08 January 2014

Lewis Hine

This is no Disney musical. "Midnight at the Brooklyn Bridge" Lewis Hine (1906)

The International Center of Photography puts on some of the best exhibits in the city and their latest, “Lewis Hine” and “The Future of America: Lewis Hine’s New Deal Photographs,” give a comprehensive overview of the work of a photographer whose name may not be familiar to viewers but whose images have become iconic American symbols of industry and social reform.

Trained in sociology, Hine was teaching in New York when he first picked up a camera. The result was a series of images of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1905. The exhibit, comprised of more than 150 images from the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, begins with these before moving on to photographs of tenement life, child labourers, African Americans in the 1920s, and industrial workers. There are also photographs that he took in Europe of the American Red Cross relief effort after the first World War and his celebrated “Men at Work” series, which documents the building of the Empire State Building.

"Italian family looking for lost baggage, Ellis Island" Lewis Hine (1905)

Hine was not a true photojournalist by today’s definition. His work was often staged, his subjects posed in a way to make a statement. Some criticized these choices but Hine's interest was in exposing the social injustices that he saw. He hoped that his images would "exert the force to right wrongs.” 

They did. In 1918, the National Child Labor Committee hired him to document the working conditions among child labourers. For the next ten years, Hine photographed children along the East Coast in all fields from newsies to coal miners to factory workers. His images often accompanied sensational articles in muckraking newspapers, which were published across the country. The result was a debate about child labour practices and a change in child labour laws.

"Spinner in New England Mill" Lewis Hine (1913)

Seeing his photos, you can understand why they moved people to act. Look at the little spinner girl's bare feet or the newsie asleep on the stairs. Speaking of which, look at the newsies in the image at the top. Those are boys who have seen more and lived harder than any one their age should ever have to; Disney dancers they are not. As for the fiddler in war-torn Europe, is there any greater symbol of the cost of war than a displaced child?

"Mechanic at steam pump in electric power house" Lewis Hine (1920)

"Candy worker, New York" Lewis Hine (1925)

Yet there is beauty in his work as well. The famed image of a man working on a steam pump is a perfect example of composition with a subject who would look at home in an ad for a men's cologne or a clothing line. And the pretty candy worker with trays of chocolates looks like an ingenue right off the studio lot. Hine definitely knew how to get a viewer's attention.

"Steel worker touching the tip of the Chrysler Building" Lewis Hine (1931)

The most breathtaking images in the exhibit are in a series he did on the men who built the Empire State Building. I practically had an attack of vertigo looking at these daredevils balanced precariously high above the city. In one, a worker cheekily poses with his pointed hand as if touching the top of the Chrysler Building. In another, a man dubbed Icarus stands on some cables looking like he doesn't have a care (or in this case, fear) in the world. They are absolutely mesmerizing while reminding us of the danger people undertook to build our city.

The photos in the smaller exhibit, which are from the ICP’s collection, are ones that Hine made between 1936 and 1937 when he was hired as the chief photographer for the National Research Project, a division of  the WPA. They explore working conditions along the East Coast as well as document emerging new technologies. They are interesting, like the one above of the man working in a doll factory, but lack the emotional pull of his earlier work.

After a lifetime spent fighting injustice, Hine found himself toward the end of his life unable to get work and when he died at the age of 66 in 1940 he was living on welfare, having lost his house. His archive of work was offered to MoMA in the 1950s but they declined. Lucky for us the George Eastman House took it, ensuring that his work would continue to be seen by future generations and act as reminders of our country's past.

The exhibits are at the ICP through January 19, 2014. For more information, visit here.

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