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Humanities and Social Sciences Library > Collections & Reading Rooms > Photography Collection > Empire State

About Lewis Wickes Hine

Lewis Wickes Hine (1874 -1940), photographer, sociologist and humanist, is best known for his insightful portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island and his unflinching views of housing and labor conditions in the United States. Studying and eventually teaching at the Ethical Culture School in New York City, Hine infused his humanist concerns into a style of documentary photography that set the standard for delivering a social message through his medium.

Hine began documenting immigrants arriving and awaiting processing at Ellis Island around 1904 and then followed these immigrants into the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side in Manhattan. He explored the immigrant experience with his probing lens and exposed the terrible housing and working conditions they were subject to in their attempts to integrate into their new homeland. Believing in the power of photography to persuade authorities to enact better housing codes for tenements and labor laws protecting children, Hine approached social welfare agencies about using his images for reform campaigns. In 1907 he was invited to participate in the Pittsburgh Survey, which was designed to investigate the living and working conditions of that heavily industrialized city. Following this he became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and traveled across much of the southern and eastern states documenting the working conditions of factories, fields, mines, mills and canneries which made use of child labor. The results of Hine's photographic pursuits eventually led to the establishment of child labor and safety laws for all workers.

The worker was always a favorite theme of Hine's and he believed that the emerging modern technologies of the 1920's and 1930's would lift the burden of hard labor from them. Hine began in the 1920's a series of photographs he called "Work Portraits" which showed man and machine at work together. Perhaps his best known series from this group is his commission to document the construction of the Empire State Building from March 1930 to May 1931. At the conclusion of the project Hine published Men at Work, a picture book which summarized his theme.


Anthony T. Troncale

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