Lewis W. Hine, the concerned photographer
A la recherche d'un emploi, New York East Side, 1912 © Lewis Hine
L'heure du déjeuner, New York, vers 1910 © Lewis Hine
L'ascension vers l'Amérique, Ellis Island, 1905 © Lewis Hine
Une famille italienne à la recherche d'un bagage égaré, Ellis Island, 1905 © Lewis Hine
Icare au sommet de l'Empire State Building, 1931 © Lewis Hine
Minuit sur le pont de Brooklyn, 1906 © Lewis Hine
Some people consider Lewis Hine the number one documentary photographer in the sense in which that label would later be applied to Walker Evans and his followers. Others consider him the precursor of politically committed photographers, “concerned photographers” as they were termed in the exhibition of the same name presented at New York’s Riverside Museum in 1967.
Other than the Carnavalet Museum exhibition in 1990, Lewis W. Hine’s work has been little seen in France. The exhibition which will be presented from September 7 to December 18, 2011 at the HCB (Henri Cartier-Bresson) Foundation will enable us to (re) discover a work that is quite in accordance with current events in certain parts of the world today. In fact, Lewis Hine used photography to “show what should be changed” and to bring about a little more “social justice.”
That’s not surprising once one knows a little about his background. Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) first went to night school, while helping his mother financially. Then he studied sociology at universities in Chicago and New York, before teaching at the Ethical Culture School where Paul Strand was one of his students.
After two years there, he decided to devote himself to photography, seeing it as a “good way to defend the causes he believed in.” Beginning in 1908, he worked for the NCLC (National Child Labor Committee), the Red Cross, and the Works Progress Administration. One of his first photo jobs was to illustrate the book by Charles Weller, Neglected Neighbors in the National Capital. And from that time on, he lived primarily from NCLC jobs investigating child labor in the mines and factories. He called himself a social photographer. The results of these investigations were published primarily in magazines such as “The Survey.” He also carried out a project on Ellis Island doing portraits of hundreds of immigrants arriving in search of a better life in the United States. In 1910 he began traveling all around the United States to photograph and condemn the conditions of child labor. His work was regularly published in the popular press.
At the end of the first world war, he was hired by the American Red Cross to photograph the consequences of the war in Europe. His photo reports enabled the Red Cross to obtain financial aid that had been previously refused.
However, his return to New York where he established his home was the beginning of a period of financial difficulty—and this despite his Prize of Photography given by the Art Directors’ Club of New York. These problems forced him at first to work for an insurance company before accepting industrial work.
In 1925, he took part in illustrating the book by Rex Tugwell, American Economic Life and the Means of its Improvement whose images were chosen by Roy Stryker.
His reportage about building the Empire State Building, begun in 1931, was diametrically opposite in sense to his earlier political commitment—now transformed into a genuine hymn to human work, no doubt influenced by the grave crisis of 1929. Men at Work, appearing in 1932, his only published work during his lifetime, showed this new commitment and led to numerous missions to photograph workers around the United States. In 1937, he was the first photographer to join the research project (National Research Project) of the Works Project Administration (WPA) in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Technological Change was published in 1937 in Philadelphia by David Weintraub and Lewis W. Hine.
In spite of the recognition, and the support of Beaumont Newhall and Berenice Abbot, jobs became rarer and rarer, and his style, considered as passé, excluded him from the FSA project on which worked photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn.
In 1939, the Home Owners Loan Corporation threatened to seize his house, and Sara Hine died of pneumonia. In 1940, his house was seized and he died several months later, on November 3, following a surgical operation at Dobbs Ferry hospital. He was buried at Ardsley-on Hudson.
It must be said that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) refused to accept the totality of his archives. They were accepted by the Photo League, and when that organization ceased to exist in 1951, the 7000 prints, 4000 negatives, the brochures, catalogues and personal documents were transferred to the George Eastman House, then directed by Beaumont Newhall.
The Cartier-Bresson Foundation exhibition presents 150 original prints covering all the subjects treated by Lewis H. Hine, including the exploitation of child labor, the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island, photo reports in Europe and the building of the Empire State Building.
Lewis Wickes Hine
September 7 - December 18, 2011
2 Impasse Lebouis
+33 (0)1 56 80 27 00
Alison Nordström, Fondacion Mapfre et TF editores