Lewis Hine Biography

Lewis Hine was an American photographer best known for his work that he used to expose the harsh realities of social injustice in the early 20th century. A school teacher by trade and photographer by passion, Hine was early to realize the potential of photography in education. 

Operating under the mantra that, “photography can light up darkness and expose ignorance,” Hine used the medium for just that. Some of his earliest work, photos of immigrants on Ellis Island and child factory workers, went on to cause changes in government policy shortly after their publication.

Lewis Hine was born in 1874 in Oshkosh, WI, where he studied sociology. In 1901, he moved to New York City and began a career in teaching at the Ethical Culture School. While teaching at the school, Hine was designated school photographer, a role that mostly included taking class photos. In 1904, Hine intended to teach a class on the plight of immigrants and visited Ellis Island for research. Seeing the horrendous conditions first hand, Hine realized his camera had far more potential than his words did as an impactful teaching tool. After this discovery, Hine’s career shifted from educating students to educating the public about the harsh ethical realities that lay before them. Hine was one of the first photographers to embrace this documentarian-activist approach to the medium. For nearly ten years, he worked as the official photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, working to expose the cruelties of child labor. As he refined his craft, his later work kept the same thematic approach while exploring more creative and artistic approaches to his subjects, including Men At Work, a monograph of photographs chronicling the construction of the Empire State Building. 

As the Great Depression ravaged the country, Hine’s influence and career began to fade. While other professional photographers turned to agencies like the FSA for work, Hine’s unwillingness to relinquish ownership of his negatives prohibited his participation. In 1939, after being nearly forgotten for his professional work, Hine was pulled from obscurity and championed by Berenice Abbott. Under her patronage, a career-spanning, traveling retrospective was mounted just before Hine’s death in 1940.  

Today, Hine’s works are held in the permanent collections of the George Eastman House, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and The International Photography Hall of Fame.