This object is one of a group of twenty-two black and white photographs in Tate’s collection (Tate P79917–P79938), which all relate to American photographer Lewis Hine’s work for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in the US during the 1910s. Eleven of the photographs are Hine’s own documents of various panels that he made for exhibitions of his work. These combine text, photographs and drawn or painted pictures that provide information about children’s working conditions and use various arguments to suggest that child labour should be reformed or banned. While most primarily focus on the ills of child labour (‘Industry saves at society’s expense’), some highlight instances of recent reforms, extolling their benefits (‘New Orleans conditions: these high standards pay’). The accompanying images on these panels generally include photographs and illustrations of child labourers, as well as maps of America and representations of homes and workplaces. The other ten photographs are prints of pictures that Hine took of working children, some of which are also used in the exhibition panels. Most of these show children within or outside of their workplaces, although some depict related scenes, including one in which a boy attends juvenile court ‘charged with stealing a bicycle’. The photographs vary in size and most incorporate a photocopy of a caption. The captions relating to the photographic images (as opposed to the exhibition panels) often specify a number, such as ‘Neg. #3785’, and state the location in which the picture was taken, the date, and information about the subjects such as their age and profession.
Hine worked for the NCLC between 1906 and 1918, and these images were all made between 1910 and 1917. While employed by the NCLC Hine travelled across America investigating child labour practices, writing accounts of his experiences and photographing workers. He also served as director of the organisation’s exhibition department, arranging various displays on its behalf. Hine took more than five thousand photographs for the NCLC, and these were usually initially presented within written reports, accompanied by detailed textual accounts (see Stanley Mallach, ‘Child Labor Reform and Lewis Hine’, in Milwaukee Art Museum 1984, pp.13, 24). It is not clear whether these particular photographs owned by Tate were originally attached to longer texts. Hine’s pictures were generally not produced for specific publications and they were often reused in multiple forms, so it is possible that other versions of these images may have appeared elsewhere.
The NCLC is a private organisation that was founded in 1904 with the mission of promoting child labour reform in the US. A number of its proposals are referenced in the exhibition panels, including a ban on children below the age of fourteen in the workplace and a maximum eight-hour day for all workers under sixteen (see Mallach 1984, pp.17–19). The critic Stanley Mallach has argued that the NCLC was especially pioneering in its abundant use of written and visual media. Regarding Hine’s work in particular, he has written that ‘The NCLC was the first organization, public or private, to sponsor the production of a large quantity of social documentary photographs over a long period of time and to use the images to convey information and, most of all, to persuade’ (Mallach 1984, p.25). Hine’s own written statements regarding child labour frequently suggest sympathy for young workers and dismay at the conditions he witnessed. Describing his work in 1914, for example, he stated:
For many years I have followed the procession of child workers winding through a thousand industrial communities from the canneries of Maine to the fields of Texas. I have heard their tragic stories, watched their cramped lives and seen their fruitless struggles in the industrial game where the odds are all against them. I wish I could give you a bird’s-eye view of my varied experiences.
(Quoted in Walter Rosenblum, ‘Foreword’, in America and Lewis Hine: Photographs 1904–1940, New York 1977, p.12.)
Historian of photography Kate Sampsell-Willmann has argued that through his innovative combination of image and text in his exhibition panels, Hine ‘pioneered the use of political montage’ (Sampsell-Willmann 2009, p.80). In particular, she highlights a consistent strategy, discernible among the images in Tate’s collection, in which he ‘made pictures of bright-eyed children in immiserating conditions ... but he also made photographs of the conditions that he considered ideal and displayed them to the public in juxtaposition’ (Sampsell-Willmann 2009, p.82). This suggests that as well as criticising existing conditions, Hine’s panels were designed to suggest possible alternatives.
Lewis Hine and the National Child Labor Committee, exhibition catalogue, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee 1984.
George Dimock, ‘Children of the Mills: Re-Reading Lewis Hine’s Child-Labour Photographs’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.16, no.2, 1993, pp.37–54.
Kate Sampsell-Willmann, Lewis Hine as Social Critic, Jackson 2009.
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