"Photography can light up darkness and expose ignorance"

- Lewis Hine


 Lewis Hine

Lewis Hine


Lewis Hine, who was best known for his use of photography as a means to achieve social reform, was first a teacher of botany and nature studies at the Ethical Culture School in New York. It was while he was teaching that he was given a camera by the head of the school. In his hand, the camera became a powerful means of recording social injustice and labor abuses. 
Hine's interest in social welfare and in reform movements led him in 1905 to begin his first documentary series; immigrants on Ellis Island. In 1908 he left teaching to become an investigator and photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), and between 1908 and 1916 he traveled extensively photographing child-labor abuses. Hine would manage to gain access to the sweatshops and factories where children were employed, and then, if he could, photograph them at work. Hine inveigled his way into factories by posing as an insurance agent, bible salesman, postcard seller, or industrial photographer. Once inside, Hine quickly would go about his business of photographing the children working. Having been a teacher, Hine was comfortable talking with children and would attempt to get as much information as possible regarding their living conditions, the circumstances under which they were forced to work, and their name and age. If he was unable to determine a child’s age by speaking to him, Hine would surreptitiously measure the child’s height against the buttons on his vest and estimate the child’s age by his height. If Hine was not able to gain admittance to a factory, he would wait outside the gates and photograph the children as they came to work. He visited children and families who worked at home and he wrote with impassioned sarcasm of the "opportunities for the child and family to enlist in the service of Industry." 

Hine's photographs were used to make lantern slides for lectures and to illustrate pamphlets, magazine articles, and exhibitions. Through his photographs, Hine was able to inspire social change. His photos documenting the horrid conditions under which children were employed, made real the plight of these children. This led to the passage of child labor laws. Not only did Hine document the horrors of work, he also depicted the dignity of labor. This is best seen in his photos of the construction of the Empire State Building. From 1930 to 1931 he took hundreds of pictures of the Empire State Building under construction. These photos, as well as photographs of factory workers and other laborers, were published in Men at Work. While Hine's early photographs were often published, by the 1930s, interest in his work had declined. In 1938 he was denied a grant to photograph American crafts people at work. The Photo League in New York publicized his work, but it was not until a number of years after his death that he again received wide recognition. A new monograph was recently printed entitled, Lewis W. Hine Children At Work by Vicki Goldberg.



The Radical Images of Lewis Hine, Documentary Photographer

Peter Dreier | November 2014

Many great photographers — including Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Milton Rogovin, Margaret Bourke-White, and Dorothea Lange (the subject of a recent PBS documentary) — have used the camera as a weapon in the struggle for social reform. Perhaps the most successful documentary photographer in American history was Lewis Hine, who was born 140 years ago this week (September 26, 1874). His photos exposed the scandal of child labor as part of a national reform campaign. He may be less well-known than other muckraking journalists of his generation, such as Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens, but his work was a key part of the Progressive Era reform movement that made America a more humane society.

The sky had not yet begun to brighten on a chilly February morning in 1911 when the first workers arrived at the seafood cannery in Biloxi, Mississippi. Slipping in after them was a slender man carrying cumbersome camera equipment. Hine was not allowed in the cannery. But he had no qualms about sneaking in at five in the morning, as he knew the managers would not arrive until hours later. He would return again at noon in a rowboat, tying up to the cannery dock, to get within striking distance of his subjects.

One was Manuel, who, at just five-years-old, was already a veteran shrimp picker. In the photograph taken by Hine, Manuel is round-cheeked and round-tummied, with a serious expression. Barefoot, he stands facing the camera, dressed in a checkered shirt, short pants, and a soiled apron, wearing a fisherman’s cap on his head. In each hand he holds a strainer pot. Behind him is an immense mound of oyster shells.

Hine had traveled to Biloxi on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), a group formed in 1904. He journeyed to factories, mills, fields, and mines to document how America’s children toiled. 

