Though his name may be unfamiliar, his photographs resonate as part of the imagery and lore of early 20th century America. Workers on assembly lines, immigrants at Ellis Island, teeming city streets; these are but several of the recognizable subjects captured in the photography of Lewis Wickes Hine on display at the International Center of Photography (ICP).
Hine trained as a sociologist and began taking photographs in 1905 as a means of depicting the social realities of his day and, in his words, of showing ‘the things that had to be corrected’. Early favourite subjects included the squalid tenements of New York’s Lower East Side and their residents, and some of these of pictures were to be found towards the beginning of this exhibition, the largest survey of his work to date. This commitment to social justice brought him commissions from charitable organizations, notably from the National Child Labor Committee, which hired him in 1908 to document the pitiable conditions of child workers. He would later become their official photographer. His output, for them and other similar organizations, was prolific.
Thus, the task of organizing his work is not an easy one. Curator Alison Nordström, of George Eastman House, solved this by grouping Hine’s photographs thematically: ‘Tenements’ formed one portion of the show, as did, for example, the themes ‘Child Labor’ and ‘Black Americans’. A second show, curated by Hine scholar Judith Gutman and much smaller in scope, focused on photographs created for an arm of the Works Progress Administration to study the effects of industrialization. Though not as compelling as the larger show, it highlighted Hine’s ability to spot the uncanny and interesting in everyday work and mechanization.
Also on view were original publications in which his work appeared. By joining the photographs to hyperbolic texts and arranging them in constellations reminiscent of propaganda or advertising, these charity bulletins convey more clearly than the pictures alone the intent and force of Hine’s work, although its artistic quality is somewhat diminished.
Indeed, the photographs hung around the cases are remarkable as composed pieces but, stripped of context, they lack urgency. Added to this is the fact that visitors to the ICP are seeing Hine’s then-novel photojournalism a century later. Child labour laws are in effect; the tenements of the Lower East Side and Ellis Island are gone.
When the journalism component of photojournalism becomes immaterial, what remains? Rather than attempting to frame Hine’s work in its original context, the exhibition might instead have focused on this question. Especially since Hine, as the show made clear, experimented with the boundary between art and documentation.
Nordström notes in the catalogue that Hine would pose and stage his portraits of the poor for greatest effect, an act that would be deemed impermissible today. He also had a great imagination, a quality which comes across in his photographs of innovation and industry, lighter subjects in which he seems more comfortable expressing his proclivity for metaphor and abstraction.
Icarus Atop the Empire State Building (1931), made while the famed skyscraper was under construction, shows a worker triumphantly suspended in the air, arm outstretched, with the hazy skyline below – an early Superman. (The comic hero would be invented two years later.)
Rolling Mills at Night (1908) from the 1907–08 Pittsburgh Survey – the first coordinated attempt to study urban American life – shows the mills ensconced in an almost celestial light. In Mechanic at Steam Pump in Electric Power House (1920), a worker hunches in front of a gleaming steam pump, the curved outline of which seems to conjoin the the two into one seamless form. Some of the most revealing images included in the display were the Photo-Studies (1930-2), small, isolated details developed from another portrait of a worker at a machine – a wheel, a hand, an eye – demonstrating, as the explanatory text notes, Hine’s awareness of and interest in the emerging artistic movements of modernism and abstraction.