Research point:Socially committed B&W photographers

American B&W photographers

Jacob Riis (1849-1914)

Arriving with no possessions Danish born Riis emigrated to New York in 1870 and with no regular work drifted from job to job. A self-taught photographer he eventually became a police reporter for the New York Tribune in 1877. He was aware of the awful living conditions in the slums of New York , frequently inhabited by immigrants and “hoped to stimulate reform directly” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 504 ) with his imagery. Furthermore “Riis believed that individuals were formed by their environment . For him the crowded , unsanitary tenements -that is , shoddy apartment houses – were the cause of crime and moral decay. “ (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 205).

The invention of magnesium flash enabled him to photograph both the dark interiors of the dwellings and outside at night . Due to “the harsh look of the sudden intense white light and the shock registered on the faces of those photographed” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 206) his images were considered believable , impartial , and most importantly unplanned. However “several of  his photographs were posed , such as his images of street children , which show them obviously feigning sleep” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 206)

His  work was presented in various forms such as lantern slides and photographs . A book How the Other Half Lives was published in 1890. The book contained images and drawings derived from photographs. A New York exhibition of his work in 1947 contained images that were “cropped and enlarged to increase their impact ” metamorphosing his work into“ artful exhibition prints” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 206).

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)

Hine learnt photography at the request of the New York Ethical Cultural school where he taught. In 1904 he began to document immigrants as they arrived at Ellis Island and in deprived areas of New York as part of the school curriculum. Between 1907 and 1918 he freelanced for the National Child Labour Committee who were dedicated to stamping out child labour and initiating reform, “ he photographed the often appalling exploitation suffered by child labourers -both in factories and on the streets-with the aim of ending it” ( Badger, 2007, pg. 46) . The published images were frequently accompanied by text and presented in a non-linear arrangement.The Ellis Island project aimed to show “ the new Americans as individuals , and to counter any idea that they were the worthless scourings of Europe” (Jeffrey ,1981, pg. 159).

Between 1909 and 1914 he worked on the Pittsburgh Survey , a study of  both immigrants and professionals. Following World War 1 he documented European Red Cross workers . By 1920 his interest had moved from recording exploitation to a more “kind of positive , representative imagery” (Jeffrey,1997, pg. 203). Hine’s book Men at Work  published in 1932 featured images taken during the construction of the Empire State Building, and celebrated “the dignity of the working class” ((Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 207). Sadly by the 1930’s his photography was considered out of date.

Its interesting to compare Riis and Hine’s images, “Riis photographed squalor and wrote about his hopes for for American society. Hine , by contrast , made pictures which looked to the future as they disclosed present hardship. His children , at work in mills and factories , are victims of a heedless system;at the same time, in Hine’s paradoxically beautiful pictures, they shine out as symbols of a better world” (Jeffrey , 1981, pg. 159) . Whilst the inhabitants of Riis’s New York look downtrodden , hopeless and defeated , Hine’s subjects have a dignified confident appearance.

References/ Bibliography

Badger , Gerry , ( 2007) . The Genius of Photography  How photography has changed our lives , Quadrille , London , UK.

Jeffrey Ian , (1981) . Photography A Concise History , Thames & Hudson , London , UK

Jeffrey Ian , (1997 ) .The Photo Book , Phaidon Press , London , UK

Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, Laurence King , London, UK
Accessed 15/01/2015
Accesses 16/01/2015
Accessed 16/01/2015
Accessed 16/01/2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s