Lewis W. Hine was a pioneer of social documentary photography. His most sustained and influential body of work consists of over 5,000 photographs made between 1906 and 1918 for the NATIONAL CHILD LABOROMMITTEE (NCLC) publicizing the prevalence and harshness of CHILD LABOR in the United States. Born and raised in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Hine first took up photography around 1903 as an extension of his work as a teacher at the Ethical Culture School in New York City. A Progressive educator, he soon came to embrace the camera as a tool of "social uplift" a generation before the social-activist photographers and filmmakers of the 1930s coined the term documentary.
In 1904, Hine began taking photographs on Ellis Island, portraying, in a dignified and sympathetic fashion, a representative sampling of the great influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. These images, made under difficult circumstances with bulky, primitive equipment, presented a powerful, humanist argument for open immigration at a time when nativist sentiment against the foreign-born was on the rise.
Hine's work for the NCLC took him to thirty-one states and the District of Columbia. He photographed from Maine to Texas, in the Plains states and the Far West, documenting children of all ages engaged in wage labor as textile workers, telegraph messengers, street vendors, newsboys, mine workers, glass workers, oyster shuckers, shrimp pickers, sardine packers, cigar makers, cigarette rollers, garment workers, lacemakers, and agricultural laborers. Hine's photographs were accompanied by meticulous field notes detailing the relevant sociological data: names and ages of the children, time and place of employment, hours worked, wages earned, length of employment, working conditions, and family circumstances.
As an impassioned middle-class reformer, he sought to convince an enfranchised liberal audience, by way of incontrovertible empirical evidence, of the harmful effects of child labor. At the time, both business leaders and working-class parents defended the social efficacy and economic necessity of child labor. Hine's photographs originally appeared on posters and in newspapers, bulletins, and periodicals advocating national legislation that would abolish most forms of commercial child labor and mandate a public-school education for all working-class children. However, despite compulsory education laws in most states, such policies were not enacted until the 1930s.
Hine worked mostly with a hand-held, wooden box camera, producing 4" × 5" and 5" × 7" glass-plate and film negatives from which he most often made contact prints, although enlargements were also common. Hine continued to make sociologically informed photographs for the remainder of his career, working for the American Red Cross in Europe during World War I and for the Survey, an early journal of social work. In 1930 he made a notable series of photographs documenting the construction of the Empire State Building. In this later phase of his career, Hine sought to portray in idealized terms what he came to see as the inherent dignity and heroic stature of the American worker and craftsperson.
As a freelance photographer without an independent income, Hine's work necessarily reflected the agendas of the clients for whom he worked. Just as Hine's NCLC photographs reflected the politics of that organization, so his 1933 photographs of the Shelton Looms, commissioned by its owner, represented the interests of management. That being said, Hine's child labor photographs were the result of a particularly fruitful and serendipitous conjunction of a talented and dedicated photographer with a well-organized and highly motivated social movement. Collectively, these images constitute an invaluable resource in the study of early-twentieth-century, working-class children in the United States. They have also served as a model and inspiration for documentary photographers.
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