Professor Jennifer Olson-Rudenko
History of Art 245
1 June 2012
Lewis Hine (1874-1940) Photographer
A Contextual Interpretation:
Lewis Hine’s Use of Photographic Art as an Effective Tool of Social Reform Lewis Hine’s photography is famous for documenting the struggles of children used for child labor in early American industry. Lewis Hine believed that photography could be used as an effective tool to invoke social reform, while documenting current events, which were eventually history in the making. He took pictures to show the country the struggles of child labor, hoping the cruelty, truth and strength of these photos would begin to change the child labor laws. His response to the current affairs and conditions of his time was to actively take steps to initiate reform in an abusive early American Industry. In order to understand how Hine decided to use photography as a social reform tool, it is important to know more about the man, himself, and the environment in which he was living. In the book America and Lewis Hine: photographs 1904 – 1940: [exhibition] (Hine, Lewis, Alan Trachtenberg, and Brooklyn Museum, New York: Aperture, Inc., 1977), we are informed that Lewis Hine was born in 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He went to the University of Chicago to study sociology, but also with the goal of becoming a teacher. According to the article “Lewis Hine and His Photo Stories: Visual Culture and Social Reform” (Smith-Shank, Deborah L. Art Education; Mar 2003; 56, 2; Proquest Research Library 33-34), Deborah Smith-Shank informs us: Hine followed his mentor, Frank A. Manny, from Chicago to the Ethical Culture School in New York City as an assistant teacher of nature study and geography. While teaching there, Hine became interested in the new science of photography and encouraged his students to experiment with the camera as part of their educational experience . . . Hine and his students began visiting Ellis Island and photographing immigrants arriving by the thousands every day. . . It was while working at Ellis Island that he realized his vocation was broader than the life of a classroom teacher, and he left the Ethical Culture School to pursue work as a documentary photographer working for social justice. Hine wrote in a field note, “I was merely changing the educational efforts from the classroom to the world” (Rosenblum et.al., 1977, pg.17). Hine was then hired in 1906 by the NCLC (National Child Labor Committee) to help them implement social reform using his photography to expose child labor for the abusive and enslaving nature that it really was. He took over 5,000 photographs of children throughout the United States for the NCLC, chronicling the frightening and horrific conditions under which they were working. Hine told one audience: "Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures. Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child labor pictures will be records of the past." Although Lewis Hine is now regarded as one of the leading forefathers of social documentary photography, he died in November of 1940, malnourished and poverty-stricken after the Great Depression of the 1930s, in an era in which people no longer wished to see social realism in art photography. The poverty and depression of the nation drove people to seek escape from reality, to a more idealistic and romantic vision of what a better future in America might be in the form of light-hearted musicals, and entertaining films. Despite Hine’s sad demise, his work with the NCLC did prove to be effective in bringing about social reform: Thanks to the campaign waged by the NCLC, and to Lewis Hine’s persuasive photographs, a growing number of Americans had come to believe that the federal government should be actively concerned with children’s welfare – and the government had responded. From then on,...
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