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Lewis Hine (1874 - 1940)

Lewis Hine was a pioneer of photojournalism and a tireless campaigner for the enforcement of child labour regulation. Throughout his career he concerned himself with the expostion of injustices in the workplace and the abuse of important labour laws.

Despite the serious moral purpose of his work, Hine is in fact best remembered for a rather light-hearted image. He photographed steel workers on the Empire State Building (1930), perched precariously on a beam suspended thousands of feet above the New York skyline. The workers' cheerful, laid back disposition contrasts amusingly with their terrifyingly dangerous situation! It's a shot that has adorned bedsits and student rooms the world over for many years.

 Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, c.1932
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper

Lewis Hine was born in Wisconsin, USA, in 1974. At the age of 18 his father died in a tragic accident, and he was thrust into the workplace out of neccessity. He took a job in a factory, which gave gave him a first taste of the working conditions imposed on young people by businesses. Over the following 8 years he took a number of different jobs, gaining first hand experience of matters that would later become the subjects of his work.

In 1901, Hine took work as an assistant teacher at the Ethical Culture School in New York. 2 years later he discovered photography, and immediately clocked on to it as a powerful tool for telling the stories of people in suffering, whom society chose to ignore. His first serious work was a collection of portraits of immigrants on Ellis Island. It's clear that Hine had real compassion for these people, a quality that informed his work throughout his career.

 Italian Immigrants Arriving at Ellis Island, New York, 1905
Italian Family

Indeed, it's impossible not to notice the similarities between Hine's early portraits (and also later documentary work) and the images of Depression era photographers like Dorothea Lange. Their shared subjects are people on the move, forced to extreme existences just to survive, unfairly treated and clinging on to their sense of diginity by a thread.

In 1906 Hine took on work with the National Child Labour Committee, which grew into a more prominent role over the coming years. He undertook a project to photograph small scale child labour in New York tenements for the NCLC and, at around the same, began studying sociology at Columbia University.

His ever-growing social awareness and concern, coupled with the new NCLC affiliation, set the framwork for his future work. He began producing what he termed "photo stories', which were in fact amongst the earliest examples of "modern" photojournalism. He travelled widely towards the end of the first decade of the century, often boldly gaining access to factories and businesses disguised as an official inspector.

Throughout the northeastern states of the USA he encountered the exploitation of child labour in a range of contexts. Large businesses, like coal mines, textile factories and cotton mills routinely "employed" children under desperate working conditions. The phenomenon extended to cottage industries and family businesses too, where many children missed out on education and sufferred ill-health due to abuses of labour laws. At the time the public consensus was that child labour didn't really exist, or barely existed. So there was a real urgency in the photographer's work in documenting the phenomenon.

Hine's photographs are incredibly moving and provided a powerful wake-up call to Congress to act on tightening regulation and enforcement. 9 year-old girls in dirty dresses gaze wishfully out of the windows in textile factories, groups of 10 or 11 year-old boys stand around smoking, with coal covered-faces, undeveloped children handle machinery intended for adults.

Midnight at the Glassworks

 Scavenger Toting Wood, Fall River, Massachusetts, c.1916
Scavenger Toting

Hine captured the sense of children, sometimes more like babies, in a tough grown-up world, where they were completely out of place. He conveyed the sense that these young people were missing out on all the things they needed. It would have been impossible to look at the images and not feel compelled to do something about it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the images are occassionally reminiscent of certain harrowing pictures that emerged 30 years later from central Europe.

Hine's work is not only full of emotional power, but also aesthetically very refined. The compositional and technical quality of his work very high indeed.

 Lewis Hine Powerhouse Mechanic 1920 Photo Art Print Poster
Powerhouse Mechanic

His ability to freeze moments that spoke powerfully of human suffering led him, briefly, to war-torn Europe in 1918. He took pictures of refugees, hospitals and soldiers in France, Italy, Belgium and elsewhere. Remarkably, the bulk of these images remained unpublished until the 1980's, when they were discovered in the Library of Congress.

Throughout the 20's, Hine continued his work with the NCLC and was amongst the pre-eminent journalistic photographers of this time. But in 1930 he took a commission, chiefly out of financial necessity, to photograph the construction of the Empire State Building. The images he produced of this event have become incredibly famous throughout the world. The shot of steel workers tucking into their coffee and sandwiches, cheerfully unfazed by the height at which they are sitting, is one of the highest selling images of all time.

 Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, c.1932
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper
 Construction Workers Take a Lunch Break on a Steel Beam Atop the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center
Construction Workers Take A Lunch Break...

Hine continued to focus on documentary work after the Empire State project, working for both the NCLC and American Red Cross throughout the 1930's. He died in 1940, in Hastings-on-Hudson, at the age of 66. The images of child labour that Lewis Hine produced throughout his career, alongside his tireless campaigning, had a significant and direct impact on the improvement of labour laws in the USA.

 

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