New York Photo Review
Volume 5 Issue 1 January 7 to 13, 2014

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Things That Had to be Corrected
Lewis Hine
John D. Roberts

Photo by Lewis Hine . Source: icp.org Lewis Hine, "Candy Worker, New York" 1925

“There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated” These words seem to anchor the life's work of prolific pioneer of social documentary photography: Lewis Hine, whose body of work is currently represented by more than 150 vintage prints at the International Center of Photography. Organized by the George Eastman House of Rochester, New York, the work is presented in such an appropriately matter of fact way that viewers are overwhelmed by the quantity of work without feeling lost within it or tired of looking at it.

Hine was raised in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and was eighteen years old when the death of his father forced him to bear the burden of supporting his family by way of factory work, salesmanship and bookkeeping. A member of the proletariat from birth, Hines eventually elevated his social status with a degree in Sociology from the University of Chicago, where he studied before his move to New York in 1904.

Photo by Lewis Hine . Source: icp.org Lewis Hine, "Italian family on ferry boat, leaving Ellis Island" 1905

A teacher of geography and nature study at the Ethical Culture School, Hine encouraged students to use a camera to document the diverse culture that surrounded them on New York's streets. Self taught, he produced hundreds of photographs while chaperoning student groups on trips to Ellis Island in 1908. While documenting the struggles immigrants faced even before they left the island, Hine focused largely on portraits, capturing immigrant life in a way that made it relatable to the less than welcoming American citizens of the time. The new Americans were intelligent, hard working and proud when viewed through Hine's lens.

From Ellis Island Hine would follow his subjects to their Lower East Side tenement homes – leaving behind his job at Ethical Culture to educate the public about the abysmal living conditions that dominated the lives of the working class family. Women worked from home completing menial tasks for the city's garment industry, while their husbands and sons took to the streets for whatever they could find to make ends meet. The early depiction of Hine's working class is decidedly heavy, sad, and desperate. The marginalized population he would come to celebrate later in life had nothing to celebrate yet––and his images reflected that.

Photo by Lewis Hine . Source: icp.org George Eastman House Collection, transfer from Photo League Lewis Hine Memorial Committee; ex-collection of Corydon Hine.Lewis Hine, "Midnight at the Brooklyn Bridge" 1906

As the official photographer of the National Child Labor Committee, Hine created a powerful indictment, producing a large body of work focused on unjust working conditions. It was on their dime that he was able to travel across the United States to expose the exploitation of a nation's children in an astounding number of cities and industries. Images of adolescent amputees and five-year-old shrimp pickers presented an American work force it was difficult to take pride in. While these images were decidedly meant to shame Americans into taking action, it would appear the photographer could not help being distracted by the innocence, perseverance and thoughtless optimism of youth. The children gave him hope, and he was bound to pass it on.

Perhaps it was in 1918, on Hine's trip to post WWI Europe, that his work suddenly became less about exposing the misery of the working class and more about evidencing the strength of their character. The artist's intent had changed. Images of a French couple moving back into a collapsed home they had abandoned during the war elicit a smile from the viewer that seems to come from nowhere.

Photo by Lewis Hine . Source: icp.org Lewis Hine, "Icarus Atop Empire State Building " 1931

Back in the Unites States, New York's working man had changed too, and Hine's images of him were more carefully constructed and manipulated than they had been in the past. It seems almost as if the photographer was simply having more fun than he'd had in the past. Most of Hine's iconic images from the construction of the Empire State Building are contained in this final stretch of images. While these are by far the nicest to look at, and it is fun to marvel at the technical feats accomplished atop a skyscraper, to champion them as his most important works is to miss the point entirely.

Yet, after hearing person after person in the gallery doing exactly that, it became hard not to wonder: Had the work's presentation somehow encouraged this conclusion, or was a clueless audience simply arriving there on their own?

In any case, it is in the following and final series, that the work gets a bit tired. The show is least interesting in the artist's final working decade––after the 1929 stock market crash when he and everyone was struggling. Perhaps never expecting that he'd end up on the bottom again late in life, poverty had become foreign and uninspiring.

A soft finish aside, the retrospective here is profound, essential viewing for anyone interested in photography or sociology (...or hell, the Empire State Building). The fact that Hine had such sincere respect for the poor and the working class helps to ease the pain of knowing that he died impoverished and anonymous. It seems only appropriate that we who have benefitted from his lens in the modern day work force are allowed this opportunity to return the respect.

Lewis Hine

Curator: Alison Nordstrom

International Center of Photography
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Friday, October 4 to
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Hours: Tues - Sun, 10 to 6; Fri to 8
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