Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Witness to Shame: The Visual Legacy of Lewis Hine

Addie Card, just a slip of a girl when Lewis Hine snapped an iconic portrait of her in 1910, told him she was 12. But the investigative photojournalist, hired to document then-legal child labor in America, learned the barefoot waif’s actual age – ten – from others employed at the same Vermont cotton mill. Even more of a shock, she had started toiling there as an eight-year-old. In his accompanying text, he described the motherless-fatherless kid as an “anemic little spinner.”

May 1910: Addie Card at a cotton mill in North Pownal, Vermont

Originally a sociology teacher, Hine explained his mission this way: “Photographs keep the present and the future in touch with the past. Photography can light up darkness and expose ignorance.” His beautiful black-and-white “gelatin silver prints” do just that. All told, he took more than 5,000 shots of working youngsters across a wide swath of the country between 1908 and 1918 on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). The private, non-profit organization was dedicated to reforming the laws in order to prevent exploitation in what he deemed “monotonous drudgery in dusty factories.” Add the word dangerous to that description and you have a sense of the problem. At 14, Luther Watson’s right arm was cut off by a saw in a Kentucky box factory in November 1907.

Luther Watson, 14

Hine’s viewable, downloadable NCLC photographs online at the U.S. Library of Congress provide a vicarious experience of his journey throughout the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic states, the South and as far west as Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri and Colorado. The diminutive subjects – likely hired for the benefit of smaller hands that were better at operating intricate machines – are plaintive, rarely smiling, often dirty and frequently without shoes. Apparently, many of them owned only one pair that had to be saved for going to church every Sunday. Illiteracy was rampant, since they had little or no education. Quite a few spoke no English at all.

Vermont mill boys in 1910, age 11 to 15

If unable to determine the children’s ages, Hine guessed their heights by virtue of the buttons he had measured on his jacket. A particularly heartbreaking December 1908 notation about an unidentified petite spinner at the Whitnel Cotton Mill in North Carolina: “She was 51 inches high. Has been in the mill one year. Sometimes works at night. Runs 4 sides – 48 cents a day. When asked how old she was, she hesitated, then said, ‘I don't remember,’ then added confidentially, ‘I'm not old enough to work, but do just the same.’

The girl who could not recall her age in a North Carolina textile mill, 1908

Although at first these tykes were primarily the offspring of poor farmers, the demographic began to change with each wave of immigrants – Irish, Polish, Slovak, Italian, Greek – arriving in the United States. In the late 1800s, Quebec was experiencing massive crop failure, which launched a long-term migration of French-Canadians down to New England in search of menial jobs. Often when Hine encountered them, they had such thick accents that he made mistakes in jotting down the names. For example, a 15-year-old Vermont boy named Armand Rathe working at Burlington’s Chace Cotton Mill was listed as Herman Rette. He had the last laugh, however, by eventually becoming a successful entrepreneur and an eight-term mayor of the nearby city of Winooski.

Arsene Lussier and (on the right) Armand Rathe, at 15

But not all of Hine’s les miserables would fare very well. They sacrificed their childhoods to create wealth for businesses with long hours picking cotton, tobacco, berries or beets, shucking oysters, wrapping cigars, mining coal, sewing garments and canning sardines. The wages were abominable, so injury, disease and early death might be their only final reward. This was truly a lost generation. Except for a few instances, it’s not clear what became of them. Joe Manning, a Massachusetts researcher, has been patiently tracking down what happened to 250 of the kids, in most cases by locating their descendants.

Hine lugged his 50-pound Graflex camera and a tripod around the country, Manning pointed out. It might be necessary to trick the factory managers. He’d claim the goal was to photograph the machines, but ask to have a child stand there to show the scale of the device. In the South, he’d pretend to be a Bible salesman. Or, if all else failed, the young laborers could be found outside in groups during the noon lunch hour. In this somewhat clandestine process, there probably was only one chance to get the picture in question as an important testament of their suffering and deprivation. “His purpose wasn’t to pity them,” Manning suggests. “He respected the work they were doing. I see it as a one huge album of the American family.”

Edith, 5, a Texas cotton picker in September 1913

Addie Card continued to have a hardscrabble life, albeit one that lasted until age 94. Born in 1898, she died in 1993 without ever seeing her cotton mill photo. While she never personally prospered, that image appeared on a 32-cent postage stamp in 1998. (Hine had thought her last name was Laird, a mistake corrected decades later.) The same photo then appeared in a Reebok ad condemning child labor, ironic in that the footwear company has been accused of manufacturing its sneakers in sweatshops, mostly in China, that reportedly are sometimes guilty of child slave labor. (Today, 120 million children between the ages of five and 15 work full-time in developing countries, 61 percent of them in Asia.) Another sad fact: the very industries that profited from American children in the early 1900s later moved those jobs overseas, leaving behind a nation that no longer makes much of anything.

Addie Card at 90

Hine: “This little girl is so small she has to stand on a box.” -- a North Carolina textile mill, 1910

Hine’s depictions of inhumane conditions shocked society and ultimately contributed to passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which protects people under 16 from full-time work. After his National Child Labor Committee gig, he went on to fashion dignified images of immigrants from all over the globe transitioning through Ellis Island; chronicle Red Cross relief efforts in Europe before and after World War I; capture the construction of New York City’s Empire State Building from 1930 to 1932; become a chief photographer in 1936 for the Works Progress Administration, a massive national employment program to lift the country out of the Great Depression. His artistry is the story of us.

So, it’s mind-boggling that Hine himself did not end up with the fame and especially fortune he deserved. He died impoverished in November 1940, at age 66, the fruits of his remarkable career thought of as passe. His house had been foreclosed. This was a heroic advocate for social change that time forgot. But perhaps his wisdom lives on: “I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected,” he once said. “I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”

Lewis Hine

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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