Educated as a sociologist at the Universtiy of Chicago, Hine became involved with social welfare issues while pursuing studies at the Columbia University School of Social Philosophy. As a teacher at the Ethical Culture School in New York City, he organized photographic excursions through New York’s commercial and tenement areas in order to heighten his students’ awareness of the world around them. By 1904 Hine had begun to photograph immigrants, the poor, and the exploited as a means of studying and describing the social conditions faced by these people.
He is best known, however, for his systematic and comprehensive documentation of child workers for the National Child Labor Committee. Hine spoke about his work on extensive lecture tours, and his photographs were widely disseminated through newspapers, socially concerned publications, and posters.
Many of Hine’s photographs of children, such as this image of a girl at the door of an orphanage, describe the relationship between an individual and an institution. Here, Hine calls our attention to the austere space beyond the child, emphasizing the extent to which her home already seems like a factory. The title given to the photograph — possibly when it was included in a portfolio of Hine’s work organized by the New York Photo League in the late1940s — refers to the Dickensian comic-strip character “Little Orphan Annie,” created in 1924, who was forced to labor for her keep at an orphanage.
Along with his photographs, Hine often sent the Child Labor Committee detailed reports of his conversations with children and their parents. Providing revelant details about their lives, his comments supplemented the emotional content of the photographs. This picture was part of a series documenting southern delta shrimp pickers and oyster shuckers. Hine wrote: Olga Schubert. The little 5‑year-old after a day’s work helping her mother in the Biloxi Canning factory, began at about 5:00 A.M., was tired out and refused to be photographed. The mother said, ‘Oh, she’s ugly.’ Both she and other persons said picking shrimp was very hard on the fingers.
When used for publication, Hine’s photographs were usually printed directly from a 5 x 7‑inch negative. Occasionally he made enlargements for exhibtions or copy photographs that he cut up collaged with other images, and rephotographed. Just barely visible in the upper right-hand corner of this copy is the tack that was used to hold the original in place.
Hine was interested in photographing urban workers of all kinds. Like painters George Luks, William Glackens, and Robert Henri , he found a modern nobility in working-class subjects. The bold, simple composition of this portrait of a Washington handyman [Handyman in Washington, D.C., SAAM, 1994.91.83] gives the picture its forcefulness and dignity. The photograph was possibly made just after Hine completed work for Charles F. Weller’s 1908 Washington slum study.
Throughout his career Hine used a Graflex, a camera introduced in the first decade of the twentieth century, which made it easier for the photographer to see the picture just as the camera would record it. Unlike earlier cameras that required the photographer to compose and focus before putting in the sensitive plate, the Graflex allowed Hine to frame his subject to the very edges of the plate and postpone decisions about focus and angle of view until the instant he clicked on the shutter.
Merry A. Foresta American Photographs: The First Century (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)