Our strength is our people: the humanistic photographs of Lewis Hine is a moving exhibition of 65 rare vintage or antique prints examining Lewis Hine’s life’s work documenting the hardships and triumphs of immigration and work. He culminates in his magnificent oversized photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building in 1931. Our strength is our people coincides with the complementary exposure, Old World / New Soil: American Artists Born Abroad From Asheville Art Museum Collection. Both exhibitions are on display at the Asheville Art Museum, in Asheville, North Carolina, until August 2, 2021.
âThe importance of Lewis Hine is not singular; it is his ability as a photographer combined with his view of the human condition as a sociologist that reveals his compassion, âsays Whitney Richardson, associate curator. “Our strength is our people does a magnificent job of expressing how these two parts of Hine’s personality came together in her work to offer us, viewers over 100 years later, a glimpse into the past and what it meant to be a worker and an immigrant to that time.
This moving and memorable exhibition is a concise glimpse into the lifelong work of Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), the father of American documentary photography. Trained as a sociologist at the University of Chicago, NYU, and Columbia University, Hine went on to become a high school teacher at the Ethical Culture School in New York City, a bastion of progressive education. The most serious political issue then was immigration, as it is today. Conservatives saw immigration as a source of crime, disease, and loss of America’s essential Anglo-Saxon character, while progressives saw America as a melting pot, a beacon of light for foreigners fleeing poverty. and tyranny. Armed with an inconvenient large-format camera and a magnesium flash, Hine took his students to Ellis Island in 1905 and put a human face on the “gathered masses yearning to breathe freely.”
Hine’s empathetic interest in the immigrant experience didn’t stop at Ellis Island. In 1907 he joined the Pittsburgh Survey, a comprehensive socio-economic analysis of a typical industrial city in the heart of America. As seen through Hine’s lens, the steel that provided the backbone of American industry was forged by immigrants – Italians and Irish, Serbs and Slovaks, now proud Americans. Hine’s focus on the dignity of the American worker will last for a quarter of a century, culminating in his magnificent photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building in 1931 and in the classic book Men at work. His work is the humanist counterpoint to the fixation of the avant-garde art world on the machine as an emblem of the modern era. For Hine, however, the job was a double-edged sword. In the service of unchecked laissez-faire capitalism, this could be physically and emotionally debilitating, dehumanizing rather than empowering – never more than when underage children are deprived of their childhood and put to work in factories and fields. From 1908, Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), slipping his camera through cotton mills, canneries and glass factories to document the exploitation of children, always under false pretenses and often at peril. of his life. Hine’s heartbreaking images of child labor were the main tool the NCLC used to lobby state-by-state for child labor laws, until Congress ultimately banned the practice nationwide in 1938.
That year, Hine applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship. His proposed project was entitled “Our strength is our people”, from which the title of the exhibition is borrowed. His proposal read: “This project should shed light on the types of force we need to rely on as a nation.” Much emphasis is placed on the dangers inherent in our extraterrestrial groups, our unassimilated or even partially Americanized citizens – criticisms based on insufficient knowledge. A fix would make it easier to see, and therefore understand, what the facts are. Inexplicably, the Guggenheim Foundation refused it. Two years later, Hine – the epitome of ‘concerned photographer’ – passed away penniless and on welfare, his beloved wife Sara died of pneumonia and his house was foreclosed on. But today, 75 years after his death, Hine’s photographic work continues; an unblinking composite portrait of America the crucible, a country plagued by grave injustices, but still a glimmer of hope.
Our strength is our people coincides with the complementary exposure, Old World / New Soil: American Artists Born Abroad From Asheville Art Museum Collection. Inspired by the book Immigrant Gifts to American Life: Some Experiences of Appreciating the Contributions of Our Foreign-Born Citizens to American Culture written in 1932 by Allen H. Eaton, a contemporary of Lewis Hine, the exhibition Old world / new ground draws attention to the collection of works that the Museum has acquired from artists who have come to the United States either on their own initiative or out of necessity. Just as they adopted America as their new home, we in turn adopted them, along with their creative output and artwork.
Our strength is our people is organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions, LLC. All works come from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg.