Using Lewis Hine Child Labor Photographs, Part Two: Miners
Submitted by John McClymer on Tue, 2011-01-25
Whether it be a painting or photograph, the picture is a symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality. In fact, it is often more effective than the reality would have been, because, in the picture, the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated. The average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph. — Lewis Hine
Hine’s caution against “unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph” echoes the aphorism usually attributed to Mark Twain that “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Since historians often use Hine’s images both in our teaching and our research, we need to take his views very seriously indeed.
Kate Sampsell-Willmann, author of “Lewis Hine, Ellis Island, and Pragmatism: Photographs as Lived Experience,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” Vol. 7, No 2 (April 2008) and Lewis Hine As Social Critic (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), here leads a forum on how to interpret Hine’s photographs of child laborers taken between 1908 and 1912 for the National Child Labor Committee. This portion of the forum focuses on images of boys working in coal mines.
Because the Library of Congress has digitized the original glass plate negatives at very high resolution, we can see details in the photographs that neither Hine nor earlier students of his work could. What this means for us who use the images in our teaching and research is one of the key questions Dr. Sampsell-Willamnn challenges us to consider.
We invite you to weigh in with suggestions about using these photographs — and others — both in teaching and in research.
Because participants can jump into this forum without exploring Part One, we are reprinting Dr. Sampsell-Willmann’s “A Guide to Analyzing Lewis Hine’s Child Labor Photographs.” — John F. McClymer
Kate Sampsell-Willman, “A Guide to Analyzing Lewis Hine’s Child Labor Photographs”
Context matters in trying to make sense of any historical source or artifact, including photographs. I want to start our discussion with some key questions to ask about Hine’s images as well as some information about the state of photography in the Progressive Era.
Our underlying question is: How and why did Lewis Hine make this image to accomplish that goal?
The photography of Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) divides into five categories (although they do overlap one another temporally): Ellis Island, child labor, tenement labor and living conditions, work portraits/interpretive photography (Hine’s terms), and the Great Depression. This Forum will focus initially on those photographs he made for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) that are currently available online at the National Archives Arcweb. However, since many of Hine’s signature traits remained unchanged throughout his career, most of the points raised in this guide apply to others of his work as well.
- Our first question is who commissioned the photographs. Hine, unlike many photographers of his generation, did not pursue photography as a hobby; photography became his paid profession in 1907 or 1908. He did photograph to satisfy his own curiosity — especially at Ellis Island — but his child labor photographs were made for the NCLC; c. 1915 he became the director of information for the organization and was responsible for constructing exhibition panels to promote its reform agenda. If Hine’s photography had not been useful to the NCLC, he would not have kept his job. Informed by his Chicago-school background and prior deep concern for the welfare of children (his first profession was as a teacher at New York’s Ethical Cultural School), Hine’s work for the NCLC can give us some clues as to his political intent when composing his “Hineographs.” He investigated conditions and reported on what he saw, both in written notes and with his camera. Armed with a thesis — child labor harms children and my job is to expose it for the purpose of ending it — Hine traveled extensively on assignment to see what conditions were like in different types of work. He praised when he saw no exploitation, and he documented where it was rife.
- A second question deals with physical perspective. Where was the photographer standing? Often, Hine could not obtain permission to photograph inside factories, so many of his child labor images are of a group of variously aged individuals standing in front of a mill building. When he did get inside, we need to ask how and why? As Hine became better known and the NCLC more effective in publicizing the evils of child labor, he often employed subterfuge to gain access. For example, he would claim to be an insurance or postcard photographer and would ask to photograph a machine with its operator (a child) in the frame — supposedly to gauge the size of the machine — in order to capture children at work and to disprove the oft-repeated excuse that children were “just visiting” their parents.
- Among the other constraints on the photographer’s physical perspective are the lighting conditions. Harold Edgerton invented the strobe flash in 1931. Prior to that date, stop-action (non-blurred) photography had to be done in strong natural light, with a very long exposure (on a tripod), or lit with some source of artificial light.. Hine’s forays into the hallways of Ellis Island led him to become expert at a very tricky (and attention-getting) light source, magnesium flares. Candid photography was not possible inside dim factories or mines.
