Lewis Hine’s Crusade Against Child Labor

at the Harold Washington Library Center, through July 8

Joe Schwartz

at Stephen Daiter, through July 28

Nikki S. Lee

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through July 28

Zwelethu Mthethwa

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through July 28

By Fred Camper

Photography, like cinema, has long had two polar tendencies: documentation and abstraction. Though such categories inevitably oversimplify, the documentary photographer–represented in several current exhibits–seems to subordinate his vision to his subject matter.

Lewis Hine is famous for his photographs’ social impact. Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1874, he worked at a series of jobs before briefly attending the University of Chicago. Moving to New York to teach in 1901, he began a series of portraits of Ellis Island immigrants in 1904. By then the rapidly industrializing economy had created a need for repetitive, low-skilled labor that unschooled immigrants or children could do “efficiently.” Hine went to work for the National Child Labor Committee, dedicated to eliminating the practice of very young children working long hours at dull jobs that left many with little or no schooling and some with serious health problems. To get his photos Hine often posed as a Bible salesman or an industrial photographer; his 50-pound glass-plate camera and flash prohibited surreptitious candid shots. The NCLC used his photos in its own publications and elsewhere, and within a decade state child labor laws began to change. The 55 documentary photos now at the Harold Washington Library Center (a traveling show organized by George Eastman House) were mostly made between 1908 and 1913.

Children as young as five are shown performing agricultural or factory labor or doing piecework at home. In an untitled image from about 1912, four young cotton pickers carry heavy sacks; children are consistently seen dwarfed by their loads or by a mound of oyster shells or by the machines around them. The composition of Greek Bootblacks, N.Y. (1906)–the boys have their backs to us as they attend three well-dressed, self-satisfied gentlemen–obliterates the bootblacks’ identities. The girl in Little Spinner in Cotton Mill, Augusta, Ga. Overseer Said She Was Regularly Employed (1909) is flanked by two long rows of machinery.

But Hine was too fine an artist to reduce his work to a simpleminded cry of protest or his subjects to automatons dehumanized by their toil. Like so many of his subjects, the spinner girl confronts the camera, looking back with quiet dignity, preserving her character and autonomy despite the overwhelming composition. Breaker Boys, Pennsylvania (1910) shows the subjects, whose job it was to separate slate from coal, hunched over bins in a dark, dusty room. The text on the back of this print–Hine sometimes provided information for publication–refers to the dust that “filled…their lungs” and says the man standing behind them kept them “at work with voice and stick.” Their faces are obscured, but the breaker boys in an untitled photo from 1911 hanging next to it look directly at the camera, hands on one another’s shoulders; most are smiling.

Hine’s humanism, which runs deep, can be found in virtually every image. He always seems to position his camera close enough to provide a readable image but distant enough to establish an invisible threshold; though the children’s identities are being undermined by the cruelties of capitalism, he never seems to intrude on his subjects. So when they return the camera’s gaze, it makes the image a meeting of equals.

And when the subjects don’t look at the camera, they often inhabit a private zone the camera can’t enter. Newsies and Bootblacks Shooting Crap (1910) shows children hunched around a small area of the sidewalk with looks of intense concentration, but we can see little of the game. The child in Newsgirl, Park Row (1910) has stopped to read one of her papers, suggesting that not all child laborers were illiterate. A gathering of five around a modest table in Family Homework (1908), including three young children, concentrate on their tasks: making artificial flowers. Their attention to this painstaking work seems to divide them, but the tight composition expresses a family unity we can’t fully understand.

Joe Schwartz, born in Brooklyn in 1913 and now a Californian, was active in New York’s Photo League in the 1930s and ’40s; according to a handsome, detailed book recently published by Stephen Daiter Gallery, the league believed that photography was “an expressive medium that could…promote social change.” What distinguishes the 19 Schwartz photos at Daiter from Hine’s work is Schwartz’s diverse compositions. Rather than repeating a few basic setups–child overwhelmed by work, child maintaining dignity–Schwartz makes each composition suit the subject. The result is the absence of an overriding vision; what’s gained is a sense of openness to the varieties of urban life. An untitled picture from the 1940s of a mother and sleeping child on the subway is stately, almost painterly; the mother’s expression is a mixture of fatigue and resolve. Capturing the disorder and diversity of groups is something Schwartz does particularly well: the composition of an untitled shot of a Boy Scout parade under an el is a mix of order and chaos and includes two African-American boys who seem to be arguing.

Schwartz often included African-Americans (Hine rarely did). Street Musicians, East Sixth Street, Kentucky, 1940’s shows a small group, most with their backs to us, playing together while four whites look on; only one smiles while the rest seem slightly disdainful. Here the composition reveals a dignity to the black musicians that the three whites apparently overlook. A-train, NYC, 1940’s is a little essay in urban fragmentation: a man’s face in the lower part of the image is cut off at his lower lip while the wall to the right sports a Rice Krispies ad and the window to the left some nasty anti-Semitic graffiti. But Schwartz’s compositions are generally determined by his subjects. The figures in Punchball, DeKalb Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1930’s are aligned in a row on a street that recedes into the far distance not because Schwartz admired Renaissance perspective but because that’s how the boys stood in order to play.

Mistaking Nikki S. Lee’s 34 untitled color prints at the Museum of Contemporary Photography for documentary street photos, I thought they pushed formlessness too far. Then I realized that Lee appears in each apparently artless snapshot, taking on different personas in different social groups: dressing like a punk while consorting with punks, posing as an office worker, making out with women in a lesbian series.

Born in South Korea in 1970, Lee moved to New York in 1994; the wall text tells us that she was influenced by Cindy Sherman. Well, duh. Anyway, it seems most photography students today photograph themselves; basing art on others’ lives, which has long given documentary photography its vitality, has become increasingly rare.

Lee is likely reflecting on her immigrant status and the idea of experimenting with identity. The problem is that her work never goes beyond the snapshot level–nor is it composed interestingly enough to comment on the snapshot tradition. The first in a line of idle skateboarders, unconvincingly tilting her board the way the boys do, she seems to say only “look at me.” Posing as a tourist in front of the Statue of Liberty, she raises her arm in imitation of the statue–whose arm her composition cuts off, blunting an already tired comparison.

The two other photographers on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography offer fine work. Creating tension between simulacra and actual scenes, Oliver Boberg photographs painted models he makes of highways and other anonymous, empty spaces. And Zwelethu Mthethwa’s documentary shots return us to the world of Lewis Hine. Born in South Africa in 1960, he was the first black instructor at the Cape Town art school where he teaches today; 7 of the 11 images here are large-format untitled color prints of South African women in their homes. All stare directly at the camera, establishing a Hine-like equality with the photographer however decrepit their surroundings. One sits to the right of a door to her bedroom, a bicycle to the left; another stands in front of some dilapidated kitchen cabinets. Like most of Mthethwa’s subjects, she’s papered her walls with newspaper advertisements; here the same ad for fancy furniture is repeated again and again, creating an irony that Mthethwa’s composition does not overstress.

By setting the photos in his subjects’ homes and generally placing his camera at a fair distance, Mthethwa gives each woman her own space. One stands in her kitchen, arms stretched behind her, head slightly cocked, unsmilingly confronting the viewer. Americans will certainly notice the sparseness of these women’s homes: a single pair of shoes in the doorway of a bedroom, a single box of matches on a table. But Mthethwa emphasizes his subjects’ autonomy and dignity–which is inherent, not added by the photographer. Studying the question of identity as directly as Lee, he offers not self-indulgent jokes but insights into lives other than his–and insight into how to look at lives other than one’s own.