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Lewis Hine

Text from Walter Rosenblum, America & Lewis Hine; Photographs 1904-1940

Who was Lewis Hine? Why is he in a pantheon reserved for a rare few photographers? Frank Manny found him, possibly as an obscure teacher in a normal school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and brought him to New York to teach at the Ethical Culture School. Hine was completely without experience, but Manny urged him to become the school photographer and in this way he gained technical expertise.

The compassionate vision which Hine maintained throughout his life had other roots. His revulsion against the use of children in the early twentieth-century American industrial labor force and his empathy with all those who toil were not based on hearsay evidence garnered from books or newspapers. His own experience-in a furniture factory, a bank, a retail store, thirteen hours a day, six days a week for a miserable four dollars in wages-colored his entire existence and filled him with a passion from which he could never escape.

Ellis Island became the crucible that formed Hine, gave him direction, and schooled him for what was to follow. Millions of men, women., and children from Middle and Southern Europe churned through the port of New York between 1903 and 1913, laden with newly acquired names and Old World baggage. Waiting to be told whether they were to stay or be sent back, these bewildered souls, herded in pens, clutched their tickets, name badges, and children's hands as they hung on to their visions of a new life. And into this polyglot, straining mass came Hine, sometimes with Manny trailing along as assistant.

Today's young photographer, with 35 mm camera and Tri-X film, must marvel at Hine's skill and tenacity. Amidst crowds of anxious immigrants milling about, Hine had to locate his subject, isolate him from the crowd, and set the pose-almost always, because of the language barrierf without words. He had to set up his simple 5 x 7 view camera on its rickety tripod, focus the camera, pull the slide, dust his flash pan with powder, and through his own look and gesture try to extract the desired pose and expression. With a roar of flame and sparks, the flash pan exploded, an exposure was made, and beneath the protective cloud of smoke which blinded everyone in the room Hine would pack up and leave. A second exposure was out of the question; one shot was all he had.

Hine's Ellis Island photographs pay homage to people who had left their homes and traveled across the ocean under near slaveship conditions to seek a new beginning in a strange land. Whether it is the young Czech woman in native costume, or the proud and sorrowful old Jew, we gain fresh insight through his vision. Each individual's stance and gesture allow us to grasp the essence of a particular time to look at the portrait of an age. Although the immigrant's dream was seldom to be matched by reality, the beauty Hine saw in his subjects was a distillation of the known terror of the past and the uncertain hope of the future. His Ellis Island photographs are among the finest in all of photography. They constitute the New World's twentieth-century epic poem, a paean in honor of those who came to our shores for sustenance and, in turn, sustained us.

As do all serious artists, Lewis Hine regarded his work as a moral responsibility. It quickly became evident that his Ellis Island "Madonna" the proud Jew, and the beaming German family were all to become cheap labor, exploited by an unfeeling and greedy system. They would be tested in ugly tenements, suffocatingly hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, boxes without heat, hot water, or toilet facilities. The dream would expire in sweatshops at starvation wages or in dreary, endless toil in tenement homes. And the greatest of all crimes, the exploitation of children as laborers, would wither the hope and grace of the young.

This degradation was to become his obsession; it would give him no rest. No matter the weather or his state of health, Hine was in the field documenting the misery of exploited children. In the Child Labor Bulletin of 1914 he wrote: "For many years I have followed the procession of child workers winding through a thousand industrial communities from the canneries of Maine to the fields of Texas. I have heard their tragic stories, watched their cramped lives and seen their fruitless struggles in the industrial game where the odds are all against them. I wish I could give you a bird's-eye view of my varied experience." His photographs did much more than that.

Certainly, Hine was conscious also of the aesthetics of photography. He worked so hard and traveled such distances that the time spent on each print must have been minimal. His files contain beautiful prints as well as mediocre ones. But when he organized a photograph, the effect was right. Considering the range of subject matter, the difficulties of site and execution), his vision is always fine and often superb.

Hine's work for the National Child Labor Committee was frequently dangerous. He was often exposed to physical harm, even death, for the immorality of child labor was meant to be hidden from the public. Irate foremen and factory police were not prepared to accept his presence. To most employers, the exploitation of children was so profitable that nothing could be permitted to end it; upon exposure, it was treated as a part of normal human existence. "Why shouldn't the child work alongside his mother?" was the plaintive cry of the factory owner. "The child will then be safe."

To gain entry into mines, mills, and factories, Hine was forced to assume many guises. His students at the Ethical Culture School had known him to be a marvelous actor who would amuse them on nature walks by becoming a wayward tramp or an itinerant peddler. When he photographed for the NCLC, his repertory ranged from fire inspector, post card vendor, and Bible salesman to broken-down schoolteacher selling insurance. Sometimes he was an industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery. He would set up to photograph a loom, then ask a child to step into the picture so that he could get a sense of scale. Hine knew the height from the floor of each button on his vest so that he could measure the child standing alongside him. Hidden in his pocket was a little notebook in which he wrote vital statistics such as age, working conditions, years of service, and schooling. When he failed to gain admittance to a factory, he would often visit homes in the early morning and wait outside to photograph the children on their way to a long day's work.

