Today I ashamedly admit I picked this specific photographer not because his work isn’t any good – but because his story is fairly straightforward (and I need to pack a bag because I’ll be going away for the weekend!). It strikes me how some photographers can produce stunning work, which later on will be viewed as some of the best work even made – and it can still be seen by their peers, within their own timeframe, as inherently worthless. OK, OK, worthless may be too big a statement – but you know what I mean.

 

Lewis Wickes Hine was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on the 26th of September, 1874. After his father died in an accident, he began working and saved his money for a college education. He studied sociology at the University of Chicago, Columbia University and New York University and then became a teacher in New York City at the Ethical Culture School, where he encouraged his students to use photography as an educational medium. The classes traveled to Ellis Island in New York Harbor, photographing the thousands of immigrants who arrived each day. Between 1904 and 1909, Hine took over 200 photographic plates, and eventually came to the realization that documentary photography could be employed as a tool for social change and reform.

In 1906, Hine became the staff photographer of the Russell Sage Foundation. Here Hine photographed life in the steel-making districts and people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the influential sociological study called the Pittsburgh Survey. In 1908, he became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), leaving his teaching position. Over the next decade, Hine documented child labor, with focus on labor in the Carolina Piedmont,in American industry to aid the NCLC’s lobbying efforts to end the practice.

During and after World War I, he photographed American Red Cross relief work in Europe. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Hine made a series of “work portraits,” which emphasized the human contribution to modern industry. In 1930, Hine was commissioned to document the construction of The Empire State Building. Hine photographed the workers in precarious positions while they secured the iron and steel framework of the structure, taking many of the same risks the workers endured. In order to obtain the best vantage points, Hine was swung out in a specially designed basket 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.

He would work again for the Red Cross, this time during the Great Depression photographing drought relief in the American South, and for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), documenting life in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. He also served as chief photographer for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) National Research Project, which studied changes in industry and their effect on employment. Hine was also a member of the faculty of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

In 1936, Hine was selected as the photographer for the National Research Project of the Works Projects Administration, but his work there was never completed.

The last years of his life were filled with professional struggles due to loss of government and corporate patronage. Few people were interested in his work, past or present, and Hine lost his house and applied for welfare. He died at age 66 on November 3, 1940 at Dobbs Ferry Hospital in Dobbs Ferry, New York, after an operation. After Lewis Hine’s death his son Corydon donated his prints and negatives to the Photo League, which was dismantled in 1951. The Museum of Modern Art was offered his pictures but did not accept them; but the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York did.

 

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