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Stanford Professor Sheds New Light on Lewis Hine’s Iconic Photos of Child Workers in a Powerful New Exhibition

Stanford Professor Sheds New Light on Lewis Hine’s Iconic Photos of Child Workers in a Powerful New Exhibition


Lewis Wickes Hine (U.S.A., 1874–1940), One of the spinners in Whitnel Cotton Mfg. Co. N.C. December 1908, 1908. Gelatin silver print. Princeton University Art Museum. Anonymous gift 

The Cantor Arts Center

Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine

May 21–October 30, 2016

Stanford, California—The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is pleased to announce Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine, a new exhibition that explores the artistic mastery of photographer Lewis Hine’s images of children working in mills and factories in the early 20th century. His works are among the most haunting photographs of children ever made. In this exhibition, a beautiful selection of these images is juxtaposed with stunning shots of those same mill and factory sites as they look today, taken by Jason Francisco (Stanford M.F.A., ’98).

In 1908, Lewis Hine felt so strongly about the devastating affects of child labor that he quit working as a New York City school teacher to become an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. Hine spent the next 10 years traveling through New England, the South and the Mid-West, photographing children at work in mills, coal mines and factories. The resulting photographs, proof to the public that child labor was thriving, helped change American labor laws.

Exhibition curator Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities and Chair of the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University, believes that Hine’s photographs are not only incredible documents, but also extraordinary works of art, especially in how poignantly they evoke the fleeting nature of our time on earth. “This exhibition explores the images as art that seizes the fragility of a moment in time and asks us to imagine what these young lives might have been like after the picture was taken—even what these workplaces would be like after the children were gone,” Nemerov explained.

The theme of time’s fragility is communicated in several ways, including through the works’ presentation. Many of the images are juxtaposed with arresting contemporary photographs by Jason Francisco, shot at the same sites as Hine’s photographs. The pairings demonstrate how a physical and human landscape can be transformed, and also provoke new assessments of Hine’s photographs. One juxtaposition includes a 1910 photograph taken outside the Knoxville Knitting Works in which two young girls are just noticing Hine and his camera. Francisco’s shot of the same building, now home of a company that makes sweatshirts for the U.S. Army, has a melancholy, even toxic feel, and the viewer is prompted to look for those qualities in Hine’s photograph as well.

Other images exhibit a haunting soulfulness. In one compelling work, a girl at a western North Carolina mill has stepped away from a loom to look into Hine’s camera, giving him her complete attention. “What is so amazing about photographs like this one is the particular poignancy of the moment,” Nemerov said. “Two people are encountering one another in this happenstance way, yet the moment is deeply meaningful in how he manages to imagine a subject’s soul. The moment becomes almost metaphysical. A kind of capsule containing the full flow of all we will ever be, and have been. To most, that capsule is almost always invisible, but not to Lewis Hine.”

Hine’s photographs also lend time a rapturous quality, as exemplified by other works on view. One of Nemerov’s favorites—which he considers Hine’s self-portrait—shows a factory “burning,” or operating all night, its windows literally blazing with light. “It amounts to someone working around the clock on all cylinders, trying to illuminate the darkness; it’s as if Hine is saying, ‘I will answer injustice with righteousness.’ It also portrays the souls of the people inside; there’s an idea of burning up in the moment, in this ecstasy.”

Provocative and unforgettable, Soulmaker, The Times of Lewis Hine is a meditation on what endures and what disappears—and on photography’s unique power to convey what we remember and forget. The exhibition also highlights the mystic sense of time and poignancy palpable in all of Hine’s images, demonstrating that he was one of our great American photographers.

The exhibition is accompanied by a newly released book: Soulmaker, The Times of Lewis Hine by Alexander Nemerov, published by Princeton University Press (200 pages). The book contains 114 color illustrations as well as a deeply explored reassessment of Hine’s body of work.

About Lewis Hine
Lewis Hine was born September 26, 1874, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He studied sociology at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and New York University, and became a teacher at the Ethical Culture School, a progressive elementary school in New York founded by social reformer Felix Adler. Hine often took his classes to Ellis Island to photograph immigrants arriving from Europe, and in the process came to the realization that documentary photography could effect social change. In 1907, as staff photographer of the Russell Sage Foundation, he photographed Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, steel makers for an influential sociological study, and a year later became the National Child Labor Committee’s (NCLC) official photographer, documenting child labor in the NCLC’s effort to legally end the practice. From 1908 to 1924, Hine gained entrance to mills, mines and factories by donning a variety of guises, including fire inspector and Bible salesman. The NCLC amassed a collection of 5,100 photographs, most of them taken by Hine, though child labor would continue largely unabated until 1938, when the Fair Labor Standard Act was passed.

During World War I, Hine documented the American Red Cross’s work in France and Belgium. In 1930, at age 57, he was commissioned to photograph the construction of the Empire State Building, shooting from a basket hanging 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue. During the Great Depression, he documented drought relief in the South, life in the Eastern Tennessee Mountains, and served as chief photographer for the Works Projects Administration (WPA). During the last years of his life, Hine struggled financially, losing his house and applying for Welfare. He died on November 3, 1940, following complications from surgery.

About the Curator
Alexander Nemerov is the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University. A scholar of American art, Nemerov writes about the presence of art, the recollection of the past and the importance of the humanities in our lives today. Committed to teaching the history of art more broadly as well as topics in American visual culture—the history of American photography, for example—he is a noted writer and speaker on the arts. His most recent books are Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus and Howard Nemerov (2015), Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s (2013) and Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War (2010). In 2011, he published To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America (2011), the catalogue to an eponymous exhibition he curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Among his recent essays are pieces on Winslow Homer, Jacob Lawrence, Carleton Watkins, Thomas Cole and Joe Rosenthal. Forthcoming publications include individual essays on Gregory Crewdson, Charles Burchfield, Danny Lyon and Grandma Moses. Nemerov’s new book, Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine, was published by Princeton University Press this year.

About Jason Francisco
Jason Francisco is an acclaimed artist, essayist, curator and educator. He is the author of Far from Zion: Jews, Diaspora, Memory (Stanford University Press, 2006), The Steerage and Alfred Stieglitz, co-authored with Anne McCauley (University of California Press, 2012), An Unfinished Memory (Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, 2014), as well as numerous photoworks, articles, reviews and artist’s books. Widely exhibited nationally and internationally, he is the recipient of grants from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the Howard Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, and Miedzynarodowe Centrum Kultury, Kraków. At Emory University, Francisco is Associate Professor in photography studies in the Film and Media Studies department, an affiliated faculty member in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, an affiliated faculty member in the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies and Senior Faculty Fellow of the Emory University Center for Ethics. At Stanford University, Francisco is a lecturer in the Department of Art & Art History (summers).

This exhibition is organized by the Cantor Arts Center with guest curator Alexander Nemerov, Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities and Chair of the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University. We gratefully acknowledge support from the Halperin Exhibitions Fund.

Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
Founded when the university opened in 1891, the museum was expanded and renamed in 1999 for lead donors Iris and B. Gerald Cantor. The Cantor’s collection spans 5,000 years and includes more than 38,000 works of art. Ranging from classical antiquities to contemporary works, the Cantor’s holdings include the largest collection of sculptures by renowned master Auguste Rodin in an American museum.  With 24 galleries and more than 15 special exhibitions each year, the Cantor is one of the most visited university art museums in the country and is an established resource for teaching and research on campus.  Free admission, tours, lectures, and family activities help the museum attract visitors from Stanford’s academic community, the San Francisco Bay Area, and from around the world.