Hine was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, above a popular Main Street restaurant that his parents owned. His father died when Lewis was seventeen years old. He worked as a hauler at a furniture factory, toiling thirteen hours a day, six days a week, to help support his mother and sister. But in 1893, during an economic downturn, the factory closed. He picked up odd jobs, splitting firewood and making deliveries. (Delivery boys were later a favorite subject in his work.) When he was hired as a bank janitor, he studied stenography at night and was promoted to secretary.

Hine’s life began to change when he met Frank Manny, who became his mentor, introducing him to the ideas of John Dewey and, later, Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture movement. Hine enrolled at the teachers’ college in Oshkosh, where Manny taught, and then spent a year at the University of Chicago. When Manny became superintendent of the Ethical Culture School in New York City, he offered Hine a job teaching geography and natural history. While teaching, Hine completed his degree in education at New York University.

The Ethical Culture School, founded by Adler, was progressive and experimental. It based its curriculum on humanist values that helped lay the groundwork for Hine’s future work. Although Hine had never picked up a camera before, Manny suggested he become the school photographer. He took pictures of school activities, set up a dark room, and started a camera club.

Many used Hine’s emerging photography skills to teach students about social conditions, in particular the conditions facing the waves of immigrants coming through Ellis Island. Manny urged Hine to portray the dignity and worth of the newcomers, in part to help counter a growing anti-immigrant sentiment. Hine, with Manny as his assistant, lugged his rudimentary photography equipment to Ellis Island. He never photographed people without their permission, and in the cacophony of languages, he had to pantomime his requests to take a picture. Using an old box camera, glass-plate negatives, and magnesium flash powder that he had to ignite manually, he managed to capture beautiful images of people just arriving from Europe. He returned to Ellis Island many times over the coming years, taking 200 photographs in all.

After graduating from New York University, Hine began graduate studies in sociology at Columbia University. This prepared him for an assignment with Arthur and Paul Kellogg, who ran the reform-oriented magazine Charities and The Commons (later renamed Survey). They asked Hine to take pictures for the Pittsburgh Survey, a pioneering six-volume sociological study of conditions in that urban industrial city funded by the Russell Sage Foundation.

Hine followed in the footsteps of documentary photographer Jacob Riis, who captured the squalid conditions of New York’s tenements in his 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives. But whereas Riis photographed his subjects as helpless victims, beaten down by an oppressive system, Hine sought to present his subjects as people with pride and dignity, often tough and defiant, who held out hope for a better world. Hine was known for inviting his subjects to reveal what they wished of themselves rather than trying to catch them or coax them into wearing expressions of anguish or emptiness. Historian Robert Westbrook credits Hine with engaging his subjects with “decorum and tact,” rarely taking candid shots but instead encouraging eye contact with the camera lens.

Hine worked with advocacy organizations that were trying to ban child labor. One of his pictures is of a mother and her four children sitting around the kitchen table, in a New York tenement lit by an oil lamp, all making paper flowers. “Angelica is three-years-old,” he noted. “She pulls apart the petals, inserts the center, and glues it to the stem, making 540 flowers a day for five cents.”

In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee offered Hine full-time work as an investigative photographer. He traveled around the country, photographing doffer boys in cotton mills, cigar makers, coal breakers, cannery workers, berry and tobacco pickers, laundry workers, even glassworkers — all under the age of 16. To gain access to factories and mills, he would pose as a fire inspector, a Bible salesman, an or industrial photographer. When that failed, he would linger at plant gates, asking children if he could take their picture. His years of teaching, combined with a gentle demeanor, allowed him to connect well with youngsters.

In a speech to the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1909 entitled “Social Photography: How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift,” Hine argued that “the great social peril is darkness and ignorance.” Social reformers, he said, need to expose the terrible living and working conditions that are invisible to many Americans. “The average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.”

Hine was a stickler for individual details, recording whenever possible children’s names, ages, working hours, and wages. He was particularly moved by the young boys laboring at coal mines. Of their work, he wrote, “It’s like sitting in a coal bin all day long, except that the coal is always moving and clattering and cuts their fingers. Sometimes the boys wear lamps in their caps to help them see through the thick dust. They bend over the chutes until their backs ache, and they get tired and sick because they have to breathe coal dust instead of good, pure air.” While he was at a Pennsylvania mine, two boys fell in the chute and were smothered to death.

