“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.” -Louis Hine

The power of photography

In 1901, Louis Hine was hired by Frank Manny the superintendent of New York’s Ethical Culture School. Hine was asked to add school photographer to his duties and to document the studies and social parts of the institution. Hine soon understood that photography had real power to show reality and portray the truth. This realization had a lifelong impact on Hine. He saw this art and science as a tool that would forward education.

Hine continued his own studies receiving his master’s degree in teaching from New York University in 1905. He published articles for the Elementary School Teacher, The Outlook and The Photographic Times pushing photography as a tool for education.

A meeting with Arthur Kellogg of the Charities and Commons magazine helped Hine becoming a freelance photographer for the National Child Labor Committee — NCLC — the agency that lobbied for the passing of child labor laws. There was a lot of push back from businesses employing children because the practice was hugely profitable. Hine put it this way, “There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work” (opening photo, top row).

The Northeast and the Deep South

On Photography: Louis Hine, 1874-1980
Louis Hine, self-portrait

Hine traveled through the Northeastern U.S. and the Deep South photographing the harsh conditions where children worked in mines, fields, canneries, factories and mines. Often he would wear disguises to gain entry into the locations. He portrayed a salesman of postcards or bibles and an industrial photographer taking shots of machinery.

He found himself working quickly to avoid discovery. He would note the names and ages of the children he photographed along with as much other info about the scenes. When he was unable to gain entry, he would set up outside the businesses and wait to photograph people as they left work.

Ultimately, his stark images were instrumental in the creation and enforcement of child labor laws.

Soft focus or realistic?

Under Alfred Stieglitz, photography was starting to be considered an art form. Hine believed the art of photography was picturing the day to day world of poverty, work, people on the street and in factories as well as life in households. He posed his subjects looking straight into the camera as if they were looking at the viewer. He felt the art and beauty of his photographs lay with the people and revealing the truth about them. This style began to influence other photographers of the time.

The American Red Cross engaged Louis Hine to photograph its relief work in France and the Balkans during World War I. After the war, he worked for the American Clothing Workers, the National Tuberculosis Commission and the Boy and Girl Scouts.

The Pittsburgh Survey

Hine produced a series of photo works that showed the social conditions, inequality and living conditions in that industrialized city. From these images, a new portfolio, Work Portraits, came into being. He received the Art Directors’ Club of New York Medal for photography. It was 1924.

During the 1930s, Hine worked for the New Deal, the Tennesee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Works Progress Administration and others.

The Empire State Building

Hine chronicled the construction of what was then the tallest building in the world. He took risks, working on the high steel to engage with the workers creating this masterpiece. He often balanced precariously a hundred stories above the street to make his photographs. A first-of-its-kind book, Men at Work emerged from his pictures.

Insisting on the ownership of negatives

One of Hine’s greatest desires was to work for the FSA project during the Great Depression. Despite his reputation for creating great imagery, Ray Stryker refused to hire him because Hine would not relinquish the ownership of his negatives. He never worked for the FSA as other photographers like Dorothea Lange did, but he kept his negatives.

With the Depression, the ownership of his negatives and an ongoing lack of work, Hine slipped into being almost a complete unknown in the world of photography. Bernice Abbott along with emerging art critic, Elizabeth McCausland put together a retrospective exhibition of Hine’s work. The show refreshed his position as a lens-based artist of vision who had made a difference in the growth of U.S. culture.

Sources: Library of Congress, International Photography Hall of Fame Museum

On Photography features inspirational photographs of the past and present.