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David and Art - “Lewis and the Mill Girl”

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

We’ve been talking about realism in American art for a couple of weeks and last week I mentioned a Danish photographer named Jacob Riis who documented life among the lower classes of New York. He and other Realists paved the way for a new group of writers and photographers that emerged early in the 20th century who were called “muckrakers.”

In that group, there’s one more photographer I need to mention. He was a realist, and his work is very artistic. It’s well framed and it’s well composed but it’s really his content that gives the work its power. He had a great eye for catching the perfect moment.

Lewis Hine was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1874. He studied sociology at the University of Chicago and at Columbia. After graduation He taught at the Ethical Cultural School in New York. Early on, he turned his camera lens to immigrants at Ellis Island, documenting the young and old arriving in America. Starting in 1907, he began taking industrial photographs, often risking bodily harm from factory owners who’d much rather he not be there. His eye could always find the perfect scene to reveal the ghastly working conditions under which so many toiled.

Soon he was giving his efforts over more and more to the campaign against child labor. He understood that an artist, equipped with a camera, could marshal more evidence against the practice of child labor than reams of reports and data.

He travelled from Indiana to Alabama, South Carolina to Vermont documenting the widespread use of child labor. One of his most famous pictures might be one that he took in 1910 of a 12-year-old girl named Addie Card who was a spinner in a cotton mill in Vermont. That same year he photographed a seven-year-old boy selling newspapers in a Third Avenue saloon in New York.

I think my favorite is a photograph he took in 1908 at a mill in Lincolnton, North Carolina. It’s of a mill girl who told him she was ten years old and she’s looking out the window of the factory. Your imagination has to fill in what she’s seeing out the window, but what’s conveyed through the image is a sense of longing sharper and more poignant than in any other work of art I know.

Gore Vidal once remarked that great novelists like Norman Mailer and Solzhenitsyn were distinctive for being brave enough to say No to the worst aspects of their societies. I would add that great artists of many kinds were willing to do that, through their art, with often great—even outsized—effectiveness. On that list I would certainly include Lewis Hine.