- Next, and perhaps requiring the most attention and knowledge of the period, is to ask exactly what is in the image, and what has been left out? Except in his exhibition panels, Hine usually printed his images full frame. He photographed his earliest work for the NCLC on glass plates. They were tricky and cumbersome to use. Hine had one shot to get it right. Even after he started using celluloid film, his negatives were large, single sheet, and carefully crafted. Again, Hine’s images were rarely candid; most of them were posed. Everything that is in a Hineograph is in there because Hine wanted it, and everything that is missing is absent because Hine left it out. One can, and should, draw conclusions about Hine’s intent from the inclusion or exclusion of an adult, a piece of machinery, or a living/working space in a particular image. Noting that he posed his subjects rather than captured candid images does not call into question his integrity. Honesty in photography was not only a personal ethic of Hine’s; an honest photograph would accomplish more good for the NCLC’s cause.
- One question many ask about Hine’s pictures of working children is: Why do the children often seem to be happy or, at least, stoical? Because of the similar way he treated Ellis Island immigrants before he went to work for the NCLC and refugees in Europe after, it is clear that Hine’s emphasis was almost always on the positive in any situation. And in any case, if the children were already beyond help, then there would little incentive for philanthropists and/or Congress to step in to aid them. Hine depicted resilient boys and girls in conditions that, if went unchecked, would eventually destroy their chances for productive and fulfilling lives.
- Hine photographed both children and adults in a full frontal position, as subjects in a conversation rather than as objects in a tableau. His large camera allowed him to photograph at child height, but he did so even when the child was so extremely small that he had to kneel to focus at eye level. He wanted the viewer to see the children as he did; as individual human beings with sweet, developing personalities in need of protection and not as propaganda objects. It is at this juncture that Hine’s ability to infusie his images with his own ideas about society becomes important for the student of history. He became famous because his pictures were forceful tools in a political fight. They were so useful because they revealed the humanity of the children.
- Perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding analysis of Hine images is the matter of captioning. Did Hine write a particular title, or did an editor? Since much of Hine’s work was done for one or another reform organization, he did not control the reproduction of his images. Yet, he did claim his images constituted what we today would call intellectual property, long before photographers routinely received credit in bylines. Most of Hine’s extant writings can be found in two archival areas: correspondence and notes on photographs, including original captions. In recent years, the collections that house Hine images have done a very good job of uploading Hine’s original notes on his images, often written in his hand on the back or in a corresponding list. Most of Hine’s published images, except those in Men at Work, his only published book, carry the caption of an editor (usually from The Survey, an influential reform magazine) or art historian and publicist Elizabeth McCausland, who assisted Hine in preparing his 1938 retrospective for the Brooklyn Museum (then the Riverside Museum). A little research can tell you which captions were from Hine’s own notes. Armed with the correct caption, the photograph can yield more information about the subject and about Hine’s original intent in making the image.
Kate Sampsell-Willman, Young Mine Workers: Antracite
South Pittston, Pennsylvania is in the Lackawanna Valley. It holds one of the richest anthracite coal seams in the world. Miners were subcontractors who hired and paid their crews. The miner who entered the lowest bid got the richest vein. Miners also had to supply their own explosives and equipment and do their own timbering. Since they were paid by the ton, they had to dig as much coal as possible in the shortest possible time. In what might seem a job requiring strength and endurance, mine operators preferred to hire young children as “breakers” because their fingers were small enough to do the necessary sorting of slate from coal as it passed beneath their feet on a conveyor belt. As the children grew, they took on different jobs in the mine, eventually replacing their fathers who died in appalling numbers of black lung and mine accidents. As can be seen in the photographs below, those working either below ground or in the breakers emerged blackened by coal dust. It had the same effect on their lungs, coating them with carbon that eventually made breathing at first difficult and at last impossible. The all too common accidents flowed both from the intrinsic dangers of working underground, such as poisonous methane gas, and from the time pressures that sometimes led miners to devote too little time to shoring up the mine’s ceiling.
