New York

Lewis W. Hine and George A. Tice

Witkin Gallery

There is a glaring difference between the photographs of Lewis W. Hine and George A. Tice, shown in separate galleries at Witkin. The difference is indicative of photography’s problems and possibilities. Hine’s photographs are documentary, playing on our acceptance of the photograph as a reliable and accurate depiction of reality. Clearly, the presentation of a kind of social reality was the aim and achievement of Lewis Hine. The photographs shown at Witkin were made when Hine worked for The National Child Labor Committee in New York City, from 1908–30. All of these photographs are of workers at work, posing, or at play, and, of course, a large concentration of the workers are children. Some of the children photographed are not workers, at least not yet, but are the children of the working class within the industrial state. Most of the photographs of working situations are of men working in mines or children working the enormous machinery in textile mills, or, in a few cases, children working the street, selling newspapers or just hustling. Another large group of photographs shows the working-class family picnic outings, the school room, the class portraits, the pool hall, tough and not so tough kids posing in the street or in doorways.

Hine’s photographs are outside art/photography traditions. They present raw content in much the same way as the photographs of Diane Arbus and August Sander. However, Hine’s subjects are not bizarre exceptions to the normal, and his presentation of his subjects is more straightforwardly documentary than Arbus’ harshly lit subjects. Sander’s photographs are more portraits of typical workers or professionals in various occupations, carefully posed, erect, in their working habitat. By contrast, Hine’s photographs are of people at work, or if they are posing next to their work, it is only for a moment; when the picture is taken, there is the sense that the subject returns immediately to his or her job. None of this is to say what in Hine’s photographs make them “better” than those of Arbus or Sander, but only what distinguishes Hine’s photographs from theirs.

However socially persuasive Hine’s photographs once were, or however persuasive he intended them to be, the photographs now are history, documents of one aspect of a time. For me, this is the compelling interest in Hine’s work, and in similar photographic works documenting bygone eras. Statements about the past have always been philosophically problematic, and the experience of Hine’s photographs relate to this kind of problem. The subjects depicted are assumed to have existed before the camera in a way comparable to their depiction: but, obviously, those subjects do not exist in the same way now. The photographs become a kind of evidence (however inconclusive) for those subjects, those persons, having existed in certain circumstances which no longer obtain. The persons photographed are either no longer living or are greatly changed in their appearance. If the pictures do not inform us of experience before our own, they give us some sense of what such experience looked like, a picture of how the world looked before we knew it. There doesn’t seem to be any point in worrying whether or not Hine’s photographs are art, and there’s no indication that Hine was overly concerned about it either.

Whether or not a photograph, or photography, is art, is indeed a crucial question for George Tice and his predecessors within the esthetic of conventional photography. Tice seems to have every intention of his photographs gaining a kind of art status, and as status seeking is always the product of insecurity, Tice’s photographs are typical of the general photographic inferiority complex in relation to art. This photography as art question, and the photographic methodology of those who pursue it, becomes tiresome. The consequent photographs generally seem to me a proposition: “Seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.” It isn’t that Tice’s photographs are not, somehow, well done, pleasant, full of high feeling, etc.; it’s that they so unselfconsciously partake in most of the clichés that have riddled photography for the last 40 years. They are photographs that some photographers insist on taking over and over again, the Maine lighthouse, water on the rocks, the country road, and the spare, rugged simplicity of the Maine farmhouse. They are generally the sort of photographs every student seems to have in mind when he or she lays hands on a 4” x 5” camera for the first time. Tice’s photographs are of the kind that are the source of photography’s insecurity, as well as being the product of it. Certainly they are art—if that’s any help.

Bruce Boice