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Lewis Wickes Hine: Documentary Photographs, 1905-1938

Collection History

Photographs by the pioneering social photographer Lewis W. Hine (1874-1940) came to the Library primarily in two ways. Romana Javitz, head of the Library's Picture Collection, began to solicit gifts and buy prints from Hine himself shortly after he exhibited his photographs of the Empire State Building in 1931. Then, in 1949, the Russell Sage Foundation transferred to the Library a series of prints it had commissioned from Hine for its library. The foundation had asked Hine in his final years to create a systematic, definitive collection of his life work. The commission was only partly completed; Hine mounted the earliest series uniformly with typed captions on dark gray board (which accounts for the unusual appearance of some of the photos presented here); and chose photos for the later series, but died in 1940 before preparing the latter group for library use. Mounting and titling was completed in the 1960s by the staff of what is now the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy.

All of these photographs were transferred in the late 1980s to the Photography Collection of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.


Growing up in the populist tradition of his native Wisconsin, Hine was no stranger to hard work or family tragedy. After completing his studies at the progressive University of Chicago in 1901, he came to New York to teach at the Ethical Culture School. There, a colleague suggested he use photography as an educational tool in his classes.

Hine was drawn to Ellis Island and the "new immigration," a contemporary term for the waves of newcomers arriving from southern and eastern Europe and elsewhere. He photographed at the immigration station between 1904 and 1909, capturing the new Americans pouring through on their way to cities, factories, and farms. Hine's interest in child welfare and the social conditions of the American industrial working class followed naturally as he became immersed in the reform movement, which grew with the rising social consciousness of his time.

Hine gained a national reputation taking pictures for the National Child Labor Committee, for the "Pittsburgh Survey" (an early sociological study), and, following World War I, for the American Red Cross in Europe. His photographs appeared regularly in the periodical Charities and the Commons (and its successor, The Survey) and many others. Hine returned to Ellis Island in 1926 to observe reforms and update his record. In 1930 and 1931, he documented the construction of the Empire State Building, resulting in an exhibition and a book for young people, Men at Work (1932). Shortly after, his relationship with The New York Public Library began.

Regrettably, the photographer's age and individualism worked against him in his later years. His photographs were rejected by the new picture magazine Life and by the Farm Security Administration, President Roosevelt's agricultural relief agency, but Hine did photograph briefly for the New Deal's National Research Project before beginning to assemble the definitive series of his life work for the Russell Sage Foundation.

In his final years, Hine found renewed respect and recognition for his revelatory social photography, particularly among the new generation of concerned photographers at the Photo League. In early 1939, a large retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Riverside Museum in New York.

Related Resources

America & Lewis Hine: Photographs 1904-1940. (c1977)

Brooklyn Museum. Lewis Wickes Hine: The Final Years. (1998)

Curtis, Verna Posever and Stanley Mallach. Photography and Reform: Lewis Hine & the National Child Labor Committee. (c1984)

Hine, Lewis Wickes. Photo Story: Selected Letters and Photographs of Lewis W. Hine. (c1992)

International Museum of Photography / George Eastman House. "Selected Lewis W. Hine." (c2000) <>

Kaplan, Daile. Lewis Hine in Europe: The Lost Photographs. (1988)

Library of Congress. "National Child Labor Committee Collection." (2004) <>

NYPL. "Lewis Wickes Hine: The Construction of the Empire State Building." (1996) <>

Panzer, Mary. Lewis Hine. (2002)

Steinorth, Karl, ed. Lewis Hine: Passionate Journey, Photographs 1905-1937. (c1996)

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