Historical Lens: Preserving the photography of social documentarian Lewis Hine

Published: Nov 14, 2022

Two young girls working in a factory. Lewis Hine collection.
Lewis Hine, Two of the “Helpers” in the Tifton Cotton Mill, 1909. Gelatin silver print, 4.6 x 6.6 in. The Photography Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (P514)

The photographer Lewis Hine secured a place in history as a documentarian of early 20th century life, including a transformational investigation into the conditions for child laborers. 

From 1908 through 1930, Hine worked closely with the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), an organization devoted to preventing the exploitation of children in the workplace. Hine criss-crossed the U.S., creating portraits of a diverse array of children working in fields and factories. 

Hine’s body of work was revelatory and immensely impactful in the efforts to implement child labor laws in U.S., and continues to be a relevant resource for researchers working in the intersections of art, history, politics, and more. 

For nearly 50 years, UMBC Special Collections has been the caretaker of the Lewis Hine Collection, comprising some 5,400 photographs taken by Hine during his career. This year, the Special Collections team at UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library received a Preservation Assistance Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support conservation of this groundbreaking collection. 

“Our set is particularly important because it’s an almost complete collection of the photographs Hine made for the NCLC. It is very rare to have this incredible collection as a whole body,” says Beth Saunders, head of special collections. “It’s one of our most important and most used collections, and it was in immediate danger.”

Preserving the work of Lewis Hine

For many decades, the photographs in the collection were protected in envelopes, held in place with adhesive strips. With age, the adhesive has begun to deteriorate, putting the collection at risk. 

“If the glue migrates and the photographs are stuck, you have the risk of tearing, discoloration, all the terrible things,” Saunders says. “They’re not mounted, so the versos—the backs—are visible. All of the original inscriptions, notations by Hine or other folks at NCLC, extended captions, those are all intact.” 

Part of the current preservation effort will include photographing the detail written on the backs of the photographs, which have until now never been officially digitized. 

“It was an opportunity to record the versos of the photographs. We needed to build a new overhead camera setup, and we’re very grateful that Melissa Cormier [M.F.A. ’17] with UMBC’s office of Research Graphics helped us to get that going,” says Saunders, who notes that while the behind-the-scenes work of preservation is unglamorous, the work requires a dedicated multidisciplinary team across the university community. 

“My colleagues, Lindsey Loeper [’04] and Susan Graham [’98] have just written an essay about the teaching exercises that they’ve developed out of the Hine collections,” Saunders says. “Lindsey runs our instruction program, and Susan is the mastermind of this project. She’s been the one troubleshooting, setting the standards, and training everybody to do the work.”

Library staff share Lewis Hine photos
Special Collections staff Susan Graham ’98 and Lindsey Loeper ’04 share pieces of the Lewis Hine collection with students.

Learning from our past

Meredith Power, a graduate student in UMBC’s historical studies program who has been interning with the preservation project, notes the power Hine’s images still possess. 

“Some are heartbreaking, some are thought-provoking, while others made me stop short and smile as I pulled them from their storage folder to photograph them,” Power says. “From the bright, sad eyes of the young boys who spent their days underground opening and closing gates inside coal mines, to the cheerful joy on the face of a girl who sold eggs as she hugs her beloved hen, the collection still manages to evoke an emotional response. It’s that emotional connection, the shared sense of experiencing something.” 

Next year, the Special Collections department will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The Hine collection was among the inaugural collections for UMBC’s Special Collections, leading in turn to a specific focus on photography in the collection. 

In 1974, the Hine collection was acquired by the then new Special Collections program from the NCLC, facilitated by former Library Director Antonio Raimo and Jerry Stephany, a photographer in the visual arts department who had once worked at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester.  

“Jerry really saw the importance of a teaching collection of photography,” says Saunders. “The idea behind collecting this particular body of work was to show photography’s relationship to a variety of social issues and the way that photography can be used as a tool of visual communication across disciplines.”

Power, who is currently working towards an M.A. in UMBC’s historical studies program, researching solitary fourteenth-century religious Englishwomen, notes the interdisciplinary power of the Hine collection and the need to preserve it. 

“On the surface, photographs of early twentieth century American child laborers have very little in common with my own academic research,” Power says. “However, as we’ve all learned since COVID-19’s arrival, physical access to research or archival material is sometimes impossible. In those cases, digitized resources and online information about them are invaluable. This is just as true for materials related to medieval religious history as it is for those who are looking into U.S. child labor reform.”

Lewis Hine,  Anaemic Little Spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill, Vermont, 1910. Gelatin silver print, 5 x 7 in. The Photography Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (P1050)

A shared history

Today, UMBC Special Collections holds an estimated three million photographs stretching back to 1840, including the Baltimore Sun archive. 

“There is a strong emphasis on documentary photography, which kind of came out of the Hine collection,” says Saunders. “We’re also particularly strong in Maryland history, including the Maryland Traditions archive, the state folklore archive.” 

Additionally, Special Collections holds the collection of radical literature from the Alternative Press Center, an extensive collection of historic science fiction, the UMBC archive, and the new Eileen J. Garret Parapsychology Foundation Collection.

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