Hine photographed the child mine workers to great effect. When looking for work later in life, he recalled that he had “much experience photographing in difficult lighting situations,” especially at Ellis Island, in factories, and in mines. Nonetheless, he made most of his photographs of child miners either in natural light or in operations close to the surface. Blasting away with a magnesium flare in near total darkness would not have yielded the kind of visual intimacy that had become Hine’s trademark. In the images below, we can examine two aspects of Hine’s child labor photographs, outrage and empathy. In Lewis Hine as Social Critic, I discuss Hine’s perception of child labor as an assault on the positive value of work as a human virtue. Hine’s empathy for his subjects can be easily read in his visual style, but Hine also made exhibition panels for the NCLC (including his montage statement that child labor put children “through the mill” and was “Making Human Junk”) and recorded his observations in notes, NCLC reports, and captions. When Hine’s normal politeness became overwhelmed and he showed his anger, he slipped into a sermonic mode, blasting away with the fire and brimstone of the jeremiad. Such is visible in a comparison between the two very different pictures of breaker boys and the captions Hine recorded for them.
Creator: Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940 photographer
Date Created/Published: 1911 January.
Medium: 1 photographic print.
Part of: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-01134 (color digital file from b&w original print) LC-USZ62-23754 (b&w film copy negative)
The file is also available as a 50 Mb Tiff image at the Library of Congress. Warning: the image loads very slowly and will open in a new window.
|Figure 3: Title: View of the Ewen Breaker of the Pa. Coal Co. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrated the utmost recesses of the boy’s lungs. A kind of slave-driver sometimes stands over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience. S. Pittston, Pa., 01/10/1911ARC Identifier 523378 / Local Identifier 102-LH-1938Item from Record Group 102: Records of the Children’s Bureau, 1908 – 2003The file is also available as a 50 Mb Tiff image at the Library of Congress. Warning: the image loads very slowly and will open in a new window.
Curiously, when Hine photographed children actually at work (as opposed to his later “work portraits” of laboring adults), the resulting image does not have the same emotional impact as when he photographed children on a break or going home. I put this down to the lack of intimate contact between photographer and child; in the latter case, the working children became objects in a greater argument, not subjects in their brief but timeless relationship with the photographer. Nonetheless, viewing the two images of child workers at the Ewen Breaker in juxtaposition helps establish a narrative context that is unavailable from traditional archival records.
In typical Hine tradition, because he expected his pictures to be read as a narrative body of work, Hine gives different information in each image he made at the “Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co. [in] South Pittston, Pennsylvania.” If this is correct, the Ewen Breaker must have had more than one breaker assembly (really dissembly) line. The boys in fig. 3 have seat backs that are absent on the breaker line for the boys in fig. 2.
For both pictures, the adults knew that Hine was there. He used artificial lighting in both (you can tell by the hard-edged shadows in fig. 3 and the illuminated board in the upper right corner of fig. 2). In fig. 2, the children are crowded in front of or on the sorter belt. Men stand behind and off to the side. None is engaged in work. Hine tells us in the caption that he made the image at the noon break, so the children were only halfway through their workday. The air had cleared, but we know from fig. 3 that, while they worked, the coal dust was almost too thick to photograph through. The fact of that is plainly visible on their faces, especially around mouths, ears, and noses. Same job, same ages, same mine, same lighting, but these are very different pictures.
Some have speculated that Hine rarely photographed children at work because he couldn’t gain access to factories without subterfuge. I posit that Hine did not often photograph kids at work because work was sacred to him, and so was childhood. He photographed many people at work in his lifetime, but almost all of them were adults. His ability to empathize made him a better photographer, and better photographs got better results for the NCLC. Hine was his own harshest critic.
