'I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected; I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated' - Lewis Hine
Today I visited an exhibition of the work of Lewis Hine (1874 - 1940), a photographer who dedicated most of his work to raise awareness of social issues like child labour, the situation of newcomers in the United States and housing. As a photographer for the Red Cross, he travelled through Europe during the First World War. His most famous work are the photographs that he took of the construction of the Empire State Building. All photographs convey a deep respect for the person who is captured, whether a child, a labourer or a beggar in the street. Every individual counts.
I have just started my photography course and only read the first two chapters of Graham Clarke's The Photograph. So I thought it would be a good idea to look at the pictures in light of the '6 aspects of the hidden structure of definition and discourse' (21). I will take a different photo for each aspect and describe in what ways I think this aspect has influenced the picture.
1. The size of a photograph
All photographs of the exhibition were originals and therefor in their original sizes. Especially the photographs from the 'Men at Work' series were small, considering the subject they depict. But the enlargements that were made for advertising the exhibition really gave the sense of awe for the greatness of the work and braveness of the laborers that Hine conveyed in his photographs.
2. Framing of Space
The framing of space controls what is seen and the way the world is represented in the photograph. In the photograph below the faces of the child and the mother are centered, giving it a very peaceful, comforting touch, even more because it is framed within the very stressful setting of the selection of newcomers on Ellis Island.
The way the photograph is framed makes it bring comfort on different levels. The child finds comfort in its mother and the pose of mother and child remind of the divine comfort one may find in Maria and Jesus. The question remains if the people behind the woman and child experienced the same sense when looking at the scene.
3. The act of focusing
There is one photograph in which you see a man whose right arm was chopped off in an accident at work. The picture is focused on the arm and raises all sorts of questions on what has happened and what he can do now. What makes the picture more compelling is that the man is standing on the porch of his home and in the right corner of the photograph there are two children sitting on a table. Even though they are not focused, their presence makes the entire situation of the man's disability more serious. Unfortunately I can't find the photograph on the internet and couldn't take one of it in the museum. It is a very fine example of the choices that the photographer made in the hierarchy of significance of the objects in the photograph and the order of questions that are raised while looking at it.
4. The surface of the photo
A photograph is flat, so the photographer has to bring in the illusion of three dimensions in the picture. The photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building are all excellent examples of how Hine plays with depth of field and how he brings in an overwhelming third dimension. He emphasizes the immensity of the building project and the braveness of the workers by keeping the sky line of New York sharp in the background. The third dimension is almost tangible. Just looking at the pictures already made me nervous!
5. Choice of colour
In Hine's days almost all photographs were in black and white, so his are no exception. Still, the black and whiteness of Hine's photographs does emphasize and strengthen the reality and harshness of the life of the people he depicts. But despite the grim situation that is reflected in his photographs, I did notice a striking softness of light that is seen in a lot of his portraits. It shows the beauty of the people Hine is portraying, regardless of their poverty. As a viewer I really felt connected and drawn into the photographs, especially this one. I think that had to do with the softness of light as well.
6. Fixed moment of time
Time is a very relevant factor in almost all of Hine's photographs. His photographs that address child labour fixate on the moment in the life of a child and the situation it lives in, and are still relevant years later when the child is already an adult and may even have grown out of poverty. The photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building will always be a remembrance of the bravery of the workers, even though the building itself doesn't show that anymore. The photographs of the immigrants are a reminder of what they were before becoming an American. Time may have changed the situations and people that were in the photographs, the photographs still take them back to the essence of who they are, giving them all the respect they deserve. Even though the photographs were taken almost over a hundred years ago, they still trigger a compassion and awareness from people who look at them nowadays, for sure they did with me.