It is indeed ironic that Hine was accused of being dishonest and his results judged suspect because he was forced to use deception to document the facts or conditions of child workers. The NCLC reassured the public that his results were always checked, and Hine made certain to document his photographs with specific proof. He was a skilled writerf too, and for many years his notes were used as field reports for the NCLC.

in the last forty years, documentary photography has expanded enormously. But in 1903, when Hine began to work, there were few photographic precedents. Others had used photography as a weapon against oppression and wrong, or as a way of helping people to build a better world, but Hine most probably did not know of them. In Scotland, David Octavius Hill had photographed Newhaven fisherfolk in 1843, intending to sell albums to raise funds to deck their boats for greater safety. Thomas Annan had photographed the slums of Glasgow, and John Thomson had documented the street life of the London poor.

Of Hine's contact with his elder contemporary Jacob Riis, we know nothing at all. Riis wrote for CHARITIES AND THE COMMONS and Hine photographed for them, so he may have been familiar with the earlier Riis work HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES. And there were others who were photographing the slums and working conditions of the urban centers in the century's first decades. But whether or not he knew of their work, Hine found his own way. His touchstone was always real people in a real world of which he and they were a part. He was a humanist, and the essence of his art was his belief that to be happy and beautiful, to be a child, to flower and grow, the world needed changing. And it was his duty to try to change it.

So from the battlefield of child labor he went to the war zones of World War I in Europe. Rejected at first for physical disability by the Red Cross, he somehow managed to get overseas in 1919. Touring the ruined lands of Serbia, Greece, and France, he sought out individual misery or bewilderment. The best of these pictures often suggest the steamy togetherness of Balkan peasant life or display the aching beauty of a homeless youngster.

In the 1920's and early 1930's, Hine turned to the American working class, seeking in their faces, their hands and their activity his paean of praise for the dignity of labor. He produced more than a thousand pictures of the Empire State Building in construction and used several of these, along with other work portraits made during the Twenties, for MEN AT WORK (1932). During these years, he became involved with many other projects, some naturally less interesting and moving than others as he sought economic and pictorial sustenance.

Lewis Hine was no mere itinerant photographer, accidentally happening upon a significant moment in American history. One has only to compare his images with others made at the same time and of the same event. Most settle for the facts of the situation: the broken floor and fetid wall, the garbage-strewn alley and the bleak frame dwelling. Hine's vision is rare because it is essential. He realized that the cracks in the wall, the poor light, the unending toil had to do with hopes and dreams and strengths. It was on these that his camera focused.

Hine was a cultured man with a wide range of interests. He was versed in the natural sciences and had earned a Master's Degree in education. He had studied the arts, even wrote on photographic aesthetics, and followed the Photo-Secessionist movement in photography with interest if not in agreement. He read widely in economics and was involved in political ideas. Among his friends were important activists of the time such as Paul Kellogg and John Spargo, and he wrote for the publications of both the reform and socialist movements; his photographs also appeared in such publications.

His contemporaries in the field of social work respected his accomplishments, realizing that his photographs were pivotal in the legislative battle against child labor. Aesthetically, however, these men and women had little appreciation of his photography. Nor was there any rapport between Stieglitz and Hine, although Hine brought his photography class at the Ethical Culture School to "291" and later followed Stieglitz's work in his exhibitions. Hine had little time for gum bromoil prints, soft-focus lenses, retouched photographs of nature, or artfully posed nudes. Stieglitz'S EQUIVALENTS seemed to have left him amused but untouched. Hine could have opted for the friendly quarters of the New York Camera Club and reveled in ribbons, medals, awards, and prizes, and he might have scaled the "ivory tower" of "291." Instead, he was drawn to the world of the oppressed, the hungry, the disenchanted.

Although it would have been singularly apt, no one until now thought of titling a book of his photographs AMERICA & LEWIS HINE. Yet America and Lewis Hine are inseparable. Hine could not have made his photographs in a different place or at a different time, for the social turmoil of the Progressive period of American history was the fabric of his vision. Nor are those times more powerfully depicted than in his work. Hine's photographs fused the data of time and place with the intimations of human aspirations. An explorer of body and spirit, he sought to illuminate the dark recesses of the American experience, and to make that experience accord with man's hope.

"Light is required," he said. "Light in floods." For the light he sought, for the light we needed, and still need, for the light he shed, we will be forever in his debt.


 


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