Thursday, 6 September 2007

Profile: Lewis Hine

Immigrants climbing into America, Ellis Island,New York, 1905

Lewis Hine (born 1874) took up photography as a means to an end - to call attention to the poverty and social injustice and to celebrate the dignity of the working man in the modern world. Hine's photographic work is now seen as a unique historical record of early 20th century America but at the time Hine just saw his images as a tool to create public awareness of issues that Hine believed were being ignored. What Hine didn't realise was he was capturing the beginnings of modern America.

America in the early 20th century was still developing as a nation and for many, America was seen as the new world; a place to start again and live the American dream. One of Hine's most fascinating photographic projects was his 1905 Ellis Island work where he photographed immigrants coming into the USA via the clearing station based there. To Hine, Ellis Island was just as important to the story of America as Plymouth rock, the place where the pilgrim fathers landed in the 17th century. By 1900, the USA had received over 9 million immigrants - many of whom resided in the large cities like New York and were from Southern and Eastern Europe. Very few spoke English. Hine's images capture the immigrants faces filled with a look of hope and uncertainty. What awaited them in America is unknown.

In 1908 Hine's photographic work started looking at social issues like poverty and working conditions. The work especially concentrated on child poverty and the large child workforce employed in industry throughout America at that time. This included the children who worked on the streets of America's cities selling newspapers, delivering telegrams or polishing shoes. Hine's images helped social reform campaigners gain the upper hand and legislation followed but Hine's fascination with the workers of America would continue until the end of his life.

Probably Hine's most famous images of workers 'at work' are his Empire State building photographs taken in 1930/31. Hine had been appointed as a official photographer for the Empire State company, the firm responsible for constructing the Empire State Building - his task was to record the whole construction project for the company. For Hine it offered the perfect scenario to capture the men building these towering buildings. His images are just as impressive as the building itself and for many, the images mark the pinnacle of his photographic career.

Hine worked from a mechanical lift and was able to access all areas of the construction site. It is quite commonplace now for construction companies to want to record the building of a new grand project but in the 1930's it was a rare opportunity to be offered such a project. Hine's photography immortalised the working men of the Empire State Building and created striking record of the new America, vastly different to the America he had photographed at Ellis Island twenty five years before.

Ironically these images were taken in the early years of the great depression, when America was in economic turmoil due to the Wall Street crash of 1929 and yet Hines captures a modern America. This was the new modernized America; the superpower that would become the industrial powerhouse that would help turn the tide against the Axis powers.

Lewis Hine died in November 1940 but his work remains a potent documentary record of a modern nation being born. For me, Hine's images convey a respect that was lacking from many of his contemporaries images - many photographers of Hine's era failed to recognise photography as a historical recording tool and regarded their subjects in rather a patronizing light. Even Hine himself didn't seem to realise the historical importance of his work. Hine very rarely recorded the names of his subjects adding some mystery to his sitters. What happened to them? Did they make a good life for themselves? In most, if not all cases, we don't know but their importance as the people who built America was captured for future generations to view and wonder.

centre image :Street Child ca 1910
Bottom image : Icarus atop Empire State Building, New York, 1931
All images © The Estate of Lewis Hine

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is very good work and probaly took a long time to tupe up.


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