On this day in 1874, the great documentary photographer Lewis Hine was born. He did important work for the first three decades of the 20th century. After college, he became a teacher in New York City. But in his early 30s, he started working as a photographer for the Russell Sage Foundation and the Pittsburgh Survey, which was formed to document living conditions in industrialized areas. According to the New York Public Library, “Following this he became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and traveled across much of the southern and eastern states documenting the working conditions of factories, fields, mines, mills and canneries which made use of child labor. The results of Hine’s photographic pursuits eventually led to the establishment of child labor and safety laws for all workers.”
His most famous work is doubtless the collection of photographs he did from 1930 to 1931 to document the construction of the Empire State Building. You have probably seen this incredibly famous photo, which still makes me nervous:
What I find astounding about Hine’s work is that it isn’t just documentary. It does tell compelling stories. But it is above all gorgeous. And that is extremely impressive. But in the mid-1930s, he found it almost impossible to get work as a photographer, either in the private sector or in the government. This was at a time when a younger generation of photographers were discovering and cherishing his work. But he died in poverty at the age of 66 in 1940. Yet another great man that our country simply turned its back on, even while people like John D Rockefeller got their boots licked.
I highly recommend checking out the Art Plus Photo page on Lewis Hine. It contains over 50 of his photographs: beautiful, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, work.
Happy birthday Lewis Hine!