Twenty four photographs from the early 20th century by sociologist Lewis Hine sold at auction recently, giving us a reminder of the impact of his work on life in America.
Hine began documenting migrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1904 before going to receive commissions from various social welfare agencies in order to bring visibility to the poorest parts of American society. Hine's work was pivotal in eventually bringing about the end of child labor, and creating an awareness of what it meant to arrive in the U.S. as an immigrant.
Hine's work predates the term photojournalism. "I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected," Hine once explained, and his images supported the efforts of various movements - led by social workers, labor leaders, suffragists - in bringing about social reforms.
In the early 1900s, children were a common and cheap source of labor, often used in coal mines, meatpacking houses, textile mills and canneries. Bordering on slavery, not only was the work physically brutal with high accident rates, it was not unusual for children to experience abuse and exposure to vice. For immigrant families newly arrived in New York and Pittsburgh, sending children out to work in these conditions was unavoidable.
Hine shot using a Graflex, one of the first cameras offer a view through the camera that wasn't inverted and also allowed the photographer to view the contents of the frame right up until the moment of pushing the trigger. This allowed for greater control over composition and focusing, accounting for some of the wonderfully shallow depth of field in even his earliest images, such as the girl shown in the lead image, shot in a Carolina cotton mill in 1908 (which just sold for $30,000).
As a photographer and a sociologist, I could stare at these images for hours. These images were sold by Swann Auction Galleries in New York and we're indebted to them for making the photographs available to view online. They are a major part not only of photography's history but also that of the U.S.
Lead image: Crop of Lewis W. Hine, One of many youngsters working in Carolina cotton mills, silver contact print, 1908, printed circa 1931. Sold February 15, 2018 for $30,000.
All images courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.