So, back to the analysis: What did Hine include and exclude in his images? He included faces. Although it is implied in fig. 2 and shown clearly in fig. 3, he often excluded the event of toil. Hine also excluded his anger at the cruelty of the driver in fig. 3. When the “slave-driving” older boy was not half asleep on his feet (as he is in fig. 3) or poking other, smaller children (as he did in the caption), he became just another member of the same exploitative environment (See fig. 2, extract E). The driver himself is a victim, forced by poverty on one hand and greed on the other, into becoming a boss, a bully, amongst his peers. Extracting the two children from fig. 2 without the context of fig. 3, the viewer would never know why those boys held sticks when the others did not.
Figure 2 is a veritable horn of Amalthea for the historian. This image has been published hundreds of times, but I do not ever remember reading an analysis of what is actually going in the picture or in the mind of the person who made it. So, what is going on here? Many of Hine’s images can be read even when they are reproduced poorly or if they are small. This is not one of them. Taken as a whole, it can be used illustratively to show the impact of coal dust on a child’s face. The feeling adults who see the picture, perhaps out of an innate parental aversion to dirt on children even before the mind clicks in and reminds that the inside of their lungs were far dirtier than their faces, want to get these kids cleaned up and out of that filth. Again, for the purposes of the NCLC, the photograph has the full frontal eye contact and the child in peril trope. Add to it the Hine emblem of undestroyed childhood innocence shining through the coal dust, and this is an icon of progressive protest and reform.
Hine repositories have done our profession an enormous service by uploading high-quality versions of these images to their websites. Previously, to perform close inspection of a Hineograph, or indeed any work of art, one needed a magnifying glass and physical proximity to a collection. Now we can download and zoom in. Having taken fig. 2 for granted for years, this forum has given me fresh reason to download it and zoom in. This photograph yields visual evidence that needs to be explored and explained. For a full size version, Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, with extracts blocked off, click here .
Examine the face of boy B4. He and the older boys in the top row are far more stoical. Perhaps a noon break should be a break, not a reason to pose for a well-dressed and warm photographer. Lunch was an opportunity to get out of the breaker, get a little warm, and get something to eat. These “older” boys (in their ‘tweens?) have already learned the practicalities of the situation and are neither open to flattery nor inclined to spend energy in jest as the younger ones are. It is for these boys that the heart goes out. On their way to being men, already carrying a major share of the economic burden for their families (perhaps still dreaming of a way out), there is not much opportunity for redemption apparent. Nonetheless, as we will see later in fig. 4, all is not lost, possibly because of that stoicism that so disappoints on first glance.Look at Extracts B and C. The boys identified as B1 and B3 were still very much children, goofing in front of the camera. Young B2 has struck a sober pose suited for an elegant gentleman visiting a Daguerreotype studio, complete with that lack of expression that the medium demanded. He has probably just nudged much younger B1 beside him who has responded with a true childlike giggle. Again, the amazing resilience of children is demonstrated here. It is absent in fig. 3. It takes close looking at a large image to catch the antics of the boys in Extract B. The little fellow in Extract C, however, is one of the prominent faces in the photograph. The sorting room is open to the elements; all the children are wrapped up warmly. All day they sit, bent over, on hard wooden slats pulling pieces of rock out of the coal that is conveyed through their legs. Figure 3 shows the process. In below freezing temperatures, little fingers sort through rough rock and hard anthracite coal. Bleeding, freezing, bent little backs, but this little fellow still manages a truly benevolent smile, sticking out ears and all. The only warmth in the room comes from the faces of the children. All of the smallest children appear as children should when faced with a stranger-photographer, save, of course, the coal dust and cold. They are shy (B3), sweet, cute, happy, or mischievous. As they get older, they lose this innate resilience, however. (See The Boys in the Breakers from Anthracite Coal Communities , by Peter Roberts, 1904, pp.174-181 available at ehistory at Ohio State.)
Every face in this tableau holds a story, but one is evidence of the very real dangers of the job, and another raises an interesting and perplexing question.
I would open this discussion to experts from our readership to engage in an online discourse concerning these faces, the child in Extract D and the men in Extract A.