Hine’s photographs made visible the long-ignored plight of working children. They were used in brochures and booklets, news and magazine articles, exhibits and public lectures. His work played an important role in the movement to enact federal and state child labor laws (which were often paired with compulsory education laws to keep children in school), culminating in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which included strong protections for children.

Hine continued to document child labor for a decade. In 1918 he left the NCLC and went to work for the American Red Cross, traveling to Europe to document the lives of refugees who were uprooted during World War I.

During the 1920s, wanting to focus on more-uplifting subjects, he began a series of portraits honoring American workers. His final major project was to document the construction of the Empire State Building. Although by then in his mid-fifties, he scrambled to dizzying heights to photograph work that he felt captured the uplifting nature of the human spirit. These photos were published in his 1932 book, Men at Work.

In 1936, Hine was appointed head photographer for the National Research Project of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. But the next year, when the Farm Security Administration hired photographers to document the working and living conditions of poor and working-class Americans, Hine was not among those hired. The project director, Roy Stryker, said that Hine was difficult to work with. In addition, Hine’s approach of allowing his subjects to pose for the camera may not have been in sync with the other photographers’ notions of documentary social realism.

Hine’s life ended in misfortune. Viewed as outmoded in a time when candid shots were in vogue, he could not find work. He lost his home and ended up on welfare, dying in poverty within a year of his wife’s death. Only after his death (on November 3, 1940) was his work once again appreciated. Along with Riis, he is recognized as the father of documentary social photography, an inspiration to many younger photographers. Today thousands of Hine’s images have been preserved at major institutions, including the Library of Congress.


In the last ten years, Joe Manning has tracked down the life stories of more than 350 child laborers in Lewis Hine's documentary photography for the National Child Labor Committee.

Vaughn Wallace | November 17, 2013

Joe Manning, a 71-year-old retired social worker from Florence, Mass., has for years had an eerily powerful connection to the early 20th-century photographer Lewis Hine. Perhaps the premier chronicler of the atrocious working conditions endured by laborers — of all ages — in early 20th century America, Hine, mired in debt and living on welfare, died in 1940. Manning was born the next year.

“Some have suggested I am Hine reincarnated,” he muses. Indeed, Manning does bear a strikingly similar physical resemblance to the great photographer and sociologist, whose pictures of the infamous slums, mines, mills and tenement homes of early 1900s America also documented the bleak, brutal lives of men, women and children whose labor fueled the nation’s industrial revolution. Hine’s seminal work provides one of the most comprehensive records of labor conditions ever produced in America. Originally shot for the National Child Labor Committee, Hine’s pictures were intended to bolster the case for child labor laws, especially those covering the country’s most dangerous and, quite literally, deadly work environments. Eventually, more than 5,000 of Hine’s prints were donated to the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, where they remain accessible to the public via the Internet.

Which is where Joe Manning comes in.

In 2004, after retiring from a three-decade career as a social worker, Manning learned from a friend that she was writing a novel based on a 1910 Hine photograph of a Vermont mill girl. Hine’s caption, in shorthand, read simply: Addie Card, 12 years old. Spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill. Vt. Girls in mill say she is ten years. She admitted to me she was twelve; that she started during school vacation and new [sic] would stay.

 Left: Lewis Hine | Right: Photo provided by Addie’s Family

Left: Lewis Hine | Right: Photo provided by Addie’s Family

Intrigued (and later, obsessed), Manning worked to uncover any information he could on Addie, eventually locating her daughter, and then her granddaughter. He learned that Addie had died, at the age of 94, in 1993.

In the course of his research, Manning was able to show Addie’s grandkids the Hine photograph of their grandmother, the first time any of them had seen it.

