Following in the footsteps of Jacob Riis, American photographer and sociologist Lewis Hine used his camera to spark social change. In fact, his work helped ensure American child labor laws were enacted in the early 20th century. Inspired by early fine art photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, his images are a mix of artistry and photojournalism.
Hine’s professional foray into photography began in 1901, when he was hired not only to teach nature and geography at the Ethical Culture School in New York, but also photography. It was here that Hine learned just what a powerful tool the camera could be, leading students on projects to photograph immigrants at Ellis Island. It was his hope that these children, many of whom had Eastern European origins, would better understand the plight of immigrants by seeing what they went through to enter America firsthand.
Eventually, in 1908, Hine became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). The organization was trying to regulate and outlaw child labor, an arduous task given how profitable it was for businesses. Hine, often in disguise, entered factories around the country to document the harrowing conditions that children were working under. Having started working in factories at age 18 to support his family after his father died in an accident, Hine could certainly relate to the dire situations these children were placed in.
Whether showing a young girl working in a cotton mill or groups of boys breaking coal, his photographs exposed the dark underbelly that was pushing forward the American Industrial Revolution and were instrumental in enacting change. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hine continued to photograph workers, giving us a window into the backbreaking labor needed to build up the American economy. He also documented the building of the Empire State Building, showing the strength and tenacity of the laborers who constructed this epic monument, culminating in the classic photography book Men at Work.
After working for the American Red Cross, Works Progress Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hine fell upon hard times later in life. Interest in his work dwindled, and he was forced to apply for welfare before passing away at 66 years old in 1940. Over time, the public has come to appreciate the important role Hine’s work had in shaping social justice in the first half of the 20th century. And interest in his artistry, with the soft blurred focus and compositional choice of his photographs, helped his legacy gain momentum.
Hine’s son later donated his prints and negatives to the Eastman Museum, after they were turned down by MoMA. Now, his work is as popular as ever, with 24 rare prints recently selling at auction through Swann Auction Galleries. Hine once said, “[Photographers are] the Human Document to keep the present and the future in touch with the past.” And indeed, by this definition, he certainly fulfilled his duty.