Lewis Hine is linked both with the progressive reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the straight documentary style of photographic art that became prominent in the 1930’s. Trained as a teacher and in the rising field of sociology, Hine used his camera to challenge economic injustice and document the lives of exploited children, recent immigrants, the poor and other marginalized people. Working for a variety of progressive organizations, including the National Child Labor Committee, and the Red Cross, Hine made photographs to be reproduced as magazine illustrations, posters and lantern slides in support of a variety of movements aimed at changing both law and opinion.
At the end of World War I, Hine made his only trip to Europe to document refugee relief efforts in France and the Balkans. These pictures show not only his continuing compassion for the individuals caught up in world events but the fascination a new and different visual culture held for him. On return to the United States, his focus had changed, and his new images began to show a celebratory attitude towards work and workers. This is the period of “Powerhouse Mechanic”, the building of the Empire State Building and Men at Work, the only book of his photographs produced during his lifetime.
By the late 1930’s, the separate worlds of social reform and photography had both changed. The private philanthropy of the Progressive Era had been replaced by the government agencies of the New Deal which found Hine difficult and old-fashioned. At the same time artists and art historians like Berenice Abbott and Beaumont Newhall began to champion a new modern style of photographic art, recognizing Hine as the spiritual ancestor of Walker Evans and Charles Sheeler.