Thursday, September 25, 2014

Louis Hine—The Photographer Who Went There

Louis Hine at work

These days everyone seems to have a cell phone camera in their pocket at all times and no public or private event seems to go unrecorded.  If news happens, it is only a matter of moments before pictures are being shared on social media and often times dozens of views from different angles are available in a trice.  And this can be good—the guardian filter of well established—and connected—media has been smashed and inconvenient and ugly truth gets exposure.  And we are better for it.
But the proliferation of images splattered everywhere without regard to context, composition, or care, has also cheapened them.  We forget just how powerful a single black and white photograph or a carefully selected series could be.  Powerful enough, in fact to change the world.  Alexander Gardner brought the horrors of the Civil War into middle class American parlors and war forever lost its glamour.  Ansel Adams as much as John Muir was the father of the conservation movement and god father to the ecology movement.  Dorothea Lange took us to the heart of the Dust Bowl and deep into migrant camps rousing support for the New Deal.
But none had a greater impact over a longer time the Louis Hine.  Maybe it was because He had lived the life of some of his most famous subjects that his images carried such power.
Hine was born on September 26, 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  His father was a Civil War Veteran and his mother a teacher.  Whatever tenuous security the family might have had clinging to the lowest rungs of the middleclass ended when his father died in 1892.  Eighteen year old Louis was forced to become breadwinner.  He worked in a furniture factory.  He worked 14 hours six days a week for $4.  When that job evaporated in a panic, he was reduced to being a janitor at a bank and after some years advanced to supervising sweeper.
Determined to escape dead-end drudgery Hine enrolled in night school university extension classes at the State Normal School in Oshkosh where Principal Frank Manny took an interest in the bright young man.  After years of work Hine was certified as a teacher.
Manny got a new and prestigious job in New York City as Superintendent of the Ethical Culture School and brought Hine with him as an instructor in nature study and geography.  Almost casually he gave the young man secondary assignment—to act as the school’s photographer, although he had no experience.  Hine learned quickly.
The school and the Ethical Culture Society from which it sprang would have a huge impact on Hine’s thinking and life.  The school began as a free kindergarten for immigrant children in 1875 by Felix Adler.  It educationally advanced program began to draw notice, the school was expanded to primary and high school levels and eventually the children of the city’s educated liberal elite were admitted as tuition paying students supporting the free education of needy students.  Adler also founded the Ethical Culture Society, an agnostic and humanist alternative to Temple for secularized Jews.  That movement spread to include non-Jewish humanists and was influencing liberal religion far beyond its numbers, including the theologically and politically daring Western Unitarian Conference based in Chicago and the associated Unity Clubs of Jenkin Lloyd Jones.  The Ethical Cultural Society became the official sponsor of the School in 1895 and was soon at the beating heart of New York left liberalism.  It pursued social justice, racial equality, and intellectual freedom and was the only private school in the city that did not discriminate because of race, color, or creed.

Ellis Island imigrants.

The school liked to take students out of the classroom and into the city for real life experiences.  Hine designed and led a project to document the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and what happened to them as they melted into the bustling city.  Students conducted interviews and Hine took photographs, hundreds of them between 1904 and ’09.  He preserved 200 glass negatives and the dramatic prints made from them were published in magazines like The Elementary School Teacher, Outlook, and The Photographic Times to promote the use of the camera in education.  He was also awakened to the power of his images and determined to make photography his future.
During those years Hine found time in 1905 to return to Oshkosh to marry his old sweetheart, Sara Rich.  He also took night classes at New York University under the tutelage of educational reformers John Dewey and Ella Flagg Young earning a Master’s Degree in Pedagogy the same year.  Then he went on to Columbia University to study social work and met Arthur Kellog, Editor of Charities and Commons magazine who commission some work and, along with the support of Manny and Adler from Ethical Culture, began to open doors for freelance documentary work.
His first assignment in 1907 was from the brand new Russell Sage Foundation which dedicated itself to the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States by funding and publishing original research.  The foundation’s first undertaking was the Pittsburgh Survey, the first systematic effort to survey working class conditions in a large city.  Hine photographed life in and out of the steel mills that were the city’s economic engine and documented the miserable job and living conditions of the largely immigrant work force.  The use of documentary photography to bolster a dry report drew unprecedented attention to the Survey’s findings.

