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.
Ask most photographers about their historical influences and you will likely hear the name Ansel Adams more than any other. In a recent exchange, I asked a photographer who mentioned (only) Adams as his inspiration what he thought about the works of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. He responded, “I’ve heard their names.” This is a pervasive problem in photography. It would be like asking a classical musician claiming to have been inspired by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart about Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, and to hear back, “I’ve heard their names.”
Today, November 3rd, is the anniversary of the passing of photographer Lewis Hine. By my estimate, Hine’s name is not even on the “heard their names” shortlist of most present-day photographers, which is a shame. I hope this post helps change that. Hine’s work and story contain some eminently valuable lessons, not only for photographers but for anyone aspiring to live authentically and/or to make a meaningful contribution to the world. Hine did just that. In fact, he did that more than once, and not just in the domain of photography.
Working as teacher in a New York high school, Hine started a small camera club as an extracurricular activity for students. The club had only six members. Hine taught himself photography and enjoyed it as a hobby. In the early 1900s, Hine also witnessed, photographed, and was deeply moved by the waves of immigrants arriving in Ellis Island and the hard lives of factory workers. He soon realized the power of photography to influence social change and became an avid muckraker photographer, often working at great personal risk.
At the height of his career, Hine was a staff photographer for The Russell Sage Foundation and, after quitting his teaching job to focus entirely on his humanitarian work, began photographing for the National Child Labor Committee. Among his other work, he also documented relief efforts by the American Red Cross, both in Europe and in the United States. His work helped pave the way to a new genre of courageous documentary photography in the service of social justice—what some today may call “humanitarian photography”—later taken on by by such iconic photographers as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, and many others.
At his school camera club, Hine taught students how to work a camera, how to develop and print their work, how to use flash bulbs, and other technical skills. He also took his photography students on field trips. One of those trips was to Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Stieglitz was at the time (some would say to this day) the most important photographer and art promoter in America, with wide-ranging influence in Europe, as well. He was also a tireless advocate for photography as a legitimate medium for art, on par with painting, sculpture, and other fine arts: a campaign he waged using his magazines, his gallery, his influence with a close circle of friends consisting of notable photographers and artists, and under the banner of the “Photo-Secession” movement.
One of Hine’s students was so moved by the visit to Stieglitz’s gallery that he decided right there and then (at age 17) that his goal in life was “to become an artist in photography.” And he did just that. Forming a close friendship with Stieglitz, leading to many years of creative collaboration and mutual inspiration, Hine’s young student, Paul Strand, is considered today as one of the greatest fine-art and documentary photographers of all time. Many years later, a man who was just 5 years old at the time Strand first met Stieglitz, would credit his decision to become a professional photographer to having been profoundly inspired by a chance meeting with Strand. That man was Ansel Adams.
It would be too easy and convenient to leave off here, on a high note, with a celebration of Hine’s influence and courage. Alas, there is more to his story that is harder to come to terms with, but nonetheless worth learning about and inferring important lessons from.
Following the Great Depression, Hine found it harder to earn an income in photography. Despite his great accomplishments and reputation, he was repeatedly declined a position with the Farm Security Administration‘s famous photography program. He spent his later years in poverty, subsisting on welfare checks.
As much of the world forgot about Hine, one photographer—Berenice Abbott—refused to let his legacy wane. She visited with Hine as he was in ill health and living in poverty, and arranged for an exhibition of his work that helped revive his reputation. (Abbott similarly saved the legacy of another great photographer: Eugène Atget.) In a documentary film about Abbott, filmmaker Martha Wheelock said, “Lewis Hine was penniless and had all these interesting pictures of people working in the mills. Berenice Abbott alone got his work in the press and also staged an exhibition of his work, but she never did that sort of thing for herself. I think that says a great deal about her as a human being and as an artist.”
In a 1909 article, Hine wrote about his work, “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.” A couple of years before his death, after more than 3 decades of activism, Hine got to see the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, supported by his work, that ended child labor in the United States.
Hine died poor at age 66 in a New York hospital after a failed surgery. Alas, not all great stories have happy endings.
Now take a moment to draw in your mind a web of influence starting with Lewis Hine, branching into both documentary photography and fine-art photography, weaving through some of the greatest names in American photography in the last century. Consider all the names downstream from Hine whose work was made possible by his pioneering images, courage, and activism: the great photographers of the Farm Security Administration, Life Magazine, even the members of Group f/64 (by way of Strand, who was an avid advocate for “straight photography” for two decades before it became the motto of the Group).
Don’t stop there. Consider where we would be as a society if it was not for all the activism, social progress, and photographic art created and driven by these many great photographers, all of which can trace their chain of influences, if not their very profession, directly or indirectly, to Lewis Hine’s work and courage.
Don’t stop there, either. Where would we be if Hine chose to stick to the safety of his high school teaching job rather than risk becoming an independent muckraker photographer and social activist? Where would we be if any of the names in this article (and many more) limited their work to just imitating their inspirations, rather than striving to chart new grounds, and to build further upon the legacies of their inspirations? How many of today’s “influencers” of millions can claim accomplishments even close to those ensuing from Hine’s influence—by personal example, not by the pursuit of fame, riches, or popularity—on a handful of great artists and humanitarians?
Let us today remember with reverence and gratitude this great photographer and humanitarian.