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Lewis Hine

Text from Walter Rosenblum, Lewis Hine: Passionate Journey: Photographs 1905-1937

Under commission by the NCLC, Lewis Hine devoted the lion's share of his working time to the fight against child labor for a full decade between 1908 and 1918 This cooperative effort involving Hine and the NCLC was a happy coincidence. The history of commissioned photography has witnessed only a very few cases of such close agreement between client and photographer. It should also be noted that Hine had exceptional knowledge and skills to offer. He was familiar with the working world. He had gathered sufficient experience in photography on his Ellis Island, Pittsburgh and New York projects and learned above all how to get a picture in poor light with the aid of flash powder. As a teacher, he had dealt extensively with children and showed an obvious talent for getting along with them. In addition, Hine is said to have had a touch of the actor in him, a quality that often helped him gain access to the places where children were working.

Hine had a very definite objective in making his photographs: they were to confront the public with examples of nice, lively children bravely performing their difficult work - and this in contrast to the unfriendly atmosphere, so much different from the image of lively children, that dominated in factories, glassworks, cotton mills, mines and numerous other industrial plants.

Hine wanted to submit incontrovertible evidence to the tribunal of public opinion. This meant, of course, that he had to be sure that every photograph was beyond suspicion of falsification. In this context his training in sociology stood him in good stead. In talking with children, he strove to find out as much as possible about their living conditions, and of course he described the circumstances under which the children were forced to work. One way to estimate children's ages was to determine their size. Hine used the buttons of his jacket for this purpose, having measured their height beforehand. The studies conducted by the NCLC, and not least of all Lewis Hine's photographs, were not welcomed at all by the industries concern.

Thus it was not long before NCLC staff were forbidden from entering the factories. Hine, however, found ways to gain entrance. On occasion he claimed to be an insurance agent and is also said to have had great success as a Bible salesman. Posing as a postcard seller or an industrial photographer was only one of the tricks he employed to gain access and take his "incriminating" photographs. In cases where none of these approaches worked, Hine photographed the children on their way to work or as they left the plant to go home. In the course of a given year he visited a great number of children's workplaces all over the country. In 1916 and 1917 he traveled more than 50,000 miles for this purpose.

Hine was pleased with his new work. In 1910 he wrote Frank Manny, saying: "I am sure I am right in my choice of work. My child labor photos have already set the authorities to work to see if such things can be possible, They try to get around the issue by crying forgery, but that is the value of the dates and the witnesses." But the NCLC was also aware of Hine's value. Many years later, Owen Lovejoy, General Secretary of the NCLC and as such Hine's contracting supervisor, wrote: "The work that you did under my direction was more responsible than any or all other efforts to bring the facts or conditions of child labor employment to public attention."


 


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