Lewis Hine, Photographer of the American Working Class

Late in his career, labor photographer Lewis Wickes Hine used his camera to capture the…

Late in his career, labor photographer Lewis Wickes Hine used his camera to capture the best of working life in the United States. As the New Deal ushered in job opportunities and social welfare programs for a large swath of the American population, he documented the country’s gradual recovery from the Depression. Photographs of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) childcare center mark a progression from his famous child labor photographs three decades earlier.

While he lived long enough to see robust federal aid that empowered laborers, Hine is best known for work that challenged capitalist exploitation in the workplace. Driven by his belief that labor was the soul of America, he attributed the nation’s achievements to the individual men, women, and children who made them possible.

Hine’s lifetime roughly paralleled the Second Industrial Revolution, from 1874 to 1940. The era’s increasing speeds of manufacturing stretched the physical limits of manual labor, while photography as a medium evolved from a surveillance tool to a method of exposure. As an investigative photographer, Hine chronicled the normalized labor abuses in US factories leading up to the Great Depression. Not only did he help introduce some of the country’s first child labor laws, he also revolutionized photography’s artistic use value.

Hine once argued that a good picture is “a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others.” For him, an organized workforce was the epitome of empathy and mutual benefit, which he hoped to convey to the greater American public.

Power house mechanic working on steam pump, 1920. (Wikimedia Commons)

In this way, he contributed to an aesthetic of worker empowerment through images of strife and solidarity. He never lived to see his work appreciated at an artistic level, but countless posthumous books and exhibitions reveal his enduring legacy as a social reformer. If Ansel Adams helped bring environmentalism to the national spotlight, Hine showed how exposing workplaces to the public eye could shift perspectives around labor. Critics remain drawn to his unshakeable optimism, perhaps a result of early twentieth-century progressivism and the material gains witnessed in his lifetime. But for many, merely seeing the ways workers lived just a century ago makes labor struggles of today seem more real.

In 1892, Hine’s father died unexpectedly. As a result, the eighteen-year-old Lewis took on financial responsibilities for his family in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He worked thirteen-hour days at an upholstery factory, earning just four dollars a week, then as a janitor of a bank, where he said he “worked up as far as supervising sweeper.” These jobs gave him early exposure to the dehumanizing elements of manual labor before the establishment of a federal minimum wage.

Hine followed Frank Manny (his mentor from State Normal School, now University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh) to New York City in 1901 and took a job teaching science at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. With his first camera, he snapped photos of birds and plants while taking his botany students on field trips around Central Park. He eventually crafted his own lesson plans, bringing students downtown to watch immigrants arrive at the Battery, the first stop in Manhattan after Ellis Island.

Around this time, Hine received a master’s in pedagogy from New York University and enrolled in the sociology program at the Columbia School of Social Work. There, he connected with Arthur Kellogg of Charities and the Commons magazine and began writing articles on the social power of photography for publications like the Elementary School Teacher, the Outlook, and the Photographic Times.

While working as a staff photographer at the Russell Sage Foundation, Hine contributed to its landmark sociological study, The Pittsburgh Survey. Steelworkers with dirty faces, many of them children, are shown making train rails in claustrophobic iron works. The young workers gaze blankly in Hine’s direction, appearing as they might on any ordinary workday, contrasting the staged photographs used in company work manuals.

Little spinner in Globe Cotton Mill, Augusta, GA. Overseer said she was regularly employed. Augusta, Georgia, 1909. (Library of Congress)

From 1908 to 1924, Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), a government agency that advocated for an end to youth employment. As the speed of manufacturing increased, capitalists ruthlessly opposed all labor reforms, sometimes with force. Hine traveled across the country photographing workplaces within the same industries, capturing their varied conditions in states like Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and Michigan.

He documented children — many under the age of fifteen — operating yarn spinners and canning machines, picking vegetables in open fields, weaving baskets, and blowing glass. Outside of factories, he also photographed newsies (known for their landmark 1899 strike that inspired the Disney movie).

“The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work,” Hine wrote in the Child Labor Bulletin.

Until recently it was said that only children could remove slate in the coal breakers. So thousands of boys spent long days breathing air so filled with dust that even the keen eye of the camera could not pierce it. Now this work is being done more efficiently by machinery that uses no boys at all, and similar machines are driving boys out of the glass industry. It is evident that when manufacturers will, they can establish right conditions.

Breaker boys: child workers who broke down coal at a mine in South Pittston, Pennsylvania, 1910. (Wikimedia Commons)

These images are difficult to fathom nowadays, and the stoic demeanor of Hine’s subjects reveals the drastic effects of premature toil. Children are shown operating dangerous work machines on their own, carrying heavy pieces of equipment, and smoking with their friends during breaks — all with weatherworn facial expressions. The NCLC’s pamphlets were widely distributed across the United States, more than even Hine’s Red Cross photographs of injured World War I soldiers, resulting in the passing of the country’s first child labor law, the Keating-Owen Act, in 1916.

In the early days of the Great Depression, Hine photographed construction of the Empire State Building. Hanging from cherry pickers and balancing on beams a hundred stories high allowed him to achieve impressive aerial shots, and he occasionally swung out beyond the building to get a wide view.

