Lewis Hine – Photographer Who Stirred America’s Conscience

Day 180 of Colourisation Project – November 3

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Today marks the 74th anniversary of the death of Lewis Wickes Hine, the photographer of the iconic image below, the Power House Mechanic.

Steam Pump Mechanic Bef & Aft

Photographer: Lewis Hine, 1920 Power House Mechanic – Colourised by Loredana Crupi

Lewis Wickes Hine was an American sociologist and photographer whose work is considered a precursor to modernist and documentary photography. Hine’s intent was always to use the camera as a tool for social reform.

He was a champion for the cause of poor immigrants, child labourers and other exploited workers. His expository photographs stirred the American conscience enough to bring about legislation to improve the lives of children, and the living and working conditions of America’s citizens as well as to deliver humanitarian aid to Europe after World War I.

Hine started out as a teacher of botany and nature studies in New York City at the Ethical Culture School, where he encouraged his students to use photography as an educational medium. Hine is the kind of guy I wish I’d had as a teacher when I was at school. He organised class excursions to Ellis Island in New York Harbour, to photograph the thousands of immigrants who arrived each day.

In 1906, Hine freelanced as staff photographer for the Russell Sage Foundation photographing life in the steel-making districts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Realising the potential of photography to bring about change, he quit his job in 1908 and worked for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) documenting the horrendous child labour exploitative work practices.  By 1912 he set himself up as a sociological photographer and established a studio in upstate New York.

Between the Great Wars and during the Depression, Hine photographed the American Red Cross relief work in Europe and at home. He documented the drought relief in the American South. He was also commissioned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to document life in the mountains of eastern Tennessee.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Hine made a series of ‘work portraits’, which illustrated the human contribution to the modernization of the work industry, of which the Power House Mechanic is perhaps his best known and finest example.

In 1930, Hine took a commission to document the construction of The Empire State Building. He photographed the workers in precarious positions, as they went about their work on the iron and steel framework of the structure. Hine placed himself in danger risking his own life to capture the same risks endured by the construction workers in erecting this mighty behemoth.

Hine’s photos will make your stomach churn, especially if you suffer from vertigo. They clearly demonstrate the disregard for health and safety, which according to official accounts, led to five deaths. The project involved 3,400 workers, mostly immigrants from Europe, along with hundreds of Mohawk iron workers, many from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal.

Have you ever wondered how these extraordinary photos were taken? Well, in order for Hine to obtain the best vantage points, a specially designed basket 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue was designed to swing out from the side of the building.

His record of the building’s construction was later published as a book, Men at Work (1932).

Hine’s struggled financially to make ends meet from his photography business. In his later years he lost government contracts and corporate patronage, forcing him to lose his home in 1940, after failing to keep up repayments. Lewis Wickes Hine died eleven months later on this day, the 3rd November, 1940.

Later in life his vast body of work seemed unappreciated although he did find renewed respect and recognition for his work, particularly among the new generation of concerned photographers at the Photo League, a cooperative of photographers in New York who banded together around a range of common social and creative causes. In early 1939, a large retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Riverside Museum in New York. His reputation continued to grow, and today he is recognized as a master American photographer.

After Lewis Hine’s death, his son Corydon donated all his prints and negatives to the Photo League, (which was dismantled in 1951). The Museum of Modern Art was offered his pictures but did not accept them. Fortunately for the world, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York did.

Hine was a prolific photographer. Nearly ten thousand photographs and negatives are held at the George Eastman House and nearly five thousand child labour (NCLC) photographs are held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The Library of Congress holds more than five thousand his photographs.

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Whether it be a painting or photograph, the picture is a symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality. In fact, it is often more effective than the reality would have been, because, in the picture, the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated.

The average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.”      Lewis Wickes Hine

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One Response to Lewis Hine – Photographer Who Stirred America’s Conscience

  1. Pingback: Rockefeller Lunchbreak | Random Phoughts

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