Lewis Hine’s Impact on Labor, Immigration, and Photojournalism
by Holly Stuart Hughes
Leslie Ureña is Associate Curator of Global Contemporary Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Her exhibitions and research focus on migration, trans-national art practices, and photography as an agent of social change. Before joining the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2023, she was curator of photographs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where she organized numerous exhibitions of photography and contemporary art. She has also worked in curatorial departments at the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Dallas Museum of Art, among others, and has taught in Washington, D.C., and Taipei, Taiwan. Her writing has appeared in exhibition catalogues and on The Atlantic, artforum.com, caa.reviews, and ART iT. Ureña holds a BA in the history of art from Yale University and an MA and a Ph.D. in art history from Northwestern University, where she wrote her dissertation, “Lewis Hine at Ellis Island: The Photography of Immigration and Race, 1904–1926.” She talked to CENTER about how Hine’s work on child labor and recent immigrants influenced public opinion.
Lewis Hine’s photographs of child laborers are often cited as examples of photographs that swayed public opinion or inspired legislation. How did Hine come to work for the National Child Labor Committee, and what impact did his photographs have?
Lewis Hine became part of a group of progressive reformers in New York when he moved there from Wisconsin in 1901. This circle was trying to bring about change in a number of ways, including lobbying the government, conducting sociological studies, and providing support for people in need.It soon became clear that photography was a good way to document and illustrate things that were happening—things that were hidden and things that were quite visible. I find it fascinating that, even though people were suspicious of cameras, at times Hine was sneaking into factories with his large camera equipment or befriending people who could get him in. He traveled about 50,000 miles across the country taking pictures of factories, their equipment, and the child workers. He asked the kids working there, some as young as 6 years old, to pose with the machines. He also kept extensive notes on what he was seeing. Hine also photographed newsboys, who were selling newspapers on street corners in major cities: tiny boys working out in the cold as people passed by them. His photos helped remind or show people that these child laborers were out there, and everywhere.
He started reproducing his photos on posters and in National Child Labor Committee publications, and for a time, became the committee’s exhibits director. The photos he took eventually made it into outlets that got into the hands of people in government.
The Committee was effective, even if the constitutional amendment they wanted didn’t pass. However, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act set standards and protections, and a minimum age for workers. We still hear of examples of child labor, but the FLSA is meant to protect workers.
You’ve written about Hine’s portraits of immigrants as they arrived at Ellis Island in New York City. What inspired him to go to Ellis Island? What made his photos different from newspaper photos and other images of immigrants?
Frank Manny, superintendent of the Ethical Culture School, hired Hine as a teacher and asked him to take up photography and use photographs to teach natural science and other subjects. The story goes that in 1904 Manny asked Hine to come along with him and photograph immigrants to help humanize the new arrivals to the students. So the project began with a pedagogical idea. Hine continued being drawn to the topic, and he kept going back for several years. He returned in 1926, after the U.S. imposed quotas limiting immigration from certain countries.
Especially in the years of Hine’s first trips to Ellis Island, there were news photos showing masses of people: overviews taken from the viewing balconies at Ellis Island or images of people on the decks of arriving boats. Images often showed the arriving individuals as tiny dots, but rarely got any closer. There is something different about the way that Hine was photographing. There clearly has been some interaction between photographer and sitter to compose the picture. There are frontal photos where there’s very little going on in the background. He had surprising access to be able to photograph people without crowds of people behind them. There are also photos that are less posed, but he was focusing on individuals and small groups, as opposed to hundreds of people all in one space.
In 1939, he included the Ellis Island photographs at the beginning of the portfolio he produced for the Russell Sage Foundation on “social conditions.” The Russell Sage Foundation (RSF) had funded the Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological study for which Hine had provided numerous photographs of steelworkers. The 1939 portfolio came about after many discussions between Hine and the RSF, and it was to serve as didactic materials for philanthropists, reformers, professors, and students at the New York School of Social Work. By putting the Ellis Island work at the start, Hine positioned the newcomers in his portraits as part of his grander view of American labor.
You’ve written that Hine’s captions, which often try to describe the subject’s nationality or ethnicity, were “steeped in the discourses of race” of that period. Can you explain some of the ways Hine’s images were used to portray immigrants?
It’s a complicated period for the Progressive movement. There were dictionaries coming out about how to define people by race. The eugenics movement was active at the time. There were people trying to help new arrivals, but using language that makes you say, “Really? Did you say that?” Their language was often similar to that used by the people who were trying to keep immigrants out.
As much as there’s a humanization that some of Hine’s photos share, some of them ended up in publications that attempted to categorize immigrant groups and described them negatively. Despite their initial intentions, since the sitters within them were immigrants, they were sometimes accompanied by dehumanizing language aligned with the some of the period’s rhetoric.
You note that by the 1930s, major figures in social documentary photography like Berenice Abbott, members of the Photo League, and Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration [FSA], were celebrating Hine. How did they view his photographs?
There’s a veneration of Hine even in his later years when he couldn’t get work. Within his lifetime, he’s considered a figure who established ways of distributing information through photographs. With Roy Stryker it’s complicated, because he doesn’t hire Hine for the FSA, but he cites Hine as someone who’s done what the FSA photographers Stryker is sending into the field are trying to do. Critic Elizabeth McCausland and others were keen to revive Hine’s career by helping him organize his work and raising funds for a retrospective exhibition at the Riverside Museum in 1939. Hine died in a dire financial situation in 1940, but through 1938 and 1939, he’s applying for a Guggenheim grant and other opportunities. He’s trying to work to the very end.
In your writing about Hine, you give equal space to analysis of the images and historical information about the period. Do you do that in your work as a curator, too?
I am a true believer in historical contextualization. I was trained by social art historians and part of my interest in art history is gaining an understanding of an historical period through art. When I research an acquisition, I spend time trying to understand where the artist is coming from, how the work was made, how it was seen in its time. With contemporary art, there isn’t a long archival record. But if we’re lucky, we can talk to the artist. We create documentation to leave breadcrumbs for future historians, so they can say, “This is what was happening at the time, and this was the artist’s response to that moment.”
I find it helpful to speak to the historical period and to explain the context of the times, acknowledging, but not excusing, the problematic wording. In the case of Hine, we can explain the language that in a certain time period was used to describe people. We can explain the history that led to that, and acknowledge that it’s no longer appropriate. The language won’t be any less cringe-worthy, but we’ll give people the tools to understand why that language was used and why it’s changed.