Odds are that when you close your eyes and imagine the huddled masses at Ellis Island, or brawny men at derricks hoisting iron bars to the top of the Empire State Building, you are seeing images that Lewis Hine introduced into the popular imagination. His photographs have become a crucial part of our national memory of the years between the turn of the century and World War II. But Hine’s is not an objective record; his work was originally used as propaganda, albeit of a beneficent variety. Beleaguered immigrants, soot-faced miners, heroic mechanists, children who lost fingers in factories — the images, paired with reported exposés in progressive magazines and newspapers, were designed to chime chords of empathy within contemporaneous viewers so as to rouse them to action. These pictures were advocacy foremost, and art second.
“There are two things I wanted to do,” Hine once said. “I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”
The International Center of Photography’s two current exhibitions of his work — Lewis Hine, a career-spanning overview, and The Future of America: Lewis Hine’s New Deal Photographs, focusing on his time with the Works Progress Administration — show how remarkably consistent Hine was in carrying out his stated aims. His career began in 1905, with a series of pictures taken on Ellis Island. He was teaching at the Ethical Culture School, a progressive primary school founded in 1878 by the pioneering humanist Felix Adle. Hine would, as a visual supplement to class lessons, take his students to the island to photograph the incoming waves of immigrants.
“Italian Madonna, Ellis Island” taken in 1905, shows, rather baldly, Hine’s affection for making symbols of his subjects. A woman wearing an ornate blouse sits on a bench with a child in her lap. Both of their heads are covered, reverentially. In the background, behind a chain-link fence, we see a few men standing about, fellow immigrants, presumably. The mother and child are locked in an affectionate gaze that brings to mind the paintings of Raphael.
The photograph raises vexing questions that continuously emerge throughout the ICP exhibitions. It looks like documentary but is obviously artificial. The lighting, the composition — it’s too perfect. The picture is engineered to make us feel a certain way, so as to come to a specific conclusion: Italians are decent people worthy of our respect. That’s a damn good cause, one I’m sure we’d all endorse. But should we mind the manipulation? And more importantly, what does it mean for our historical memory to be built upon clearly ideological, emotionally manipulative images?
In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes:
Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s … would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film—the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry…. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawing are.
Hine took photographs in order to change the world, and in one particular area — children’s rights — he was remarkably efficacious. Beginning in 1908, when he was hired as photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, and proceeding for the next decade, Hine took hundreds of pictures that limned the horrid conditions under which children workers toiled. Kids in glass factories, on cotton fields, in the streets peddling newspapers — these photographs, coupled with muckraking reports, appeared in periodicals nationwide and did much to influence the national debate about child labor, as well as how we remember that era today.
One of the most arresting photos is entitled “Breaker Boys,” from 1912. It shows a few dozen young men blackened with soot, crowded in a mineshaft. There is no way to be sure of their age, nor — crucially — their ethnicity. They are workers, united in drudgery, like untold thousands throughout the county. Save for a dim light coming through the filthy window, it is completely dark. The miners are all facing the camera, largely expressionless, peering through eyes that are washed out by the flash; it gives them the uncanny look of underground creatures that never developed the faculty of sight.
At some point at the ICP, the barrage of harrowing images began to make me resent Hine for the effectiveness of his photographs. It’s like those ASPCA commercials of puppies with doleful, pleading eyes and Sarah McLaughlin’s “In the Arms of Angel” playing in the background; the viewer can have only one response: Wow, this is terrible. I wish I could do something to change this. I feel like shit. It’s emotional manipulation of the highest caliber, all the more confounding because it aims to undo a manifest evil.
The naked optimism of Hine’s photographs is moving. The subtext of a picture of a child missing an arm is that it was worth taking, and that somebody would see it and be incited to action. Hine’s photographs contain a tacit faith that reform is possible, that good can come of bad. At this moment there are more pictures being taken, more videos being filmed, more words being written than at any point in history. Many of them document the suffering endured by child laborers across the world, children who make our sneakers and gadgets. But this quantity of evidence has not generated a significant public outcry, as in Hine’s day, perhaps because modern viewers are inundated with images of suffering and injustice from all over, from all throughout time. Endless exposure to barbarity and agony inures us to a photograph’s emotional impact. It is difficult, and perhaps becoming more difficult every day, to find a place in the heart for genuine surprise, horror, or indignation. Today’s child laborers are invisible.
So is the working class. As George Packer wrote recently in The New Yorker:
The working class no longer has a place in the public’s imagination. It isn’t easy to dramatize this depression. [Edmund] Wilson and [John] Dos Passos went to the hollows of West Virginia and found miners and cops at war. Go there today and you would find people watching TV, sending out resumes over the Internet, and waiting for their unemployment checks. The visuals are quiet ones: a jobs fair with people in business attire doesn’t have the immediate power of a breadline.
Nor does work itself have the same immediate visual power. When looking at Hine’s “Man on girders, mooring mast, Empire State Building,” from 1931, it’s hard not to marvel at the audacity of the project. A man sits on a curved iron beam up in the clouds, one slip away from a plunge to death. We know that the finished building stands 102 stories tall, but he looks to be miles in the air. In the background are dwarfed buildings that used to pass for skyscrapers. The scale is so gargantuan, so superhuman, it brings to mind the Pyramids of Giza. In this photograph we get the sense that the threshold of the possible was being crossed daily.
The mapping of the human genome and the advent of the internet are no less remarkable — in fact, I’d say they’re far more consequential — but they don’t lend themselves to heroic imagery. They are quiet innovations made by men and women dressed in business casual, drinking iced coffees in cubicles somewhere. No sweat, no loss of limbs.
In 1936, Hine was hired by the WPA to document “the effect of new industrial techniques in re-employment.” From Manchester, New Hampshire, to High Point, North Carolina, to Scott’s Run, West Virginia, Hine snapped shots of laborers in 20 different industries, capturing a nation waylaid by economic depression as it attempted to regain its footing. The photographs are of a piece with the ’30s zeitgeist; they have the fetishization of progress, the reverence for collective labor, the romanticizing of nationality. But the central question of Hine’s photographs — and indeed, his entire career — is where man fits within this new economy. His unerring focus on the human in the machine makes his work enduring, and perhaps timeless.
My favorite picture in the exhibition, “Worker setting eyes in sleeping dolls, Paragon Rubber Company and American Character Doll, Easthampton, Mass.” (1936) brings this question into stark relief. A man holds in his hands the head of a doll, which he is inspecting to make sure the eyes are just right. Behind him stands a rack with a few dozen other baby heads. As in “Italian Madonna,” the two — man and fake child — are locked in an affectionate gaze. There is great delicacy to the shot, a real sense of warmth. How strange it seems that a plastic doll should receive such care while real, flesh-and-blood children were, until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, still toiling in the factories, getting crushed in the gears of industry.
Lewis Hine and The Future of America: Lewis Hine’s New Deal Photographs continue at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas, Midtown, Manhattan) through January 19.