Eloquent images of human experience. Enduring photographs

Lewis Hine in Europe: The Lost Photographs, by Daile Kaplan. Abbeville Press. $49.95 cloth. 12 Million Black Voices, by Richard Wright, photo direction by Edwin Rosskam. Thunder's Mouth Press. $27 cloth; $15.95 paper. ALFRED STIEGLITZ may be America's best-known photographer, but Lewis Hine made America's best-loved photographs of their period. Hine's 1904-05 images of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island have passed into the iconography of the American experience.

Hine set out to combat the prejudice against Eastern and Southern European immigrants. He often photographed single figures, thus elevating individual personality above the collective anonymity of racial epithets. On Ellis Island he found peasant madonnas and sloe-eyed children, whom he posed frontally and close up. Hine's immigrants stare at the viewer with a benign, innocent strength. They are not victims, but self-styled vernacular heroes in the vein of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

Hine's formula, which he later used to record the abuses of child labor, characterized depression-era photographs of migrants and is used for contemporary images of the homeless. In modified form, it is the language of ``60 Minutes.''

Lewis Hine came of age as charity work was becoming social work. Like so many of the new social workers, Hine believed that ignorance of ``the system,'' not mean-spiritedness, was responsible for human misery. He held that knowledge brings social betterment in its wake. No wonder his work is often confused with that of Jacob Riis, who attempted to arouse public sentiment against tenement building with ``How the Other Half Lives'' (1890).

That same faith informed the novelist Richard Wright as he prepared the text for a selection of Farm Security Administration photographs of black life made during the depression by photographers such as Russell Lee, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange. In 1940, Wright was a literary celebrity. In March of that year, his novel ``Native Son'' was selling 2,000 copies a day, outdistancing John Steinbeck's ``The Grapes of Wrath.''

To write ``12 Million Black Voices,'' which has just been republished in the Thunder's Mouth Press's Reprint Series, Wright traveled to Chicago and the South to research black urban and rural life. The result is a book of passion and eloquence aimed at a white audience. Its opening line condenses the book's rich, rolling cadence and its point of view:

Each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem.

As he charts black history from the barbarity of the slave ships, through the rigors of sharecropping and day laboring, to the black tenements of the Northern cities, Wright holds to a belief in a humane future brought about by the recognition of a common ground. ``The differences between black folk and white folk are not blood or color,'' he writes, ``and the ties that bind us are deeper than those that separate us.''

It has been fashionable for some time now to scoff at the uncomplicated humanism of these two books. Indeed, the civil rights movement and the struggle in South Africa have revealed an economic and institutional racism that will not succumb to a change of heart or an injection of knowledge. But who is to say, especially after the success of Jesse Jackson's campaign, that simple faith does not sustain institutional change?

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the fine arts department at Syracuse University.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Eloquent images of human experience. Enduring photographs
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today