Lewis Wickes Hine


Quick Reference


Photographer. A documentarian, he is known for themes of labor and immigration. His touching photographs of young factory workers influenced passage of laws regulating child labor. Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Hine studied at a local college before enrolling in 1900 for a year at the University of Chicago. He then moved to New York, where he taught at the progressive Ethical Culture School. He also earned an education degree from New York University in 1905 and subsequently pursued graduate work in sociology at Columbia University. Hine initially turned to photography as a teaching tool, but his interest in social issues soon led him beyond the classroom. Although Hine had no training in the visual arts, he achieved aesthetically informed results by consciously emulating the compositional principles of traditional painting. Hine's principal subject—indeed, very nearly his only subject—remained the life of the individual in relation to the forces of modern industrialism. Although fundamentally optimistic about the future of machines in improving human life, Hine fumed at abuses the industrial system inflicted on the powerless. His photographs generally achieve more forthright and less romanticized effects than contemporaneous Ashcan School paintings that similarly portray the poor with sympathy. Widely published as illustrations in newspapers, magazines, books, and pamphlets, Hine's images numbered among the most efficacious of the Progressive era.

Hine's early photography included a notable series on immigrants, taken at Ellis Island and in the New York neighborhoods where they settled. After he left teaching in 1908, he worked for the National Child Labor Committee, traveling widely to record the lives of children, primarily in their work environments. In these, he portrayed his young subjects as dignified but vulnerable individuals wasting their lives in dehumanizing work routines. In 1918 he went to Europe with the Red Cross. There, in the last months of World War I and the early months of the peace that followed, he recorded damage and misery in the wake of war across France, Belgium, and southeastern Europe. During the 1920s he focused on workers in relation to industrial production in the United States. In 1930–31 this topic culminated in a notable series documenting construction of the Empire State Building. Often exalting the individual, Hine's worker subjects appeared in an extended photo-essay, Men at Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines (1932). During the Depression, he worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and other government agencies, accomplishing his most compelling work of these years in rural and small-town Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas. Like the Farm Security Administration photographers and the regionalists among the American Scene painters, Hine found solace in the endurance of ordinary people. He died in a Dobbs Ferry hospital, not far from his longtime home in Hastings-on-Hudson, north of New York.

Subjects: Art.

Reference entries