Hine often emphasized childhood work injuries during his NCLC days, but he did not pay any special attention to the child in Extract D. The boy’s right eye is deformed. The non-specialist historian cannot tell immediately if the damages came from an accident, disease, or birth defect (perhaps a doctor might). Unfortunately, seeing non-career-ending injuries in mine camps and towns was not all that unusual, and, if this were a picture of an adult, perhaps the viewer would be satisfied that a man could work past his physical disability. But, to see a small boy, blind in one eye, working in near dark conditions, without the benefit of good depth perception, speaks to the desparation of coal mining families. Perhaps a scholar of disability studies could help us work out exactly what we are seeing.
In all Hine photographs, beginning with Ellis Island and ending in the 1940s, ethnicity is of prime importance. Hine’s political perspective on ethnic diversity was a minority view of his day; he accepted that America was an immigrant nation, and that the new immigrants who flooded New York early in the twentieth century were not proper objects of scorn, anger, fear, or pity. As with the children, Hine treated each adult he photographed with dignity and respect, thus undermining the prevailing views of nativists, Social Darwinists, and even his meliorative-minded colleagues at The Survey. Hine photographs immigrants in such a way as to deny the allegation that new arrivals were somehow threatening to America; he absolutely did not buy into the survival of the fittest trope of William Graham Sumner; and portrayed these new arrivals as calm, sturdy, proud migrants in a way that challenges Emma Lazarus’ characterization of them as “poor, huddled masses” and “wretched refuse.” The treatment of new Americans is one of the core differences between Hine and other working “social” photographers, and it is why he should be considered the first true social documentarian. He sympathized with those he photographed. To do that, he had to have gotten to know them on some level—even the most superficial—before he tripped the shutter.
Of course, the two men in Extract A are not the true subject of this photograph made for the NCLC. Most probably, when the camera came out at the lunch hour, someone shouted for everyone in near proximity to come and stand for a group picture. Hine put the kids in front on purpose. Yet these men are there, so their presence in the picture should be evaluated. Hine could have easily eliminated nearly all the adults in the picture by simply taking a step forward. Also, this image is from a print. A different print at the George Eastman House reveals even more details. So, when Hine printed this image, he kept the men in. Yet, they are very much on the periphery of this image as idea. But, again, they are there, and Hine wanted them there. They may appear to be lost in the shadows to you, but Hine saw them, and he included them in the image, probably with his recent Ellis Island forays still in his visual mind.
The man designated as A2 is probably foreign-born. My guess would be Poland or Italy. There are several other men on the left side of the image that would invite such a conclusion, and I would at this time again ask the experts in immigration history to enter into a discussion on the matter. Mine owners, like other employers, often deliberately hired workers of different ethnicities. The goal was to twart the efforts of the United Mine Workers to organize the mines. The UMW had organized the bituminous (soft coal) fields and had led major strikes, starting in 1900, to organize the anthracite workers. The 1900 strike ended with a ten percent increase in wages but without union recognition. The strike two years later, settled by arbitration at the insistence of President Roosevelt, also led to a wage increase. But, again, the mine owners did not recognize the union.
It is possible the figure holding a pickaxe in a heavily gloved right hand I have designated as A1 is an African American. Now, this possibility did not surprise me as much as it should have because my research experience of miners in this period is of bituminous (soft) coal camps in Appalachia, especially in West Virginia. African Americans, Mexicans, Europeans, and native-born whites coexisted remarkably well in the hills and the hollows (with much thanks to the UMW), but finding a photograph made in the hard coal mines of central Pennsylvania of what may be an African American miner would be quite extraordinary, perhaps comparable to finding a grimy and obviously female face in the same group. Speculation ensues: these faces are darkened with coal dust; is he of African or Native American descent (or southeastern Europe)? If he is African American, is he the only one?
What do you think? Is he of African descent? Does it matter? What does that mean? Can we identify him through census records? Will doing so change or invigorate your research? See how much fun and important reading a photograph can be?
