The Lewis Hine exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester runs through September 7, 2014. The fifth and final stop of an international tour, it displays over 150 original prints owned by Eastman house. Catch it if you can.
Sociologist Turned Photographer
Lewis Hine was a sociologist by training and a photographer by design. He taught sociology at the Ethical Culture School in New York, but abandoned that to champion the oppressed. An early photographic essay captured the bewilderment of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. His later forays were more powerful. He used his pen and camera to campaign for child labor laws, for healthy living conditions for the poor, and for aid to Europe after WWI.
Early Work: Powerful but Raw
Most of Lewis Hine’s early photographs look like box camera pictures with drugstore processing. The lighting, composition, exposure and printing are amateurish. But the images are compelling, memorable, and often heart-wrenching, despite their technical shortcomings.
His early photos show steerage class immigrants facing their first American day. They show children as young as five picking cotton, cleaning fish and working in mills and mines. They also record children doing “home work” — sewing, mending, crafting — in crowded, unsanitary tenements.
The Thomas Paine of His Era
Hine carved a niche, then rushed to fill it. He combined powerful photos and provocative text to stir the contemporary social conscience. Hine used his photo essays to shape ethical movements and change the child labor laws. The Eastman House exhibit includes many of his early photo essays.
The exhibit also includes highlights of Hine’s later work. During WWI, he took pictures for the Red Cross overseas. Returning home, he documented construction of the Empire State Building and several government projects.
Slicker but Still Sympathetic
Hine’s later work continues his sympathetic treatment of working people. But it also derives power from his new-found photographic skills. The Empire State Building project shows Hine at the height of his career.
The Sky as Studio
The photos are all about the men who risked their lives to build the Empire State Building. Hine risked his life too, taking the pictures while suspended thousands of feet in the air in a basket. The results are spectacular. Each photo is dramatic, well-framed, well-lighted, and a model of good composition.
Bring in the Clones
The prints in the exhibition are for the most part those that Hine made himself. That’s as it should be for historical accuracy. But that means many of the older prints are small (8″ x 10″) and dark. Eastman House could exhibit larger, enhanced prints next to the originals. It has digitized Hine’s plates and negatives and could use the digital images to better show what Hines saw.
Worth the Trip
Lewis Hine at the George Eastman House is worth the trip for anyone interested in history and photography. It’s a must for those studying the development of social movements in America.