Lewis Hine and His Photo Stories: Visual Culture and Social Reform
Smith-Shank, Deborah L., Art Education
De-coding and even coding images are not exclusive activities for artists. Visual culture is complex and multi-layered, and it can manipulate us or liberate us. It is subtle and explicit, intentional and accidental. It is through visual culture that we know who we are as individuals and as communities. Just how powerful it is can be understood by looking at one of the masters of encoding messages in visual culture to see what is possible with the right kinds of technical and intellectual tools. Lewis Hine, a teacher and photographer, used his visual culture skills to change the United States.
A Brief Biography: Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Lewis Hine's family valued education. His mother had been a teacher before her marriage, and his sister also became a teacher. After his father was killed in an accident when Lewis was 18, he went to work, saved his money, and enrolled in University of Chicago when he was 26 years old, also hoping to be a teacher. John Dewey was on the faculty at that time, and it's likely that Hine encountered Dewey's philosophies.
Hine followed his mentor, Frank A. Manny, from Chicago to the Ethical Culture School in New York City as an assistant teacher of nature study and geography. While teaching there, Hine became interested in the new science of photography and encouraged his students to experiment with the camera as part of their educational experience. Hine's students took their cameras to the streets soon after they learned to use the (then) high-tech photography equipment, including cumbersome tripod-mounted 5x7 inch view cameras with 5x7 inch glass slides, flash-pans, and gun powder.
Hine and his students began visiting Ellis Island and photographing immigrants arriving by the thousands every day. He shows us their clothes, expressions, meager possessions, and sometimes even their homes. Through his photographic images and the words he wrote to accompany the pictures, Hine allows us glimpses into new immigrants' fears and hopes for a good life in the New World. Between 1904 and 1909, he took over 200 plates. It was while working at Ellis Island that he realized his vocation was broader than the life of a classroom teacher, and he left the Ethical Culture School to pursue work as a documentary photographer working for social justice. Hine wrote in a field note, "I was merely changing the educational efforts from the classroom to the world" (Rosenblum et.al., 1977, p. 17).
The New World was changing rapidly. When Hine was born, The War Between the States was over, and there were no more slaves. But cheap workers were needed in larger and larger numbers for mass production. Millions of immigrants combined with the needs of industrialization provided the largest opportunities for exploitation since slavery.
It quickly became evident that [Hine's] Ellis Island "Madonna," the proud Jew, and the beaming German family were all to become cheap labor, exploited by an unfeeling and greedy system. (Rosenblum et.al., 1977, p. 12)
To keep the mills, mines, factories, and canneries open, owners hired workers, old and young. Whole families worked, and yet, many parents did not earn enough to support them. Many U.S. workers at this time suffered horrible working conditions, and nothing official was being done to prevent it.
As one Fall River mill owner expressed it: "I regard my people just as I regard my machinery. So long as they can do my work for what I choose to pay them, I keep them, getting out of them all I can. When my machines get old and useless, I reject them and get new, and these people are part of my machinery." (Doezema, 1980, p. 36)
In the North especially, the gap between poor and rich, the educated and illiterate, grew with the growth of industry. This un-American, undemocratic, and seemingly hopeless situation led people like John Dewey, Herbert Spencer, and Jane Addams, among others, to respond with righteous anger and new theories in science, education, and philosophy to address issues of social justice. …