Our strength, our people: Exploring the Lewis Hine exhibit at Old College

Grace McKenna/THE REVIEW
Old College’s new exhibit portrays the Depression and Prohibition.


The work of Lewis Hine, often considered to be the “father of documentary photography,” is now on display at the newest gallery in Old College. Also included are works from Leon Levinstein and Larry Fink. Pictured are some of the more intimate and unnoticed moments of Prohibition, the Depression and post-Depression eras.

Hine’s background, however, was in the arts. He attended the University of Chicago to study sociology and, along the way, discovered that he had a knack for taking pictures.

This gallery of photos, showcasing some of Hine’s most famous works, will be on display in Old College until May 11. The university department for the Library, Museums and Press held an opening reception Thursday evening, which included an informative tour and biographical information of each photographer.

Amanda Zehnder, the head curator for the gallery, started the tour off by talking about the unlikelihood of Hine becoming a photographer, and the hard work that went into him learning his way around a camera and getting people to pose.

“He was never trained professionally, so in a way, you could say he was a self-taught photographer,” Zehnder says. “And with these types of cameras, a graflex camera, there was no way to be surreptitious.”

Setting his work in places like the Ellis Island immigration center, factories where child labor was taking place, baseball games where Babe Ruth was still playing in the minor leagues, Hine created an extensive portfolio of his work, which led him to apply for a Guggenheim in 1938, two years before he died.

“This project should give us light on the kinds of strength we have to build upon as a nation,” a quote by Hine displayed on the wall says. “Much emphasis is being put upon the dangers inherent in our aliens groups, our unassimilated or even partly Americanized citizens — criticism based upon insufficient knowledge.”

In the West Gallery, the second exhibit, “Responding to What is Alive Before You,” which features documentary photography from Levinstein and Fink, both of whom followed in the footsteps of Hine, creating photographs that display the workforce and “humanitarianism.”

“The photography is a mixture of deliberate and spontaneous,” Zehnder says.

Zehnder described the lives of these men and what lead them to pick up documentary photography as an art with a visible passion and impressive knowledge. As she spoke about the “double edged sword” that Hine believed child labor was in the 1920s, or of the street lifestyle of New York City, the lives of the photographers were presented in an interesting way with a lot of visual elements.

“The people in these photos, they seem almost lifelike,” Zehnder says. “It feels like you can write a story around these people — they are so intriguing.”

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