Ideal Focus

Spotlight On Photographers: Lewis W. Hine

Part of the fun of learning photography is finding new inspirations. So, whenever I get the chance, I will be introducing some of the great photographers from the past in articles like this one.

The first in this series, titled Spotlight On Photographers, is Lewis W. Hine.

Midnight At The Glassworks, Lewis W. Hine

For me, what makes Hine a great is that his work transcended photography. He is sometimes referred to as one of the fathers of investigative photojournalism, at others as a Sociologist. He took photos that were not only iconic, but also meaningful.

Hine was born in  Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 1874. When Hine was 18 his father died, and he became a factory worker to save for his education. During this time, Hine was working 13 hour a day, 6 days a week, in factories. What he saw in this period was to shape his future work.

Hine studied Sociology at various universities, later becoming a teacher. During his time as a teacher, Hine took photos of immigrants at Ellis Island, before becoming a photojournalist.

As a photojournalist, Hine did his most famous work. He documented the building of the Empire State Building, but most importantly he documented child labour in America. Not only did he take photos, but he lectured and campaigned to improve working conditions in the USA.

Hine often needed to work undercover, posing as an official or insurance agent. If discovered, he was removed from the premises.

During World War 1, Hine worked for the Red Cross in Europe. Something he repeated while documenting the effects of the dust bowl in the Great Depression.

I will now look at 2 iconic Lewis W. Hine photographs, and discuss what makes them great in my eyes.

Child Laborer, Lewis W. Hine

What makes Child Laborer so powerful, for me, is the composition. The scale of the machines dwarfs the young girl. Their converging lines draw you to the girl, emphasising her isolation and vulnerability.

When interviewing children in the mills, they frequently talked of wanting to study, to become literate. The long hours they worked made this impossible. Inspectors, asking about the young children working in the mills, were told “They just happened in”.

Power House Mechanic Working On Steam Pump, Lewis W. Hine

I chose to include this photo, not just because it is one of the most famous photos Hine took, but also because it demonstrates what a good eye he had for structural composition.

You can see how the curve of the man’s back mimics the curve of the steam pipe. There is also the implied circular motion of the wrench working in opposition to the circle of the pump.

Prevalent in this, and many other of his photos, is the theme of man and machine. Hine documented the human element to the industrialisation of America.

Lewis W. Hine died in 1940, after making the world a better place than he found it.

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