The final question to ask of these images regards the stark difference in tone between the two captions. The caption for fig. 2, made in January, 1911 and found as a scanned print in the Library of Congress, reads: “Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.” The caption for fig. 3, made on January 10, 1911 and available from the National Archives, reads: “View of the Ewen Breaker of the Pa. Coal Co. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrated the utmost recesses of the boy’s lungs. A kind of slave-driver sometimes stands over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience. S. Pittston, Pa.” The latter is a rather rare statement to be found as a Hineograph caption. Occasionally one comes across such an outburst, and almost always in the child labor images. Hine became quite angry by what he saw and photographed. Here is what the NCLC’s Child Labor Bulletin wrote of Figure 3:
These boys picked out the pieces of slate and stone that cannot burn. It’s like sitting in a coal bin all day long, except that the coal its always moving, and clattering and cuts their fingers. Sometimes the boys wear lamps in their caps to help them see through the thick dust. They bend over the chutes until their backs ache, and they get tired and sick because they have to breathe coal dust instead of good, pure air.
“Mr. Coal’s Story” (available at ehistory at Ohio State), as the piece was titled, mentioned the dust and the dark and added the detail about the cut fingers and the aching backs. It did not mention the “kind of slave-driver . . . prodding or kicking” the boys, perhaps because the slave-driver is himself still a child.
Hine rarely expressed this kind of anger with the conditions in which he found children laboring. Most often, he saw himself as a recorder of facts that could be used to craft a solid, effective legal and moral argument. Occasionally, his suppressed outrage slipped out (his most calculated and well-known expression of jeremiad articulation is in his exhibition panel, Making Human Junk). When it did, his condemnation can lead the historian to a deeper understanding of Hine as a person, an artist, and a social documentarian. He often felt anger (as his later writings indicate), but he (mostly) kept it in check in order to achieve the greater good through a professional and non-sentimental (yet bulging with pathos) recording of woes and triumphs — the heart of social documentary.
Kate Sampsell-Willmann, Young Mine Workers: Bituminous
Examining a second set of photographs of coal mining children, we are reminded of the depth and breadth of Hine’s explorations of child labor. The bituminous fields were rife with the kind of abuses that so define the collective memory of mining: company towns and the scourge of debt servitude, poor ventilation and “black lung,” ten- to twelve-hour days, numerous cave-ins, lockouts, scabbing, and, of course, child labor.
The UMW had to a great extent successfully unionized the soft coal miners of Appalachia. It had not, however, put an end to child labor in the mines. It remained one of the union’s central goals. Although the not successful in this, the UMW was remarkably (and perhaps singularly) successful in uniting its membership in soft coal country across lines of race, ethnicity, and national origin. No other early 20th century union, save perhaps the IWW, was able to defeat these divisions so routinely exploited by management. Perhaps drawing on a not-too-distant lack of fealty to the cause of slave power, West Virginia bituminous coal mining was an integrated affair. According the UMW: “By 1900 approximately 20,000 black miners had joined the union, representing about 20% of UMWA membership.” [ United Mine Workers of America http://www.umwa.org/index.php?q=content/diversity-umwa] As a result, Hine’s images depicted young African Americans alongside Euro-Americans and European immigrants.
This choice also tells us something of Hine’s commitment, even very early on in his NCLC career, to the notion that his photographs were his own. He occasionally composed written reports based on his travels. Most often, however, he took “a witness” with him, first to testify to the conditions he recorded and second to take notes and write a report while Hine did the photographing. His first companion was his wife, Sara. Later, NCLC writers rode with Hine. Edward Clopper accompanied Hine to the soft coal mines in West Virginia. Clopper, like many in the NCLC, expressed virulently racist ideas in his writing. Hine’s pictures of integrated mines testify to his intellectual independence from the NCLC leadership (especially Alexander McElway, NCLC Secretary for the Southern States, who shared many of Clopper’s sentiments).
