Lewis Hine used photography as a tool for political and social reform. His images of children working on the streets of New York were central to a national campaign he led against child labour. In San Francisco, German photographer Arnold Genthe created an extraordinary portrait of life in the streets of Chinatown. He published the images as a book after the whole area was destroyed in an earthquake in 1908. By the turn of the century, cameras were small enough to be used surreptitiously in public spaces. Paul Strand was among the first to explore their potential for a more candid form of documentary photography. ‘I wanted to see if I could photograph people without their being aware of the camera’, he explained.
One of the most important champions of photography as a fine art was Alfred Stieglitz, whose 1911 snapshot of a street in Paris is shown here. He helped to promote Strand, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Baron Adolf de Meyer, also represented in this room. Coburn’s portrait of the poet Ezra Pound exemplifies the studio as a place of experimentation: three shaving mirrors create a prism in front of the lens, generating multiple views of one face. In Baron de Meyer’s photograph, taken for an early cosmetics advertisement, a softly lit face is bandaged with a white cloth, achieving a surreal beauty through subtle lighting and the soft tonality of the print.