“Addie’s story lives on,” Manning told TIME. “Her family wouldn’t have had that without this project. It humanizes these kids [in Hine’s pictures] to see them at their later ages.”

Fascinated by the idea that Hine’s subjects grew up and escaped from the often-horrific working conditions of their childhoods, Manning set out to locate more of Hine’s subjects and their descendants, compiling oral histories and family memories.

Today — nearly nine years after retirement and the first stirrings of his Hine project — Manning has researched the backstories of somewhere between 300 and 400 of Hine’s subjects (“I’ve stopped counting,” he muses). Many of his findings are published on his website, MorningsonMapleStreet.com.

“I began to understand that the most important thing was to get these pictures to the subject’s descendants,” he says, “while they still knew and remembered the person. If I can do that for people, why wouldn’t I? In the end, giving people back their own history is a mission for me.”

Manning admits to a strong feeling of kinship with Hine. (“It’s incredible how much I look like him,” he laughs.) Detested by factory managers who saw him as a nuisance and rabble-rouser, Hine assumed a variety of personae – including a Bible salesman or insurance agent — in order to gain access to the workplaces he needed to photograph. Once inside, he documented the labor conditions and produced a monumental typology of the workers — usually children — and their stories. Hine’s exhaustive studies formed such a comprehensive portrait of his time that they comprised a whole new category of documentation, granting countless photojournalists in the decades that followed the license to pursue any story they chose.

Manning, meanwhile, has his own reasons for pursuing the stories that Hine first reported.

“The children and families depicted in Hine’s child-labor photographs were unwittingly caught in the act of making history,” he notes, “but we know almost nothing about them. The pictures were taken for a noble purpose, but a century later, they have become an enormous photo album of the American family. By finding out what happened to some of these people, and by revealing the photos to their descendants, we dignify their lives, and the lives of everyone that history has forgotten.”

Teaching With Documents
Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor

After the Civil War, the availability of natural resources, new inventions, and a receptive market combined to fuel an industrial boom. The demand for labor grew, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries many children were drawn into the labor force. Factory wages were so low that children often had to work to help support their families. The number of children under the age of 15 who worked in industrial jobs for wages climbed from 1.5 million in 1890 to 2 million in 1910. Businesses liked to hire children because they worked in unskilled jobs for lower wages than adults, and their small hands made them more adept at handling small parts and tools. Children were seen as part of the family economy. Immigrants and rural migrants often sent their children to work, or worked alongside them. However, child laborers barely experienced their youth. Going to school to prepare for a better future was an opportunity these underage workers rarely enjoyed. As children worked in industrial settings, they began to develop serious health problems. Many child laborers were underweight. Some suffered from stunted growth and curvature of the spine. They developed diseases related to their work environment, such as tuberculosis and bronchitis for those who worked in coal mines or cotton mills. They faced high accident rates due to physical and mental fatigue caused by hard work and long hours.

By the early 1900s many Americans were calling child labor "child slavery" and were demanding an end to it. They argued that long hours of work deprived children of the opportunity of an education to prepare themselves for a better future. Instead, child labor condemmed them to a future of illiteracy, poverty, and continuing misery. In 1904 a group of progressive reformers founded the National Child Labor Committee, an organization whose goal was the abolition of child labor. The organization received a charter from Congress in 1907. It hired teams of investigators to gather evidence of children working in harsh conditions and then organized exhibitions with photographs and statistics to dramatize the plight of these children. These efforts resulted in the establishment in 1912 of the Children's Bureau as a federal information clearinghouse. In 1913 the Children's Bureau was transferred to the Department of Labor.

Lewis Hine, a New York City schoolteacher and photographer, believed that a picture could tell a powerful story. He felt so strongly about the abuse of children as workers that he quit his teaching job and became an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. Hine traveled around the country photographing the working conditions of children in all types of industries. He photographed children in coal mines, in meatpacking houses, in textile mills, and in canneries. He took pictures of children working in the streets as shoe shiners, newsboys, and hawkers. In many instances he tricked his way into factories to take the pictures that factory managers did not want the public to see. He was careful to document every photograph with precise facts and figures. To obtain captions for his pictures, he interviewed the children on some pretext and then scribbled his notes with his hand hidden inside his pocket. Because he used subterfuge to take his photographs, he believed that he had to be "double-sure that my photo data was 100% pure--no retouching or fakery of any kind." Hine defined a good photograph as "a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others." Because he realized his photographs were subjective, he described his work as "photo-interpretation."

