19 October 2009


Michael Leddy coined the wonderful expression 'dowdy world' to describe glimpses of bygone times that occasionally pop up in old movies, television shows, or anywhere at all. His definition: “modern American culture as it was before certain forms of technology redefined everyday life”.

Well, ‘Shorpy’ is the dowdy world on rollerskates.

It is one of the handful of websites I can't live a week without visiting at least once, and I love it with an ardent passion.

My favourites are the bizarre pics from from the archive called the National Library...

...and the breathtakingly detailed images of turn of the century city architecture, like this one of the Philadelphia Post Office in 1900.

The site describes itself: "Shorpy.com: History in HD is a vintage photography blog featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1950s. The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago."

It appears to be a shared site where a very select number of contributors upload images in very high definition. They appear to have been scanned from the original negatives. This is astounding because the site has a large collection of truly classic images, including many pictures by the greats Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine.

Most of these pictures are not the recogniseable classics from photographic history, but the now vast collection is a more comprehensive picture of each photographers’ working practice than would be possible in even the biggest survey exhibition. In the case of Lewis Hine in particular, I've had to reassess my view of his significance to the medium.

When I was taught photography, the conventional view of Lewis Hine I intuited was that he was a great documentarian but whose credentials as an artist were somewhat in question. A view was that the haunting quality his pictures so often had was more to do with the heartbreaking subject matter of child labour and exploitation that he did so much to reveal than any completely conscious and expressed aesthetic intention.

Certainly the subject matter is compelling (and there is art in that), but there’s clearly more here than just the handprint of a great documentary photographer. Very frequently, too frequently to be an accident, he invests an apparently utilitarian image with the grace and insight of a true portrait.

The achievement becomes all the more awe-inspiring when we consider the circumstances under which many of the images were taken. His period of greatest activity in the social documentary field was the first decade of the century, when he worked for social activist magazines and for social documentary projects like the Pittsburgh Survey. He also worked for the National Child Labour Committee for eight years and published two books of his pictures, 'Child Labour in the Carolinas' (1909) and 'Day Laborers Before Their Time' (1909).

Taking these images often involved working under great pressure. To gain access Hine sometimes hid his camera and posed as a fire inspector.

In 1916 Congress eventually agreed to pass legislation to protect children. Owen Lovejoy, Chairman of the National Child Labour Committee, wrote that: "the work Hine did for this reform was more responsible than all other efforts in bringing the need to public attention."

Hine had great difficulty earning money from his photography. In January 1940, he lost his home after failing to keep up repayments. Lewis Wickes Hine died in extreme poverty eleven months later on 3rd November, 1940.

Here’s to Shorpy Higginbotham and to Lewis Hine, who sought to record his existence, reflect his experience, change the conditions under which he worked and to create art.


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Sean.

I've been wondering -- was there a contemporary tradition elsewhere in the English-speaking world of documenting poverty in photographs as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis did? So far as I know, there was nothing comparable in the UK.

Crritic! said...

That's a fascinating question, Michael. My feeling is that there were people photographing social subjects earlier than Jacob Riis (Hine came after), but there was an important difference in emphasis.

There were images of poverty in Victorian photography before, but they tended to sentimentalise the experience of the poor in the manner of Victorian Realist painting. Riis and Hine can be a bit sentimental to our eyes, but are still rather dry and recognisably modern.

A Scottish photographer called John Thomson was instrumental in establishing the genre of social documentary photography, but the images are suffused with a Victorian sense of pity, as if to say "isn't it terrible, here's a few coppers for the poor box".

I think also of Eugene Atget in France.

Riis and Hine (and the photographers of the FSA in the Depression) say something about the social context of the US, a period of massive immigration and inequality - that is, social mobility. In Europe the social classes were thought of as more fixed and even permanent.

Which begs another question. If this was the era of social reformist movements in Europe and the rise of trade unions, where were the photographers? I'll have to think about that one.