Eastman House has probably done more Lewis Hine exhibitions than anyone else. And yet no one, including Eastman House, had ever done a comprehensive monographical exhibition and publication that looked at the man’s whole career. As a cultural historian, what interested me was the way Hine worked, and how his work related to the social history of his time. He’s clearly a product of the progressive movement at a time when progressive politics and philanthropy were being transitioned into something more like what we now know as sociology and social work. And so the idea of philanthropy and helping the underprivileged moved from a kind of lady bountiful, benevolent philanthropy to a much more systematic study of the problem.
And then, at the end of his life, he was suddenly discovered by people like Beaumont Newhall, and that shift in the meaning of those photographs and the way we understand those photographs is, to me, really core to the way we understand all photographs. They’re slippery things, and their meaning changes with their use.
All of that was something that we could get at with this exhibition. Lewis Hine’s work has been reduced in the popular mind to maybe five or six images that are really famous. But when you do that, you take them so completely out of context that they end up being kind of sentimentalized. And I think that would have been the last thing that Hine would have wanted. So an exhibition of this size, drawing on the remarkable archive that we have here — I mean, we have everything — let us return him to the context of his time and to try to bring a richer understanding to the pictures as a whole.
Living Quarters of Workers Family in Old Time N.Y. Tenament, 1910
Newsboy Asleep on Steps, ca. 1912
Expert Linotyper in a Southern Publishing House, 1920
Laying Beams, Empire State Building
The show came out of a conversation with Carlos Gollonet, Agnes Sire, and Frits Giertsberg. Carlos was from the Mapfre Foundation in Madrid. They had been producing really important photographic shows at a great rate. They don’t have a significant photographic collection themselves, so they have been partnering with major institutions all over the world. They worked with Carnavalet, they’ve worked with the Musée d’Orsay. They approached us, asking, “What kind of a major monographical show might you be able to do for us?” And the Lewis Hine archive at Eastman House is one of the reasons I came here. I’ve wanted to do a Lewis Hine show, a serious, comprehensive, big Lewis Hine show, since before coming to Rochester.
I’ve actually known each of the curators involved for probably 10–15 years. And of course, Eastman House has always been part of a network. “International” is not a throwaway word in our name — it’s really who we are.
With the support of the National Museum of Photography of The Netherlands, the Mapfre Foundation, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, and the Terra Foundation, which specifically supports American art going to Europe, we were able to do something we couldn’t have done alone. These partnerships are totally win-win. They’re really a personal pleasure as well.
Fundación Mapfre Lewis Hine exhibition page en español
Alison NordstrÃ¶m is the Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Previously the Director and Senior Curator of the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida.