Faizah Khan: Lewis Hine-New York City from the Empire State Building

Photo: Lewis Hine
 

Essay by Faizah Khan

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Analysis on Lewis Wickes Hine

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Lewis Wickes Hines was born on September 26, 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Although he grew up to study and become a sociologist, he is most remarkable for his later work in photography and its influence on child labor regulation. That said, much of Hines’ work is centered around the struggles of working class people. He was determined to advocate for them and bring about necessary change in order to improve their lives. By capturing powerful photographs of the work ethic of the lower class (through their actions or attire), Hines revealed the inequality and suffering that the working poor faced which consequently raised public awareness and pushed for social reform.

At an early age, Hines lost his father which forced him to quickly adopt jobs ranging from factory to sanitation services. This firsthand experience of working extensively long hours in dangerous working conditions would trigger Hines subsequent path towards advocating for hardworking American workers. Following his undergraduate studies, Hines was hired as a teacher where he taught students about studies related to botany. He was eventually assigned the role to be the school’s photographer which began his experience with photography. From a project that was initially assigned to his students, Hines took on the project himself and began photographing immigrants at Ellis Island in New York. Right from the start, Hines’ focus was concentrated in the struggles of various ethnic groups facing poverty. His early work in photography thus recorded photographs of immigrants, sweatshops, and tenements.

While Hines continued to pursue his education and eventually achieved his Masters in pedagogy from New York University, his work in photography continued. He was most passionate about changing the conditions that existed for child workers which is why he eventually quit his job as a teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School to be an investigative photographer for the National Labor Committee. There, Hines was hired to capture images of children as young as seven working with dangerous machines in factories, mills, and mines. As committed as he was to this role, Hines had to conceal his intentions to the owners of these workplaces because many were against social reform. This forced Hines to portray himself as a salesman of some sort before entering the premises of where these children worked. In fear of being caught, Hines kept record of the children he interacted with as he would secretly record notes in his pocket and measure their heights by the buttons of his coat. It was clear that for Hines, photography was more than just art. Photography served as a tool in educating the public and spreading awareness about the issues of society. As such, his photographs moved his audience so emotionally that his work contributed to the result of the government enforcing child labor protection laws.

Hines’ journey in photography continued as his work allowed him to travel to Europe and work alongside the RedCross to photograph scenes from World War I. After this mission, Hines continued to document scenes depicting living conditions in a rapidly growing industrial society. He eventually moved back to New York where he was offered the opportunity to photograph the Empire State Building‒‒the tallest building in the world at the time. Stories of Hines being suspended up on a crane reveal how challenging yet exhilarating such an opportunity was. While Hines had much of a successful career in photography and brought about the changes he had hoped, much of his work would have been forgotten if not for Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland, who showcased his work just before his death.

In the Lutnick Fine Arts Center, one of Hines’ photographs related to the Empire State Building project is hung in the gallery. The photograph itself captures the rungs of a crane with the view of Manhattan’s landscape in the far background. I was drawn to this image because being born and raised in New York City, I had a particular affinity for pictures of buildings and skyscrapers. For me, it gave me a sense of home and familiarity. Pictures of New York in the 1930s is also always very exciting to see because the landscape was rapidly changing into a more urbanized setting and to be able to capture such a moment is historically relevant. The fact that Hines was actually capturing these photographs amid the Empire State Building being constructed conveys how quickly New York’s landscape was changing.

After learning about Hines’ backstory with photography and his prior experience, his portfolio that showcases a lifetime of his work began to make sense. However, the photograph displayed in Lutnick is interesting because in Hines’ portfolio of the construction of the Empire State Building, most of the images consist of hard working men working on dangerously elevated cranes. Such images depict the dedication and excitement of the construction of the then world’s tallest building to exist. The men who helped construct the building, whom Hines photographed, were also featured in Hines’ book called Working Men. In contrast to these photographs of men at work, the photograph described in this section depicts a quiet scene of Manhattan from the view of the Empire State.

