Lewis Hine’s powerful early twentieth-century photographs led to the invention of child labour laws in the United States. His images are visually resonant today, and show the often-brutal conditions children, immigrants, and workers went through more than a hundred years ago.
Hine was born in 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. When he was eighteen, his father died, leaving Hine to support his mother. He worked at a series of mundane jobs in order to save money to study Sociology at New York University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. Whilst studying on university extension courses, Hine met Frank Manny, the principal of the State school in Oshkosh. Through this connection, he was eventually asked to teach at the school, which was followed by another teaching job at the Ethical Culture School in New York.
Hine was soon appointed to become the Ethical Cultural School’s photographer. He became interested in photography’s ability to both document and affect social change. Over these years, Hine published articles that promoted photography as an educational tool. In 1904, working with the school, Hine began documenting the influx of immigrants into the United States on Ellis Island. After lecturing at other schools in New York, Hine met many influential figures that introduced him to work for magazines including Charities and the Commons.
Hine became a freelance photographer for the National Child Labour Committee, which aimed at ensuing child labour laws. For the committee, Hine travelled to southern America in 1917, where he photographed children at work in extreme conditions. Hine used the photographs he made there for the purpose of social reform, and they had a quick impact on the country’s laws.
Hine wished to photograph things that he wished would be corrected. Although showing harsh everyday realities, his photographs show a sensitivity and deep connection to the subjects. His camera was used as a tool both politically and artistically, through the use of sharp angles and soft focuses, which concentrated respectfully on the individual within the photograph.
In the 1930s Hine free-lanced for the American Red Cross, and the National Research Project of the Works Projects Administration. His photographs from this period are captured in Europe and show the efforts of workers and refugees.
Hine’s work after the First World War looked positively at labour, and the possibilities for America. In the early 1930s he documented the construction of the Empire State Building, and produced inspiring and hopeful images of workers sitting atop steel frameworks in the sky.
Shortly before his death, Elizabeth McCausland and Berenice Abbott organized a retrospective exhibit of Hine’s work. The Photo League, the George Eastman House, and the Library of Congress collected his work in the mid twentieth-century. His legacy has inspired several books and films, and further exhibitions in museums such as the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
Hine died after an operation in November 1940. His photographs made a lasting difference to hundreds of lives, and have masterfully changed the face of American photography.