing lack of work, Hine’s later years are virtually “unknown”. Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland, an art critic, visited Hine just before his death and organized a retrospective exhibition of his work that re-introduced him as a photographer whose vision and images had a major impact on the evolution of modern culture.
Died November 3, 1940 at Dobbs Ferry Hospital, New York, after surgery at age 66.
After Hine’s death, his son Corydon donated his prints and negatives to the Photo League (The Photo League is a cooperative of photographers in New York who unite around a number of common social and creative causes. The league was active from 1936 to 1951 and its members included some of the most famous American photographers of the mid-20th century. Operated until 1951.). The photographs were then offered to the Museum of Modern Art but were not accepted there, but the George Eastman Museum accepted them (note : – The George Eastman Museum is the oldest museum dedicated to photography and one of the oldest film archives, opened to the public in 1949 in Rochester, New York.)