Hine believed that if people could see for themselves the abuses and injustice of child labor, they would demand laws to end those evils. By 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owens Act that established the following child labor standards: a minimum age of 14 for workers in manufacturing and 16 for workers in mining; a maximum workday of 8 hours; prohibition of night work for workers under age 16; and a documentary proof of age. Unfortunately, this law was later ruled unconstitutional on the ground that congressional power to regulate interstate commerce did not extend to the conditions of labor. Effective action against child labor had to await the New Deal. Reformers, however, did succeed in forcing legislation at the state level banning child labor and setting maximum hours. By 1920 the number of child laborers was cut to nearly half of what it had been in 1910.

Lewis Hine died in poverty, neglected by all but a few. His reputation continued to grow, however, and now he is recognized as a master American photographer. His photographs remind us what it was like to be a child and to labor like an adult at a time when labor was harsher than it is now. Hine's images of working children stirred America's conscience and helped change the nation's labor laws. Through his exercise of free speech and freedom of the press, Lewis Hine made a difference in the lives of American workers and, most importantly, American children. Hundreds of his photographs are available online from the National Archives through the National Archives Catalog .

LEWIS HINE: Another Biography

Written by Lori Oden For The International Photography Hall of Fame

Lewis Hine (1874-1940) was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on September 26, 1874 to Douglas Hull Hine, a veteran of the Civil War, and Sarah Hayes Hine, an educator. Hine was destined to have a unique outlook on life. His father died in an accident in 1892, and forced Hine to help sustain his the family financially. His first job was in a furniture upholstery factory; he worked 13 hours a day, 6 days a week and earned $4 per week. Other jobs followed, such as a janitor in a bank, Hine said, where after several years I worked up as far as supervising sweeper. Hine experienced first hand the exploitation of young workers and he was determined to escape this type of life. He attended university extension courses where he met Frank Manny, who was principal of the State Normal School in Oshkosh. With Manny’s encouragement, Hine eventually became a teacher, and studied under two of the most recognized liberal educators of the time: John Dewey and Ella Flagg Young. In 1901, Manny became superintendent of the Ethical Culture School in New York. He immediately appointed Hine as the nature study and geography educator. Manny also asked Hine to become the school’s photographer. As photographer, Hine’s primary job was to document the social and academic aspects of the school. Hine soon realized the power that photography had to reveal truth and reality, which made an ever-lasting impact on him. He envisioned photography’s potential as an educational tool.

Manny and Hine decided to designed one project for the students, which was to show them the importance of respecting the great influx of immigrants into the United States, which occurred during this period. The Ethical Culture School was specifically designed to cater to students of Eastern Europe. They thought this particular project would help the students, have the same regard for contemporary immigrants as they have for the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock. By late 1904, Hine made the first of many visits to Ellis Island to document this movement. This same year, he had developed a love and respect for the photography that he offered a new course of photography at the school. 1904 was an exciting year for Hine as he embarked on a career achieving what photography’s history now considers a most masterful portfolio, but he also managed to return to Oshkosh to marry Sara Rich. By 1905, he had received his master’s degree in pedagogy from New York University.

Within two years of being introduced to photography, Hine had published several articles for The Elementary School Teacher, The Outlook, and The Photographic Times, to promot photography as an educational tool. During these first years, Hine also attended the Columbia School of Social Work where he met Arthur Kellogg, who worked for the magazine Charities and the Commons. This introduction opened doors to more relationships and eventually Lewis Hine became a freelance photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), an agency that promoted and aided enactment of child labor laws. This was quite an undertaking, as many were against, often violently, the introduction of such laws. Child labor was extremely profitable and many business owners were unwilling to accept or adhere to the laws.

