Using Lewis Hine's Child Labor Photographs
Title: Young Driver in Mine, 09, 1908 from National Archives Record Group 102: Records of the Children's Bureau, 1908-2003
ARC Idenifier 523089, Local Identifer 102-LH-136
Hine's caution against "unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph" echoes the aphorism usually attributed to Mark Twain that "figures don't lie, but liars figure." Since historians often use Hine's images both in our teaching and our research, we need to take his views very seriously indeed.
At left is one of his iconic images that nicely illustrates his point that, in many of his pictures, "the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated." Mules were used in both antracite and bituminous mines to pull the coal to the railhead. Hine captured the young driver standing in front of the tracks, arms at his sides, miner's hat with its lamp on his head, whip around his neck. There is no mule to be seen. In fact, the depth of field is such that only the boy is in focus. He looks straight ahead, expressionless. His blackened face and neck contrast with the pale of his upper chest. We see what the photographer intended for us to see.
Kate Sampsell-Willmann, author of "Lewis Hine, Ellis Island, and Pragmatism: Photographs as Lived Experience," Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era," Vol. 7, No 2 (April 2008) and Lewis Hine As Social Critic (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), leads an open forum on how to interpret Hine's photographs of child laborers taken between 1908 and 1912 for the National Child Labor Committee.
We invite you to weigh in with suggestions about using these photographs — and others — both in teaching and in research. Simply click on Forums, on General Discussions, and then on "Using Lewis Hine's Child Labor Photographs." In order to comment, you wil have to register.
-- John F. McClymer
Context matters in trying to make sense of any historical source or artifact, including photographs. I want to start our discussion with some key questions to ask about Hine's images as well as some information about the state of photography in the Progressive Era.
Our underlying question is: How and why did Lewis Hine make this image to accomplish that goal?
The photography of Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) divides into five categories (although they do overlap one another temporally): Ellis Island, child labor, tenement labor and living conditions, work portraits/interpretive photography (Hine’s terms), and the Great Depression. This Forum will focus initially on those photographs he made for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) that are currently available online at the National Archives Arcweb, http://arcweb.archives.gov/. However, since many of Hine’s signature traits remained unchanged throughout his career, most of the points raised in this opening comment apply to others of his work as well.
- Our first question is who commissioned the photographs. Hine, unlike many photographers of his generation, did not pursue photography as a hobby; photography became his paid profession in 1907 or 1908. He did photograph to satisfy his own curiosity — especially at Ellis Island — but his child labor photographs were made for the NCLC; c. 1915 he became the director of information for the organization and was responsible for constructing exhibition panels to promote its reform agenda. If Hine’s photography had not been useful to the NCLC, he would not have kept his job. Informed by his Chicago-school background and prior deep concern for the welfare of children (his first profession was as a teacher at New York’s Ethical Cultural School), Hine’s work for the NCLC can give us some clues as to his political intent when composing his “Hineographs.” He investigated conditions and reported on what he saw, both in written notes and with his camera. Armed with a thesis — child labor harms children and my job is to expose it for the purpose of ending it — Hine traveled extensively on assignment to see what conditions were like in different types of work. He praised when he saw no exploitation, and he documented where it was rife.
- A second question deals with physical perspective. Where was the photographer standing? Often, Hine could not obtain permission to photograph inside factories, so many of his child labor images are of a group of variously aged individuals standing in front of a mill building. When he did get inside, we need to ask how and why? As Hine became better known and the NCLC more effective in publicizing the evils of child labor, he often employed subterfuge to gain access. For example, he would claim to be an insurance or postcard photographer and would ask to photograph a machine with its operator (a child) in the frame — supposedly to gauge the size of the machine — in order to capture children at work and to disprove the oft-repeated excuse that children were “just visiting” their parents.
- Among the other constraints on the photographer’s physical perspective are the lighting conditions. Harold Edgerton invented the strobe flash in 1931. Prior to that date, stop-action (non-blurred) photography had to be done in strong natural light, with a very long exposure (on a tripod), or lit with some source of artificial light.. Hine’s forays into the hallways of Ellis Island led him to become expert at a very tricky (and attention-getting) light source, magnesium flares. Candid photography was not possible inside dim factories or mines.
- Next, and perhaps requiring the most attention and knowledge of the period, is to ask exactly what is in the image, and what has been left out? Except in his exhibition panels, Hine usually printed his images full frame. He photographed his earliest work for the NCLC on glass plates. They were tricky and cumbersome to use. Hine had one shot to get it right. Even after he started using celluloid film, his negatives were large, single sheet, and carefully crafted. Again, Hine’s images were rarely candid; most of them were posed. Everything that is in a Hineograph is in there because Hine wanted it, and everything that is missing is absent because Hine left it out. One can, and should, draw conclusions about Hine's intent from the inclusion or exclusion of an adult, a piece of machinery, or a living/working space in a particular image. Noting that he posed his subjects rather than captured candid images does not call into question his integrity. Honesty in photography was not only a personal ethic of Hine's; an honest photograph would accomplish more good for the NCLC's cause.
- One question many ask about Hine’s pictures of working children is: Why do the children often seem to be happy or, at least, stoical? Because of the similar way he treated Ellis Island immigrants before he went to work for the NCLC and refugees in Europe after, it is clear that Hine’s emphasis was almost always on the positive in any situation. And in any case, if the children were already beyond help, then there would little incentive for philanthropists and/or Congress to step in to aid them. Hine depicted resilient boys and girls in conditions that, if went unchecked, would eventually destroy their chances for productive and fulfilling lives.
- Hine photographed both children and adults in a full frontal position, as subjects in a conversation rather than as objects is a tableau. His large camera allowed him to photograph at child height, but he did so even when the child, like Laura Petty below, was so extremely small that he had to kneel to focus at eye level. He wanted the viewer to see the children as he did; as individual human beings with sweet, developing personalities in need of protection and not as propaganda objects. It is at this juncture that Hine's ability to infusie his images with his own ideas about society becomes important for the student of history. He became famous because his pictures were forceful tools in a political fight. They were so useful because they revealed the humanity of the children.
Figure 1: Title: Laura Petty, a 6 year old berry picker on Jenkins Farm. "I'm just beginnin'. Licked two boxes yesterday." Gets 2 [cents] a box. Rock Creek, Md.
- Perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding analysis of Hine images is the matter of captioning. Did Hine write a particular title, or did an editor? Since much of Hine’s work was done for one or another reform organization, he did not control the reproduction of his images. Yet, he did claim his images constituted what we today would call intellectual property, long before photographers routinely received credit in bylines. Most of Hine’s extant writings can be found in two archival areas: correspondence and notes on photographs, including original captions. In recent years, the collections that house Hine images have done a very good job of uploading Hine’s original notes on his images, often written in his hand on the back or in a corresponding list. Most of Hine’s published images, except those in Men at Work, his only published book, carry the caption of an editor (usually from The Survey) or art historian and publicist Elizabeth McCausland, who assisted Hine in preparing his 1938 retrospective for the Brooklyn Museum (then the Riverside Museum). A little research can tell you which captions were from Hine’s own notes. Armed with the correct caption, the photograph can yield more information about the subject and Hine’s original intent in making the image.