Child cotton mill spinners 1912,

In 1908 Hine finally left his teaching position at the school to concentrate full time on his photography and he got the commission of a lifetime—as photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC).  For the next nine years until 1917 he traveled from the textile mills of New England and sweat shops of New York to the coal mines of Appalachia and canneries in the fishing ports of the Gulf Coast taking many of the most iconic pictures in the nation’s history.  He often disguised himself and risking beatings or worse from guards and goons employed by bosses who fiercely resisted any challenge to their use of the cheap and disposable labor of children. 
He got many candid pictures on the job or photos of children posing by the dangerous equipment they operated.  When he could not get inside, Hine would lurk around factory and mine gates and round up the child workers from stark portraits.  He developed a technique of asking the children to stare directly into the camera lens so that in the published photographs the viewer could not avoid their eyes.
The pictures created a sensation. In state after state the photos were credited for building public support for an attack on child labor.  New York and other states began passing legislation.  They contributed to pressure on the Federal Government to create a new Cabinet level Department of Labor, very reluctantly signed into existence by President William Howard Taft right before he left office.  His successor Woodrow Wilson set up the Department and appointed its first secretary, helping Democrats become more identified as the party of Labor.
By the time his work with the NCLC was winding down, Hine was beginning to appreciate his own work as art as well as documentation.  He began to print and sell editions of some of his work and made it a condition of accepting any commission that he retain all of his negatives and the rights to further use.  Late in his career this would cut him off from important government and foundation commissions which now insisted on complete ownership of all photos and negatives shot for them. 
Although he appreciated and promoted photography as art, his approach put him at odds with the high priest of photography as fine art, Alfred Stieglitz and his Photo Secession Group which promoted painterly photography and heavy manipulation of images in the dark room to achieve certain effects.  Hine found the work overly romantic and out of touch with the real world which the group seemed to disdain.  For Hine the beauty of a photograph was in revealing the truth about the subject and respecting its integrity.  This attitude and his open advocacy and support for working people and their movements did not endear him to the art elite and kept his work out of a lot of fashionable magazines and ritzy galleries. 
With the American entry into World War I in 1917, Hine got a commission from the American Red Cross to document refugees and relief efforts in France, Belgium, and the Balkans. 
Back home through the 1920’s Hine was busy with commissions from many groups including the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, National Tuberculosis Commission, both the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Milbank Foundation, the Harkness Foundation, and the Interchurch World Movement.  From these assignments and independent work Hine assembled a seminal portfolio, Work Portraits. 
Finally the fine art establishment hat to acknowledge the power of his work.  In 1924 Hines received the Art Director’s Guild of New York Medal for Photography.
The Great Depression seemed tailor made to Hines talents.  And indeed it started out that way.  He chronicled working women—a cover for the Western Electric News, the Sheldon Loom series on textile workers, and women working at home who he felt were not given the credit and dignity of their labor.  

Working on the Empire State Building.

Hine got one of the plum assignments of his career to document the construction of the Empire State Building.  For two years he worked as the great building rose, often taking enormous risks on the high exposed beams to get extraordinary shots of the men at work.
He Who Interprets Big Labor was an important photo essay for The Mentor.
When Roy Stryker organized the photography project of the Farm Security Administration, Hine desperately wanted to sign on.  It seemed a perfect match. He applied time and time again but was turned down because he would not surrender ownership of his negatives.  He had to stand by and watch as a new generation of documentary photographers including Dorothea Lang, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks rose to fame.
Hine did get some New Deal assignments from the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), the Tennessee Valley Administration (TVA), the Works Project Administration (WPA), and the National Research Project.  But work started to dry up.  He was increasingly being replaced by a generation of photographers whose work he had inspired.  He also still used bulky glass negative bellows cameras, which produced exquisite fine grained pictures but limited the ability to do multiple shots and quickly capture action. 
By the end of the decade work had dwindled so badly that Hine had to go on welfare and lost his home.  His health was broken and he was nearly a forgotten man.  Bernice Abbot and Elisabeth McCausland visited him in his Westchester County studio near the end and after his death organized a retrospective exhibit that helped revive his reputation.
But it was too late for Hine who died on November 3, 1940 at age 66 at Dobbs Ferry, New York.   His son Corydon donated his prints and negatives to the Photo League.  When it disbanded in 1951, The Museum of Modern Art was offered his pictures but did not accept them.  The magnificent archive of more than 2000 negatives and hundreds of prints that Hine had painstakingly kept together was broken up.  Many ended up in the George Eastman House in Rochester.  The Library of Congress, and the  Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County all have large collections.
Hine’s work still shows up frequently in books and articles documenting 20th Century America and the lives of working people.  And that is quite a legacy.


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