Most of Hine’s photographs of child labor can be described as a reverse normalization (an abnormalization?) of the conditions he witnessed. He photographed scenes people were accustomed to seeing and taking for granted, and presented them as an argument against the assumed normality of child labor. Hine faced perhaps his most daunting battle to gain sympathy when he photographed the street trades — people saw children, such as newsboys and shoeshine boys, working on the street all the time. In that arena, he fought to combat the familiarity — the normalizing — of child labor. But, with soft coal miners, who were mostly invisible to the general public because they spent their lives underground and secreted away in company towns, Hine’s tendency to depict redemption or, at the least, stoicism in the faces of children threatened to backfire. Against what he sought to convey — exploitation, disease, early death — his unsentimental images might instead accustomize Progressive Era Americans to the fact that there were children working in mines. The matter-of-factness of Hine’s portraits took the chance of suggesting normality rather than inducing horror. One can find the Hine redemptive childhood motif in some faces, but it is more difficult to do so in the soft coal mine images than in his textile mill photographs, which we will discuss in Part Three of this forum.
One of Hine’s most reproduced and thus well-known NCLC photograph is Hine’s young mule driver (Figure 4). The caption (found in three different incarnations in three different repositories) provides only skeletal information. When read with the other pictures Hine made of the young mine workers in West Virginia in 1908 the image can tell a deeper story.
As Hine had done during various times in his career, he photographed a group of people and then chose one for a single portrait. That is the case with this boy, a young person who projects a weariness and maturity that children should not have bear. He can be read on his own but reading him in conjunction with the photograph of his coworkers (Figure 5) yields interesting insights.
Unlike the rest of his NCLC images, in his mine photographs Hine emphasized conditions as much as the child. He photographed children miles underground to emphasize the claustrophobic and dangerous conditions in which they worked. In a way, Hine could not help photographing working environments, even outside the mine. After finishing a 10 1/2 hour day, working conditions were written on the boys’ faces in coal dust. The young driver’s lungs must all too soon become as black as his face.
Almost certainly made later in the day than fig. 5 (note the heavier layer of dust on his face and neck), extracted from the company of his mates and at least some distance from the opening of the mine, this young mule driver speaks silent volumes about a society that burdened its children with scratching coal from the earth. From his working clothes, mule whip, and carelessly askew gas lantern, we might consider him simply a tired miner on his way home. What stands out and makes this image so compelling is the fact that he has neither yet lost the boyish roundness to his face, nor the gentle and non-cynical eyes of the still-not adult. His eyes sparkle in the way that only those of the truly filthy can, from behind the mask of coal dust and, poignant with the beauty of youth — however threatened and nearly obscured — and are emphasized by the minutest tilt of the head (in this case, past Hine, perhaps at Clopper or at his mates on their way home). What is missing, and by absence inhibits any attempt to read tenderness into his gaze, is any trace of a smile. In fact, although Hine has moved the boy away from the group, his expression has not changed. At all. Belied by the spirit in his eyes, Hine documented with a still medium the fact of an objectively observed and sequential expression that did not change. The natural fungibility of human demeanor would, ordinarily, demand that the expression on anyone’s, and especially a child’s, face could never be exactly the same from one moment to the next. Never, that is, unless something is terribly wrong. He is essentially expressionless. The boy yielded to the request of an unfamiliar adult without visual reaction. He moved to where he was asked, but nothing else changed. Perhaps it is due to fatigue or stoicism, but I think that this child was one day, one week, or one month from being as broken as the mules. In the photograph he is raw, and he is empty. His visage is eerily static and therefore somewhat frightening. The putative message: this is real; but if it is normal, society is in trouble. It is so easy to get lost in those eyes by imagining them full of dreams. The stark reality, that the dreams have been left behind while the spirit is still capable of summoning them, suggests that Hine wanted those who saw this photograph to squirm. All is not right with the world.
Turning to fig. 5, it is perhaps understandable why Hine chose this child to make this singular mine portrait (he made three other images the same day at Brown, W. Va., two deep in the mine). Of the six miners visible, our driver is the second smallest. He appears much younger and more vulnerable in fig. 5 than he does in fig. 4. There is no mistaking the fact that he is a child here, whereas in the single portrait he might appear on the edge of adulthood. Although fig. 4 is a stand-alone masterpiece of social documentary, read with fig. 5 it becomes even more poignant. This is where the context becomes more important to our scholarship than the illustrative and aesthetic value of any given image.
