What is the origin of social documentary photography?

Social documentary photography was conceived in the crucible of industrialization and immigration in the first decade of the twentieth century. Lewis Hine, at the urging of his mentor at New York’s Ethical Culture School (ECS) Frank Manny, voyaged to Ellis Island to have a look around. According to Hine, “Manny conceived [the] idea of visualizing school activities in a camera.”

As an intelligent person with a natural gift for observation, living in New York, and working at a predominantly Jewish school, Hine did not fail to notice the enormous social changes wrought by Ellis Island immigration. He headed to the immigration hub with his camera and Frank Manny as an assistant and recorded what he witnessed, on the greatest migrations in human history.

When Lewis Hine left the ECS shortly after his stunning Ellis Island series, it was not “to give up teaching” but “to engage in a new kind of teaching, visual teaching.” Hine became interested in social welfare because of his trips to Ellis Island. Felix Adler suggested that Hine “set up as a sociological photographer,” and “this meant child labor work.”

The National Child Labor Committee was just starting up in 1904, the year Hine made the shift to sociological photography (his terms) and became interested in Hine for the organization. At the same time, Hine met Paul and Arthur Kellogg, publishers of what would become Survey Graphic (its surname added in 1921 in recognition of the importance of visual agitation, thanks to Lewis Hine) around the same time. Paul Kellogg had just secured funding for his Pittsburgh Survey project, arguably the first social science investigation of living conditions in a large industrial center, from the newly formed Russell Sage Foundation.

So, we look to Hine’s Ellis Island portraits and photographs for the National Child Committee and Pittsburgh Survey to see how American reformers went about using visual education as both a tool social science data collection and political agitation to help improve the status of recent immigrants and unregulated working conditions. The social documentary photograph was born in the work of Lewis Hine.

Many acknowledge Jacob Riis, not Hine, as the stylistic and intellectual father of social documentary photography. However, Riis was wedded to the idea of Social Darwinism and, in essence and because of that doctrine, blamed the poor for their poverty. Hine, however, viewed his subjects not as victims of an inexorable struggle for the limited resource of wealth but as rather individual and dignified human beings caught in a social system that deemphasized the dignity of work and individual worth.

He,through his images and based in a nascent understanding of social science, sought to enter into conversations with those his photographs. Rather than objectifying them as did Riis, Hine found common ground and expressed as much with his considerable photographic skill. It was Hine’s understanding of his output as the merger of social science and photography, each equally important, that distinguishes him as the first fully-formed social documentary photographer and the author of “the human document.”

Hine cared about the people he photographed.

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