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Lewis Hine, Photographer of the American Working Class

Lewis Hine captured the misery, dignity, and occasional bursts of solidarity within US working-class life in the early twentieth century.
Wikimedia Commons

Late in his career, labor photographer Lewis Wickes Hine used his camera to capture the best of working life in the United States. As the New Deal ushered in job opportunities and social welfare programs for a large swath of the American population, he documented the country’s gradual recovery from the Depression. Photographs of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) childcare center mark a progression from his famous child labor photographs three decades earlier.

While he lived long enough to see robust federal aid that empowered laborers, Hine is best known for work that challenged capitalist exploitation in the workplace. Driven by his belief that labor was the soul of America, he attributed the nation’s achievements to the individual men, women, and children who made them possible.

Hine’s lifetime roughly paralleled the Second Industrial Revolution, from 1874 to 1940. The era’s increasing speeds of manufacturing stretched the physical limits of manual labor, while photography as a medium evolved from a surveillance tool to a method of exposure. As an investigative photographer, Hine chronicled the normalized labor abuses in US factories leading up to the Great Depression. Not only did he help introduce some of the country’s first child labor laws, he also revolutionized photography’s artistic use value.

Hine once argued that a good picture is “a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others.” For him, an organized workforce was the epitome of empathy and mutual benefit, which he hoped to convey to the greater American public.

In this way, he contributed to an aesthetic of worker empowerment through images of strife and solidarity. He never lived to see his work appreciated at an artistic level, but countless posthumous books and exhibitions reveal his enduring legacy as a social reformer. If Ansel Adams helped bring environmentalism to the national spotlight, Hine showed how exposing workplaces to the public eye could shift perspectives around labor. Critics remain drawn to his unshakeable optimism, perhaps a result of early twentieth-century progressivism and the material gains witnessed in his lifetime. But for many, merely seeing the ways workers lived just a century ago makes labor struggles of today seem more real.

Man working in a factory

Power house mechanic working on steam pump, 1920. (Wikimedia Commons)