Columbia Library columns (v.32(1982Nov-1983May))

(New York :  Friends of the Columbia Libraries.  )



Jump to page:

Table of Contents

  v.32,no.1(1982:Nov): Page 21  

Photographing the Poor


HETHER it be a painting or a photograph, tiie pic¬
ture is a symbol that brings one immediately into
close touch with reality." So observed photographer
Lewis W. Hine as his lantern slides flashed on the screen. His au¬
dience, made up of social workers attending the 1909 National
Conference of Charities and Correction, listened in rapt attention
as Hine discussed "Social Photography: How the Camera May
Help In the Social Uplift." Hine often worked for the New Y'ork
Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, a predeces¬
sor of the Community Service Society; the Society's superb pho¬
tography collection, recently placed in the Libraries, now enables
the audience of the 1980s to examine the role of photographs in
"social uplift."

The collection is especially valuable because it illustrates the
creation and application of documentary photography. The early
twentieth century photographs, known as "sociological" or "so¬
cial" photographs, reflected a changing attitude toward poverty.
These realistic photographs, in turn, helped alter the public per¬
ception of poverty.

The Association's officials had appreciated the impact of illus¬
tration before it was technically feasible to print photographs in
their publications. In the 1884 annual report, for example, the ten¬
ement house inspector asserted that "a faithful drawing will bring
a reader into close acquaintance with the regions described." But
what was "a faithful drawing"? This report, like others of the
1870S and 1880s, employed simple wood engravings. The black
line and open white spaces in wood engravings gave a light, airy
feeling to many of the illustrations. \\'omen in exotic peasant
dress, organ grinders and youngsters in bare feet added to the rural
\illage atmosphere of such drawings. The pictures followed the
artistic convention of the day, depicting the slum dwellers as in-
  v.32,no.1(1982:Nov): Page 21