How One Man's Photography Transformed America

How One Man's Photography Transformed America

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.

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Nate Kell's picture

These images are blowing my mind, I couldn't take these with virtually unlimited digital storage, let alone an ancient film brick with what I imagine was very limited film and settings.

Anonymous's picture

Don't sell yourself short: all you need is one of those readily available and inexpensive 4x5 inch digital sensors, and you're golden! :P

Here are a couple of shots of Hine with his "ancient film brick", almost always a Graflex. Settings consist of shutter speed, aperture, ASA, focus, and composition. Film was one sheet at a time; a holder sometimes could have 2 sheets.

Nate Kell's picture

Sorry for delayed response, but I wish I knew what you do on the history front. I feel like I take my tech for granted after seeing all of this!

Anonymous's picture

No worries! I’d recommend a great book called “The History of Photography” by Beaumont Newhall if you want to learn about the early days of photography. If you want a technical understanding of photography pre-digital, I’d also recommend “The Camera” by Ansel Adams.

Hope this helps.

Jeff Walsh's picture

I've never gone to Amazon to buy a book faster. I'm really looking forward to reading The History of Photography

Anonymous's picture

One of the most influential figures in 20th century photojournalism. Great to see Hine spotlighted. Some of his images are so incredibly detailed and haunting; he was a true artist and progressive.

For those interested in the history of documentary photography (of which Hine is a major player of course), I recommend the following read:

Also, I recommend books by Alan Trachtenberg (a fine historian of visual culture), including "Reading American Photographs" and "America and Lewis Hine: Photographs, 1904-1940."

Joshua Ball's picture

Wow, absolutely incredible. Imagery has become such an important driving factor in our world. We are inundated with tens of thousands of images a day in our million-mile-a-minute lives and yet Hine's imagery not only stands the test of time, it gives us a small glimpse into it. Some photographers excel at capturing visually appealing images while others are amazing at capturing emotion, meaning and soul. Hines was both.

Prem Hessenkamp's picture

I love Hine but this article doesn't really explain how it "Transformed America". " was pivotal in ending child labour" is a very weak way to explain it.

Jeff Walsh's picture

I disagree. It's a concise sentence that encapsulates exactly what this man's photography did. There doesn't need to be a long, drawn-out, overly wordy paragraph in order for it to be impactful. Maybe, a how these photos accomplished this would've been good, but for what this article is attempting, that might've over done it.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

Am I getting it Right that if not for these images America wouldn’t be where it is today?

Hans Rosemond's picture

You know what I love about these photos? That they’re technically imperfect. There are “flaws” all over the place. Missed focus, light leaks, abberations, blown highlights, crushed blacks...

And yet, they are a resounding success. They make us feel. They draw us in. Maybe something we can all take away from this is that although the technical aspects of photography are important, they aren’t everything. Wonderful work from a true artist.

Stephen Heins's picture

Ironically, Lewis Hine is virtually unknown in his hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Stephen Heins's picture

Speaking of American heroes, Lewis Hine is surely one of mine. He was an Oshkosh, WI native, a Columbia student and his father ran a restaurant in Oshkosh, not unlike my own past.

As a sociologist, social reformer and photographer, Hine's photographs were important documentation of urban squalor, child labor and New York City during the first third of the Twentieth Century. In addition, he captured several iconic images we still associate with the Manhattan skyline.