Lewis W. Hine knew exactly how tall each of the buttons on his jacket were, because after he charmed his way into a factory or mine, with some tale of being a postcard company rep or Bible salesman, he couldn’t easily take out a tape measure. And he wanted to measure the height of the workers to record just how young they were.
“Again and again he comes into conflict with factory security, particularly since taking photographs inconspicuously is not at all feasible: the equipment — including the camera, tripod, plates, and magnesium flash lamp apparatus — weighs around 50 pounds,” writes Peter Walther in the introduction to Lewis W. Hine. America at Work, recently released by Taschen. “Hine develops techniques to collect information as surreptitiously as possible.”
He photographed a young girl — 51 inches high — who had worked in a cotton mill in North Carolina for a year, sometimes at night. Deep underground Pittston, Pennsylvania, he photographed a 13-year-old named Willie, sitting alongside the whitewashed walls of the mine, which were painted in a failed attempt to give the subterranean space a lighter atmosphere.
“It’s like sitting in a coal bin all day long, except that the coal is always moving and clattering and cuts their fingers,” wrote Hine in a 1913 issue of The Child Labor Bulletin:
Sometimes the boys wear lamps in their caps to help them see through the thick dust. They bend over the chutes until their backs ache, and they get tired and sick because they have to breathe coal dust instead of good, pure air.
It’s estimated that two million children under the age of 15 worked industrial jobs in 1910 in the United States. The economic boom after the Civil War, and the increased demand for labor, meant more children were not in school and instead were in glass factories, cotton mills, coal mines, and fields. With the jobs being poorly paid, often whole families would have to work side by side to support themselves. Working for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), Hine spent years traveling thousands of miles across the country to visualize and humanize this social issue. He witnessed five-year-olds peeling shrimp at a canning factory in Mississippi, an eight-year-old still recovering from pneumonia selling newspapers in a Philadelphia rainstorm, and a 10-year-old picking tobacco on a farm in Connecticut. He recorded their comments as captions to these straightforward portraits, such as: “I’m 14 years old; been here one year. Get $1.00 a day.” from a boy in a Texas sawmill.
Lewis W. Hine. America at Work is a compact but hefty book, with over 300 photographs chronicling how Hine portrayed labor throughout his career. Much of the publication is dedicated to the significant work he did as a child labor activist, yet there are also selections of his shots from Ellis Island, World War I, and dizzying views of workers building the Empire State Building.
Born in 1874 in the small town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Hine was one of the earliest photographers to use the camera as a tool of social reform (following in the recently trod footsteps of Jacob Riis, who documented the New York City slums). After his father died suddenly in 1890, Hine became the main earner for his family. His work included a stint of six-day weeks at an upholstery factory. He later studied sociology and got a job as an educator at the Felix Adler Ethical Culture School in New York, where he learned to use a camera. (And he got skilled at talking to children, something vital to his covert factory missions.) With NCLC he turned his photographs into slideshow presentations, posters, fliers, and exhibitions (with informative text panels like one from 1914 that compared the “normal child” to the “mill child,” whose eyes were ringed with dark circles that gaped from under a tattered cap).
These photographs were a major force in drawing public attention to child labor, especially those images that showed mangled hands and coal-stained bodies. Nevertheless, it would take until 1938 for the Fair Labor Standards Act regulating child labor to pass. (The Great Depression, however, with its depletion of jobs, had already slowed the rise of child labor.)
By not solely concentrating on the child labor photographs, Lewis W. Hine. America at Work shows how Hine evolved. Although early on he was committed to the sociological perspective of photography — the photo company he set up in Yonkers in 1908 was advertised with the tagline “Social Photography” — in Europe during World War I, his photographs of nurses, soldiers, and Red Cross workers had a more heroic tone. “In Paris, after the Armistice, I thought I had done my share of negative documentation. I wanted to do something positive,” he recalled in 1938. His 1920s Work Portraits also emphasized the dignity of labor and have a bit of a Norman Rockwell vibe in the quiet, direct portraits of cabinet makers in New Jersey and workers manipulating machines in textile mills in West Virginia. Meanwhile, his striking 1920 photograph of a muscular powerhouse mechanic working with a huge wrench on a steam pump could easily be transposed onto a Diego Rivera mural.
Hine’s shift towards more aesthetically pleasing compositions was partly necessitated by finances as his profitable outlets for photography became more limited. These later images were sometimes used in advertising or company newspapers. In 1930, he was the official photographer for the construction of the Empire State Building, and he took about 1,000 images of workers balancing on steel beams as the skyscraper rose above Manhattan. “It was a new problem for me, this Empire State Building, full of surprises and thrills, of hard exhausting climbs up long vertical ladders with a heavy camera on my back,” Hine stated. “After it all, I came to realize more fully that even a skyscraper is what it is because all of its human spirit that made it.”
Still, these major commissions weren’t enough, and after failing to get support for further projects, Hine died at 66 years old, living off welfare and paying rent on his foreclosed-on home. Lewis W. Hine. America at Work shows how he vividly captured early 20th-century labor in the United States, but the work most actively present on its pages belongs to Hine, who devoted his pioneering photography career to the people behind this era of industrialization.
Lewis W. Hine. America at Work is out now from Taschen.
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Hine’s well earned reputation as a social reformer often obscures the fact that he is one of the greatest 20th century portrait photographers.
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