A day before getting my cast cut off my foot (aahhhh…) my cabin fever got the best of me and I made for NYC, to navigate midtown perched on my scooter. The train into town went okay – I watched the gap more zealously than I ever had before – and Maud and I got some laughs out of trying to make my cockeyed vehicle go the way it should on Manhattan’s rough and pitted sidewalks, and there was even salad in a white-tablecloth restaurant overlooking Bryant Park. But the day’s high point came at the International Center of Photography, which was exhibiting Lewis Hine’s photographs from the early 20th century. I knew the show was closing in two days and I just had to see it.
I started paying attention to Hine’s work when I became aware of his Shorpy photographs – a piercingly eloquent series of four images that portrays a child worker in an Alabama coal mine circa 1910. Hine wrote this note: “Shorpy Higginbotham, a ‘greaser’ on the tipple at Bessie Mine, Alabama, of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars.”
Shorpy, of course, is the little scrapper in front. He lived a hard life and died young, apparently, brained by a rock, but his proud demeanor is ageless.
A pioneering documentarian whose work portrays factory workers, families in tenements, men building skyscrapers — Americans of all walks of life, as well as some Europeans — Lewis Hine had both tremendous skill and heart. His depictions of child laborers are incredible. This little girl worked in a textile mill.
The exhibit unveiled a different, difficult world so powerfully it gave me a lump in my throat.
I did not see a picture of Shorpy included among the prints, but these were Shorpy’s people.
Seeing Hine’s subjects rendered a foot cast and a wobbly scooter the first world problems they truly are. I made my way to Grand Central Station, past the New York Public Library muscling its way up toward the grey sky above, proud to be a human alongside Lewis Hine.