Of Riis and Hine

Social Documentary

The notes started with Fenton and Brady – both notorious for arranging the landscape to fit the narrative they wanted to deliver. There are issues, as I guess there are with all documentary photographers, with meddling with the scenery, but taking the narrative and it’s effect both at the time and it’s consequential evocation of the prevalent conditions is always worth considering. Fenton was commissioned by none other than Prince Albert – who knew of Fenton’s work as a landscapist, which beggars all sorts of questions…. Brady though, whilst he started off as a photographer became more of a business man and contracted other photographers to “do the work” – issues again… Brady’s work, for me, whether by him or by one of his associates, is a stronger body of work – deeper, wider and more revealing. Fenton, I think, managed the peripherality of the Crimean conflict – much inn the same way “war photographers” are these days – from a distance! Brady’s archive is in amongst it, the battlefield, the hospital, the carnage, the dereliction, the “war” of it all.

Moving to Riis and Hine: I have a copy of “How the other half lives” and it is clear that Riis cared for his subject. Whereas Fenton stood back, whether technologically limited or not, Riis overcame the complexities of the environment where his chosen subject was situated in order to bring light to their plight; to places that hardly saw artificial light let alone sunlight. Riis was therefore able to expose these conditions and he wrote about them eloquently and sometimes controversially. And whilst there are discussions as to whether his book had any immediate widespread effect, it’s second edition in the mid forties certainly did. The original version did have Roosevelt knocking on his door to start the process of change.

Italian mother and baby in New York City, c.1898 (b/w photo)

Riis, Jacob August (1849 – 1914)

Private Collection – Bridgman

Before moving on to Hine, it is interesting to note how the western consciousness is seriously pricked by the conditions of the workman, the downtrodden women – there is a whole chapter in the book on how women are marginalised and exploited with the sex trade as an ever present “temptation” to put food in the mouths of kith and kin – and more especially children. Riis goes on to describe how the conditions of depravity and poor health deny these people to “live” what we in the liberal modern West believe is an appropriate standard of living. And yet, these conditions exist today in conditions that match or worsen those of Riis’ time on the East Side. In Kolkata and Guangdong, in Dhaka and across many of the major conurbations of Asia and Africa there are scenes that wouldn’t surprise Riis though perhaps sadden him that after a century or more these conditions still remain.

Hine though, took to the streets. His purpose was as much intellectual as it was physical. Hine’s purpose was about highlighting the conditions of the working poor across the continent of the USA and bringing it to the attention of the populace. Child Labour, poor working conditions and seeking to help push social change that was lacking behind countries in Europe.

Untitled (two girls in a factory), c.1908-12 (gelatin silver print)

Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874 – 1940)

Private Collection – Bridgman

Spinner (Addie Laird), 1910 (gelatin silver print)

Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874 – 1940)

Private Collection – Bridgman

From a photographic perspective, the technique of Riis was to snatch photographs – it is described how Riis and two assistants would set up the tripod in almost complete darkness, expose the negative in a flash that momentarily transfixed the subjects whose only reflection afterwards was the scampering of feet as Riis and his associates evacuated the vicinity. Hine though was more measured, even after his reputation as an exposer of poor working conditions put him at risk of physical abuse from factory owners that recognised him, he would still bluff his way into factories and pose the children in a way as to complete his view of the wrong that these factory child labourers were undertaking. In this case whilst I think that Riis was as committed as Hine, it was Hine’s overarching sense for the need of the narrative to be spelt out very clearly that makes him, for me at any rate, the more complete documentary photographer. I particulary liked the story that Hine had his clothes calibrated and would ask the children to stand near him so he could accurately measure their height!

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3 thoughts on “Of Riis and Hine

  1. Very interesting read. What a fascinating life Riis had as well – complete with a (young) love story which survived separation Wasn’t he the one who took that photograph of the sleeping vagrant in a cave-like room?

  2. Thanks Catherine, I think Riis took many shots in cave-like rooms! I was reminded of a conversation we had about a year ago regarding the early photography in London, I still haven’t seen anything that is as visceral as Riis’ work coming from England. There was photographer working in Glasgow though whose name escapes me at the moment, but those pictures had a “realness” about them that perhaps compared to Riis.

  3. Pingback: Who is Speaking Thus? | John Umney - Documentary

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