Progressives typically initiated reforms by investigating and exposing social problems, documenting and publicizing them through compelling representations. They believed that laying bare the destitution and corruption at the base of the industrial economy was the first step in garnering wide public support for social change. Reformers looked to photography as an essential tool for this work. Lewis Hine pioneered the emerging practice of social photography undertaken with progressive goals.
Hine joined the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) as an investigative photographer in 1908. He aimed to bring to light what he saw as the abusive practices and injustices of child labor. More broadly, his work exposed the horrors of urban poverty with images of the dangerous and derelict conditions in which the working and immigrant classes in the early twentieth century lived and worked. Hine traveled throughout the United States for his work with the NCLC.
Hine produced this photograph of dilapidated housing during a visit to Hull-House, the settlement house founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in the congested immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. The photograph’s power depended on the widespread popular belief that photographs captured the immediate truth about their subjects. But Hine carefully staged his images, taking care to include details that he regarded as important to his message and frame the pictures in dramatic ways.
Hales, Peter B. Silver Cities: Photographing American Urbanization, 1839-1915. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.
Kaplan, Daile, ed. Photo Story: Selected Letters and Photographs of Lewis W. Hine. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992
Sampsell-Willman, Kate. Lewis Hine as Social Critic. University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
Stange, Maren. Symbols of Ideal Life:Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950. Cambridge [England]:Cambridge University Press, 1989.
University of Illinois at Chicago. “Urban Experience in Chicago: Hull-House and its Neighborhoods, 1889 – 1963.” http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/urbanexp/
Library of Congress. “National Child Labor Committee Collection.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/nclc/
Lewis Hine, “Hull-House, Our Backyard,” in Hull-House Yearbook (1910), University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections