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  • Tim Greyhavens

A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy: Part 4, Lewis Hine and the Human Document

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

The Breaker Boys, by Lewis Hine. Pittsburgh, 1908.

It’s not well known, but Lewis Hine, one of the icons of 20th-century documentary photography, was given an early boost by one of the first philanthropic foundations in America. The story of how philanthropy, photography and social welfare came together took more than 25 years to develop.

It began in the last quarter of the 19th century with an unprecedented growth in the wealth of a small group of so-called titans of industry in the U.S., including Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Russell Sage, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan. All of these men made vast fortunes off of the industrialization of the U.S. through investments in mining, railroads, steel, oil and/or shipping. Their wealth did not come without societal costs, however, and their cutthroat business tactics and economic exploitation of both adult and child laborers are well documented.

In the 1880’s Carnegie, began to have second thoughts about the massive wealth he had accumulated. He started to espouse and then practice his growing beliefs that the wealthy should use their fortune for the betterment of society. At the end of that decade, he wrote an essay entitled Wealth (which became commonly known as The Gospel of Wealth), in which he asserted that it was the duty of rich men (for the super-rich at the time were all men) to “re-circulate” their money back into society where it could be used for a greater good.

His new philosophy was based on both his personal beliefs and his recent experiences: in 1883 he funded the construction of a new public library in his birth country of Scotland. Within a decade he had helped build dozens of Carnegie libraries in the U.S. and Europe, and by 1929 Carnegie had funded the construction of 2,509 libraries in 12 different countries. His new-found generosity inspired many of his colleagues to follow suit. By the end of the 19th century the concept of philanthropists giving for social good was well established in the U.S.

The second development was the passage of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act in 1894. The act provided the first statutory exemption from income taxes for organizations that provided charitable, religious or educational purposes. Although the act was later declared unconstitutional for reasons unrelated to the charitable exemption, it became the cornerstone for tax legislation involving charitable organizations for the next 100 years.

Both of these factors laid the groundwork for the formation in 1907 of the first private family foundation in the U.S., the Russell Sage Foundation in New York. The foundation, which still is going strong today, was created by Margaret Olivia Sage, wife of the then-deceased industrial giant Russell Sage for “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.”

At that time the plight of industrial laborers in the U.S. was almost universally horrific. There were no safety laws in mines, steel mills or other dangerous workplaces, and as a result, serious injuries were commonplace. Workers who were injured simply lost their jobs, and, if they could afford it, either paid their own health care costs or went without medical help. Laborers as young as six were commonly made to work twelve-hour or longer days, and efforts to unionize workers were often met by armed security forces brought in by the companies. Margaret Sage decided that things needed to change.

One of its first grants the Sage Foundation made supported an unprecedented examination of labor conditions in the U.S. Known as the Pittsburgh Survey, the project combined scholarly research with detailed documentation of the working conditions in Pittsburgh steel mills and factories. Ironically, Pittsburgh was the home of Andrew Carnegie’s vast steel mill holdings, and while he was adding refined libraries to communities around the world workers in his companies and other faced horrendous conditions every day.

To help expose the plight of these workers, the Sage Foundation awarded a grant to the Charity Organization Society of New York to hire a team of sociologists and others to thoroughly study the working conditions and report on their findings. One of the first people the lead researcher Paul Kellogg hired was photographer Lewis Hine. Hine had only taken up photography four years earlier, but almost immediately he saw the importance of photography as a documentary tool for social change. Since 1904 he had been working at the Ethical Culture School in New York, where he was assigned to photograph immigrants as they arrived at Ellis Island. His work there caught the attention of both local and national social rights advocates.

Paul Kellogg knew of Hine’s work through mutual friends, but he also knew that Hine was more than just a photographer — he had a historian’s mindset for documenting exactly what he saw and an advocate’s understanding of what was important to show the public. He wrote meticulous notations about every picture he took, often including descriptions of exactly who, where and when he took the photo. When Hine journeyed to Pittsburgh in 1908 to be part of the Survey, he was already well experienced in documentary photography.

Although Hine only worked for the Survey for three months, his impact was significant. He took more than 100 photographs, some of which were published in five of the six volumes that were part of the Survey’s report. He also collaborated with Kellogg to created innovative visual aids for articles, posters, lantern slides, and the books. Together they produced emotional stories, illustrated with stark photographs of working people, that were purposely designed to create sympathy for the cause of changing the conditions they saw. Later on, he labeled his style of making hard-hitting photographs for a distinct social good “Hineography.”

Lewis Hine was a masterful photographer, and he was already on his way to becoming a powerful force for social change when the Sage Foundation grant came along. But the experience he gained by working on the Pittsburgh Survey influenced his style and his interests for years to come. Through that single grant he also gained the professional visibility that made him in high demand by social reform organizations and magazine for much of the next decade. Equally important, photography and philanthropy were solidly intertwined as never before.

The Pittsburgh Survey became the primary reference work for reform of working conditions in the U.S., and for many years social activists held it up when calling for the abolition of child labor and the need to improve health and safety conditions for workers.

Tim Greyhavens

This article is part of the series A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy:



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