The work Hine did for [child labor reform] was more responsible than all other efforts in bringing the need to public attention. The evils were intellectually but not emotionally recognized until his skill, vision and artistic finesse focused the camera intelligently on these social problems.
- National Child Labor Committee
Posthumously renowned for his groundbreaking social documentary work, Lewis Hine spent the majority of his life photographing America’s social issues: immigration, child labor, and the plight of the working man. His photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island treated the new, often degraded, citizens with grace, photographing his subjects in more formal poses instead of the “huddled masses” that appeared in other works. In the words of Lou Stettner, “Hine portrayed [the immigrants] for us and for history as solemn and dignified carriers of a sophisticated, rich and varied cultures from the Old World.” From 1904-37, Hine worked for the National Research Project; he began his work with the National Child Labor Committee in 1907. Throughout his work, Hine treated his subjects with the utmost respect. As he wrote in the introduction to his book Men At Work, “I have toiled in many industries and associated with thousands of workers. I have brought some of them here to meet you. Some of them are heroes, all of them persons it is a privilege to know.” The social and political facets, although they may seem at times to overshadow the artistic nature of the photographs, actually emphasize the elegantly spare compositions of the images.
Born in 1874, Lewis Hine was raised in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and briefly studied at the University of Chicago in 1900, where he took his first photo class. His career focused on three issues: namely, the Ellis Island Immigrants; child labor; and his Work Portraits series, on which he spent the last twenty years of his career. During his life, Hine’s work was considered old-fashioned, and he spent a period of time on welfare, unable to pay off the mortgage on his house. Nevertheless, he continued photographing, including a study of the construction of the Empire State Building in 1930. A retrospective exhibit of his work was held at the Riverside Museum immediately before his death in 1940. (bio)