Hine did not choose to do a portrait of the smallest child (#3), who seems to be suffering from some sort of physical ailment or disability that affected his bearing. Hine often photographed the injured and those made lame by poor conditions, but he chose not to that day. Perhaps the boy appeared to Hine as an apprentice, since the adult (4) standing behind him rests his hand on the mule’s back, perhaps to steady the large beast. The man may even be the child’s father. From other sources, we know that Hine believed that men should work if able so as to spare their children. A father and a son together would not be the clear-cut condemnation that the NCLC needed, especially at the beginning of its successes, no matter how little Hine approved. The adolescent to our driver’s right (our left, number 2) is not as brilliant-eyed or slack jawed. He might be old enough to not be classified as a child laborer.
We should not forget the question of lighting. Figure 5 is lit by a flare, however subtly. The strong light, cascading left to right over Hine’s shoulder, illuminates most directly the boy in fig. 4 and the younger child standing next to him. From the man barely visible (7), we know Hine asked his subjects to look at him, but the children were the intended subjects of the image. Hine cast his light where he was looking. Perhaps it is at that time that Hine chose to do a portrait of the boy in fig. 4. The subtlety of a flash plane would not draw the requisite attention to the little boy with the troubling eyes.
The young man on the far left also wears a blank expression, but because we only have a single picture of him illuminated by a stop-action flare, there is no way of knowing whether his was a result of something more than pure fatigue. Nonetheless, the expression is devoid of childhood. He had probably started in the mine when he was as young as the smallest child there. Nearing adulthood, he had lost the last magical spark of childhood that is so clearly near to extinction in the expression of the boy in fig. 4. Hine did occasionally make images of those who were too late to save, but by extracting the boy in fig. 4, he clarified his intent to focus his gaze where it would be helpful to a cause that wished to save youth. He moved to photographing adults at work later in his life as an extension of a desire to preserve work as a human value, but in 1908 it was all about the kids. The older “boys” in this image are literally marginal, and the men receding and unimportant. This treatment of adults becomes even more visible in some of his later pictures of oyster pickers. Hine simply was not as concerned with adult men in his NCLC days, especially in the roles of foremen and owners as they directly oversaw and exploited the miseries of child labor.
Moving to our right, a man’s face is just visible over the right shoulder of the next boy in line. He is, however, not a subject of the photo. Interestingly, three who are, 3, 4,and 5 seem to have their hands on the same mule. Perhaps he is a difficult animal. The young man designated as # 5 manifests either fear or shyness toward the interlopers. Perhaps he is afraid of being photographed by a well-dressed white man in 1908. Many of the African American children in Hine’s soft coal pictures wear a similar wary expression.
The Brown Mine was an integrated workplace; two boys, one white, one black, apparently worked together to drive the same mule. Perhaps as in the disingenuous mythology of the Marines, where they claim there is no color but green, the UMW had created a space where the only color was soot and the only dividing value was whether or not one breathed it or capitalized on the work of those who did. In two of the three other pictures made on this day, Hine photographed African Americans deep in the mine. One depicts a child working alone, the other a mixed group of men showing camaraderie in a space not tall enough for a child to stand.
Hine framed the image in fig. 5 between two workers separated from the others by their mules. The driver on the far left is physically taller than our iconic figure and so at least a year or two older. As with the face of the miner designated #2, and more like the receding face of the man designated #6, the miner on the far right has lost the soft face and innocent eyes of youth. He is a man working, rightly or wrongly, in these conditions. He was thus not a primary subject for Hine. His face is more stoic than sapped, more resigned than broken, and unlike the boy next to him, he is not afraid or shy of the presence of two white men in his union mine. Looking directly into Hine’s lens, showing fatigue but not obsequiousness, he and men like him have become heroes of the history of civil rights in America. Certainly, Hine depicted him as nothing less or more than what he was, a proud and tired miner at the end of the day, one accustomed to working beside children, no matter the reform goals of his union. I, for one, would like to have seen a Hineograph portrait of that young man.