Lewis Hine Restrospective: Hurry Up and See It

International Center for Photography, New York City
Through January 19, 2014

The age of American documentary photography began in earnest with the Civil War images of Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady, became urban under the gaze of Jacob Riis, and came of age through the eye and lens of Lewis Hine (1874-1940). An exhibit at New York City’s International Center for Photography captures Hines in more than 175 images.

From his initial images of immigrants pouring into Ellis Island in 1905, through his shots for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, Hine remained steadfast in his insistence that plebian Americans needed a visual ‘voice.’  Hine insisted that he was a social reformer with a camera and, as such, had little interest in taking pictures of the rich, powerful, and (self-styled) beautiful. When they appear at all in his images, it is to call attention to contrasts of wealth and, by extension, to cast doubt on economic and political systems that countenance such injustices. One famed Hine image shows an upper crust matron casting a disapproving eye on a bare- and dirty-footed newsie peddling papers in the nation’s Capitol. He’s oblivious to her, or is it that he finds her beneath contempt?

The ICP displays photographs from all of Hine’s major projects: immigration, child labor, the Pittsburgh Survey, men at work, and the WPA. (The Pittsburgh Survey was a pioneering ethnographic study of working-class life underwritten by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907-08.) Hine is probably best known for his child labor shots—underage oyster schuckers, preteen bowling alley pin setters, dust-smudged coal mine breaker boys, and textile workers so young they had to stand upon boxes to reach the machines they tended. Before Hine, factories denied that child labor abuses existed; after Hine, no one could look away from the sorrows in their midst.

Hine never sought to be an ‘artist’ as such. Some of what he did violated the prevailing rules of photography. He shot many of his subjects frontally and full face, for instance, because he wanted us to see their eyes, their determination, and the experiences life etched upon their faces. As such, he imbued his subjects with more dignity than conventional profile portraiture ever could. He also violated the rules in his use of light, with subjects often appearing as if emerging from a bank of shadows. But make no mistake; Hine was an accomplished artist
despite himself. “Powerhouse Mechanic” was clicked to emphasize the muscularity of workers, but today is often taught as an example of a near-perfect composition. Similarly, a painter would be hard-pressed to put on canvas anything as dramatic as Hine’s shots of the construction of the Empire State Building.

Alas, by the 1930s Hine was viewed as old hat and photography’s torch passed to a new generation, among them: Margaret Bourke-White, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange. Hine never completed his WPA contract, and died in relative obscurity. Was he an icon from a bygone era? The ICP exhibit suggests quite the opposite—though one must concede Hine’s WPA images were not his strongest. Hine worked with large format cameras and preferred to make contact prints; hence many of the ICP images are just 4” x 6” or 5” by 7.” One must look carefully, but look one should. What we see is a blend of artistry, social consciousness, respect for subjects, and control of craft that has few peers and even fewer superiors.

The ICP images come from the George Eastman House in Rochester and the show was intelligently curated by Alison Nordström, who also assembled the exhibit catalogue. See it before these images go back into storage. 

Rob Weir

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