Pictures that tell, then question

My name is Kirby. These are my friends. Can you guess which one is me? The tall one on the right? No, that's Tomas. He's from Sicily. He and his family live down on 14th street. Boy, his Mama is one great cook. Every night, there's so many sitting around the supper table, guests have to sit on someone's lap. Next to Tomas, with the suspenders, is Rudy. He's the oldest of our gang. He can run faster than a tram and lift a 50-pound sack of onions -- I've seen him. Rudy taught me the ropes when I moved here: jack knife, baseball, scully; where to get cool in the summer; who'll give you a hot roll and hot drink in the winter. He's just like my big brother. Except I don't have any brothers really; just four sisters. And what good are sisters for, I ask you.

Then comes Jake with all the buttons, and he's my best best friend. But don't call him Jake when his father's within earshot. "Jacob!" he corrects you. "What kind of a name is Jake! Who would a Jake grow up to be!" Jake is going to grow up to be a writer. Like in newspapers, or books maybe. Jake's smart as a pin, that's what my mom's always saying. And it's true. Sometimes I'll meet him in the park and he'll be sitting on a bench -- just thinking! Not thinking this or that -- just "flying a thought" he calls it.

Some afternoons we'll sit together in Jake's kitchen. His mom will give us lentil soup and listen as her boy reads out loud. The ring of all those words! And with Jake's voice, it makes you feel sort and grand inside; as if a body could grow up and one day do most anything.m

This is what I love best about the photographs of Lewis Hine. Inherent in their intimate perspective, their quick but compelling characterizations, the sudden drama of shadow and light, is a profound sense of humen lifetimes. Implicit within each photo is the universe just beyond the frame. The world misses a single heartbeat; then -- the jostling game, the street cries, the trolley bell, the welling laughter -- all resume. But in this instant -- not so much frozen on the print as detained in memory -- a life, or a generation of lives, is witnessed and confirmed. They grow on inside our imaginations just as they moved on down America's bustling turn-of-the-century streets.

Lewis Hine first approached photography from the perspective of sociologist, not artist. After studying at several universities, he joined the teaching staff of the School of Ethical Culture in New York City. He became aware of the camera as a powerful tool for recording and reforming the social conditions that prevailed in this country during the first decades of the 20th century. His earliest work documented the new waves of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. His lens collected all the suffering and abuse, all the character and hope, imprinted on their faces. This project set the tone for a lifetime of work exploring the ethnic and social character of American working class families. His empathy for his subjects was so great, his eye for essential detail so acute , much of the impression we have today of that period is formed from his photographs. Describing his own work, he wrote: "Ever -- the Human Document to keep the present and the future in touch with the past."

But Hine set out to do more than record his era; he used camera as a weapon against its oppressions. As an undercover agent for the National Child Labor Committee, he documented the conditions of the factories and sweat shops and the violations there against child workers. A report can be denied, a statement contradicted; but you can't argue with the fact of a black-and-white image. He went on to create whole portfolios of the American worker: the immigrant markets in the Lower East Side of Manhattan; the coal miners in Pennsylvania; the railway men in Texas; the cotton mill workers in West Virginia. His aim was to imprint on the American public the horrifying conditions in which people lived and worked -- and at the same time, the force of will, the firmness of character , the vast human potential that society tends to ignore in these men and women.

In the first 50m years of photography, the primitive technology of the medium placed severe limitations on the artist. He or she would have to arrange the shaky tripod, compose and focus the photo upside down in the lens, and prepare a pan of magnesium flash powder. But then, before the photo was shot, he had to insert the sensitive plate into the camera behind the lens. From that moment on , he was shooting blind, unable to shift the composition or adjust the focus though the subject might move. But soon a new camera came into use; the Graflex gave the photographer the ability to sight through the lens until the instant he took the picture. This was ideal for a "street artist" like Hine, and he became one of the first masters of this camera. Now he could shift his focus to highlight any aspect of the subject; his control allowed him to fill his frame to the very border with the tumult of city life.

Though Lewis Hine is best remembered for his celebration of the working men and women, I am more intrigued by the children of these families that he also portrayed. The photographer makes you see that within their faces, their unformed future, lies the great question of American industrial society. His works were a pictorial demand that there be a just and compassionate answer.

As you look at Mr. Hine's prints, you are only secondarily aware of the "art" of his vision. What arrests your attention is the sense of real lives in motion before us, foreign perhaps because they are exiled in time, yet close enough to be a brother or a friend. Before you can analyze why the impact of the images is so strong, you find yourself wondering: Is that boy the street tough? The carpenter's helper? The altar boy on Sunday mornings? And this face: who did he grow up to be? It is possible that today, aged 69 years, he is the director of a museum of modern art . . . or a lobster fisherman from Portland, the first member of his family in seven generations to own his own home. Perhaps he died in 1917 in Alsace, France, an 18-year-old boy too far from New York to really know where he was. The mind catches itself reaching uncritically through the photographs to recreate the wholeness of these visions, sensing that somehow the questions there are still demanding answers, and the life there is really your own.

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