His iconic Icarus, Empire State Building (1930) depicts a steelworker suspended on a wire, as if floating midair. Hine took a close shot of the worker, omitting the building’s steel beams. While the worker was in no real danger, the title conveys not just the precarity depicted but the nature of financial capital during a crisis. Hine would compile many of these photographs for his 1932 book Men at Work, marking a shift into images that uplifted workers.

Scrap metal junkies breaking up old looms, to be sold for scrap-iron and said to be sent to Japan for munitions. Paterson, New Jersey, 1936. (Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery)

During this time, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the WPA’s National Research Project (NRP) to invest in new technologies and investigate the consistent rate of unemployment. An era of economic expansion and industrial innovation paired with robust social reform and reemployment, and Hine’s photographs helped debunk conservative myths about new machinery decimating society.

Working with the NRP allowed him to visualize the workplace in a period of transformation. In clean spaces with lots of windows, larger machines consolidated previously separate tasks and reduced the amount of people necessary for operation — thus leading to greater worker autonomy. These improvements would complement the establishment of hour maximums and a federal minimum wage, which was instituted in 1938.

These photographs, which are the focus of Howard Greenberg Gallery’s latest exhibition, find Hine working with more expansive compositions. Machines tower over workers in rooms by themselves — a major departure from the cramped, dimly lit sweatshops of the pre-Depression era. His subjects included textile and construction workers, cabinet makers, radio manufacturers, and miners in North Carolina, West Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. Some industries overlap with his previous work, and conditions had vastly improved in terms of space and cleanliness, casting workers in a more dignified light.

Silk skeins on winding creels or swifts. Paterson, New Jersey, March 18, 1937. (Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery)

Hine also captured the diversity of the US workforce in a way few other photographers had — men and women, Polish and Jewish immigrants from Europe, and black workers in collaboration. This era would lead to laws guaranteeing the right to collective bargaining, with manufacturers ceding some control to unions on the job. By Hine’s death in 1940, workers had successfully agitated to abolish child labor, increase safety precautions, and limit their hours.

Many of the earliest photography archives emerged in law enforcement and corporate work manuals, to maintain records of criminality and aid in managing workers. Hine was among the first photographers to use the medium in a more expansive, life-affirming way, bringing out the contradictions of what was pictured rather than covering them up. Late photography critic Allan Sekula pointed to this in his historical essay, “Photography between Labour and Capital” (1983):

In social reform work especially, we find another sort of photographic investigation of the industrial environment, one that sought evidence of the social crisis engendered by the rise of monopoly capital. Historians of photography have tended to privilege this latter mode of documentation, in part because of the remarkable work of Lewis Hine, but also out of a persistent need to demonstrate the moral efficacy and essential humanism of a mechanical and instrumental medium. (This need to establish the ethical power of the photograph is almost as strong as the need to establish the esthetic credentials of the medium.)

Hine once described photography as “an empathy towards the world.” He brought out the intricacies of vast supply chains and documented child laborers in conditions we would deem inhumane today. Shoeless children appear climbing up spinning frames to mend broken threads; others appear with bloodshot eyes during overnight shifts, occasionally with adult supervisors towering over them. Hine’s eye for symmetry — which manifested in aerial photos of assembly lines — matched his ability to let photographs speak for themselves, with crowds of people conveying an array of emotions all in one frame.

“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera,” he said.

Just as Hine wanted to diagnose what was wrong with the workplace, so too did he wish to amplify workers’ small victories. The electric loom, which replaced steam-driven looms, consolidated work that was previously done by four or five children receiving poverty wages. As such, his photos from the Shelton Looms in Connecticut glorified the women workers operating the impressive new machines. These kinds of pictures introduced the potential for “interpretive” photography, a precursor to fine art photography in which the artist manipulates documentary images for creative purposes.

Barber-Colman High Speed Warper. Pacific Mills, Manchester, New Hampshire, April 1937. (Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery)

Hine never relinquished ownership of his negatives in his lifetime, limiting his opportunities to exhibit work outside of a few small solo exhibitions in the 1920s. He felt discouraged that his photos failed to attract critics and journalists, like the work of his contemporary Alfred Stieglitz had. Hine died in poverty and relative obscurity, but photographer Berenice Abbott and critic Elizabeth McCausland visited him just before his death and arranged a retrospective exhibition at the former Riverside Museum in Manhattan.

Critics and historians like Vicki Goldberg and Judith Mara Gutman have dutifully preserved his legacy up to today. Goldberg described Hine’s NCLC archive as “one of this country’s earliest documentaries” in the 1999 photo book, Children at Work. In When Innovation Was King, a companion text to the Howard Greenberg exhibition, Gutman focuses on the stylistic mastery of his late-career photographs:

Hine’s eye told him he was photographing a far different story than the one he had told for Shelton Looms. Workers were more engaged, far more active, and integral to the manufacturing process. Hine played up the way individual workers moved in bending, peering, stretching, and reaching; he showed some workers moving speedily, and others so concentrated that they appeared, like the card operative piercing ends, not to move at all though busily at work. For Hine, the workplace was driven by individuals moving freely and easily.

Robust welfare programs and safety nets seem far from reach in the United States nowadays, especially for the unemployed. The gradual erosion of social welfare in the last half-century would surely be a sore subject had Hine lived to see it. But Hine himself lived in a constant state of economic precarity and understood the stakes of this work.

In our era of austerity, we have a chance to think of labor differently. Hine’s work speaks to the kinds of progress that only organized labor, in his time and our own, can produce.