Until 1917, Hine traveled from the Northeast to the Deep South, photographing children working under extreme conditions in mills, factories, mines, fields and canneries. Most often Hine would have to disguise himself in order to gain entry into these places. His life would have been threatened if the factory owner disscovered his true identity, since many of them were violently against social reform. His guises would take the form of a Bible Salesman, postcard salesman, or an industrial photographer to record machinery. Once gaining entry, under constant pressure of being discovered, he would quickly note the child’s age, job description and all pertinent information regarding their unique situation. If Hine was unable to enter the workplace, he would wait patiently outside and photograph people as they left. Hine would then use these photographs for publication in magazines, pamphlets, books, slide lectures, and traveling exhibitions. Eventually these images helped convince government officials to create and strictly enforce laws against child labor. The impact of these photographs on social reform was immediate and profound. They also inspired the concept of art photography, not because of the subject matter, but because the images showed a stark truth that dramatically differed from an emerging artistic character.

Photography as an art form began with the influence of Alfred Stieglitz, who had organized the Photo-Secession group, which promoted a “painterly” style of photography. The characteristics of this type of photography were romanticized images produced in a “soft-focus.” Trickery of the actual image-making and its production were the heart of creating this type of photography. Hine once questioned the groups artistic methods, from their ivory tower, how could they see way down to the substrata of it all? Hine, from the beginning, considered his photography as an educational tool in addition to an art form. For Hine, the art of photography lay in its ability to interpret the everyday world, that of work, of poverty, of factory, street, household. He did not mean “humble” subjects; he did not mean “beauty” or “personal expression.” He meant how people live. According to Hine, the art and beauty lay with the people and recording the truth of the people. Pushing the boundaries of the thought of the time, Hine posed his subjects to look straight at the camera. One who viewed the image would have no choice as to look the subject straight in the eye. This type of confrontation was daring, but effective. Hine set new standards of thought, and many photographers began to see the power of these images and began to follow his influence. Hine gained recognition and was soon commissioned for other work.

During WWI, the American Red Cross hired Hine to photograph the relief mission to France and the Balkans. After the war he did work for the American Clothing Workers, the National Tuberculosis Commission, the Tenement House Commission, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Milbank Foundation, the Harkness Foundation and the Interchurch World Movement. Hine published a series of photo essays and played a major role in The Pittsburgh Survey, a survey of social and living conditions inequality of that industrialized city. From these various assignments came forth a portfolio, which Hine called “Work Portraits.” In April 1924, Hine received the Art Directors Club of New York Medal for photography. More published articles followed: including He Who Interprets Big Labor in the Mentor. In the 1930s, Hine worked for agencies such as The New Deal Agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the National Research Project and many more.

One of his most important and famous commissions was to photograph all stages of construction of the Empire State Building. This task added another dangerous aspect to Hine’s career; he would hang from cherry-pickers, balancing 100 stories high to achieve certain aerial views. He would swing out beyond the building to photograph and gather information of workers within the structure. Selected images from the culmination of these projects eventually became Men at Work, an excellent, pioneering picture book.

Hine also focused his camera on working conditions of women during the 1920s and 1930s. He photographed women in the workplace for the cover of Western Electric News, a famous series called the Shelton Loom Series. In addition, Hine photographed housewives; he believed, the homemaker deserves recognition as one of our workers.

The early 1930s marked our country’s greatest depression, and Hine so desperately wanted to take part with Roy Stryker, who led the FSA project of documenting the people of the depression, but was repeatedly denied. One reason may be that Hine never relinquished ownership or rights of his negatives.

Due to the depression, ownership of his negatives and the growing lack of work, Hine’s later years were spent practically as an “unknown.” Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland, an up and coming art critic, visited with Hine just before his death and organized a retrospective exhibit of Hine’s work, which re-exposed him as a photographic artist who’s vision and images made a major impact on the evolution of our culture.