Upon my initial observation, I noticed that the photograph was over matted and that the photograph was much smaller in comparison to the overall size of the frame. The empty space that surrounded the image forced me to look closer and analyze the photograph for its details a lot more as well. The photograph appeared to be a scenic landscape of Manhattan. Given the dark skies and bright lights shining from the buildings, I was convinced that the image was shot during the nighttime. As such, this image differentiates itself from Hines’ related photographs since it does not capture any working men but rather, it captures a breathtaking view of the city. Such a photograph appeals to me because it encapsulates busy city life amid the dark.

The reason why I was intrigued by this photo was because I was curious as to how Hines was able to capture such a shot. My first guess was that Hines situated himself to have a high vantage point to be able to capture what I believed was a bridge at first. However, I now know that Hines must have been suspended on a crane due to the construction. I imagine that Hines had a low vantage point as his shots capture the foreground of the scene like the crane that presents itself very apparently, in contrast to the huge landscape before him. He must have used a wide angle lens which, paired with a low vantage point, allowed him to capture a scene that was captivating and awe-inspiring.

An observation of Hines’ photograph, and for most of his images as well, reveal his use of a very shallow depth of field. In the photograph, the body of the crane is a lot clearer than the landscape in the background. Hines must have used a wide angle lens and aperture to capture more light and a fast shutter speed to achieve such a shallow depth of field without blur of any hand movement. In a general perspective, most of his portraits, whether it is of working men or children, seem to embrace this kind of depth. Such an aesthetic choice allows the observer to take in more of the details of the person in the photograph, rather than the background which still remains relevant, but only ever so slightly in comparison to the main focus of the portrait.

The photograph displayed in the art gallery was printed in gelatin silver. In other words, the image consists of silver metal that was suspended in a gelatin layer. Considering that it was the first time bromide and silver were combined in one solution to develop light sensitive material, this invention radically changed photography as it allowed photographers to expose plates and develop them days or weeks later. In doing so, photography became more accessible for anyone to participate in throughout the 20th century. Consequently, it is no surprise that Hines used this technique to develop his prints since it was very popular at the time.

In a broader context, the invention contributed to the modern day processing of analog film photography. The gelatin silver process begins with the paper itself, which consists of an emulsion layer that contains bromide, silver nitrate, and gelatin. The prints are then developed since the photograph is only visible after being submerged and agitated in a chemical bath. The way that Hines developed his photos indicate very little visible grain with high resolution. As mentioned, the quality of the photograph is very clear and focused. This overall aesthetic makes the image look very sleek and sophisticated. Such technique in Hines’ work allowed him to capture the breadth of a range of groups, from European immigrants to American workers. Recognizing that his camera had the power to spread a message across the country, Hines utilized his skills in photography to expose harsh conditions that existed and needed to be addressed by social reform.

Lewis Hines redefined how photography could be used as an instrument to advocate for social injustice. Through his photographs, he swayed the hearts of the public which inevitably influenced laws in place to change. His work that captures working men and children, immigrants, and soldiers not only reflect a consistent theme throughout his career as a photographer, but it reveals his commitment to sharing the lives of working class people who often go unnoticed in society. Due to his efforts, he was able to share their unique stories to a wide audience and contribute to social change.

 

Citations

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Lewis Hine”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Oct. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lewis-W-Hine. Accessed 29 March 2021.

Cycleback, David Rudd. Cycleback.com: Guide to Identifying Photographs: Gelatin SILVER PRINTS. 2003, www.cycleback.com/photoguide/gelatin.html.

Mussio, Gina. Lewis Hine: How Photography ENDED Child Labour in the USA. 29 Aug. 2014, theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/wisconsin/articles/lewis-hine-how-photography-ended-chil d-labour-in-the-usa/.

Museum, George Eastman, and George Eastman Museum. “The Gelatin Silver Process (10 of 12).” Smarthistory, smarthistory.org/the-gelatin-silver-process-10-of-12/.

“Lewis Hine.” International Photography Hall of Fame, iphf.org/inductees/lewis-hine/.

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About The Author: Faizah Khan is a sophomore enrolled at Haverford College.  Class of 2023

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