Research point: Riis, Hine and others

The course notes follow the pattern established in numerous photography textbooks of bracketing together Jacob Riis (1849-1914) and Lewis Hine (1874-1940) as part of the nascent history of social documentary, despite their differences in approach and style.

Here I will compare the two with a view to highlighting the part each played in the development of the genre. As requested in the notes, I will also touch upon a few British practitioners of the same era.

Jacob Riis

Riis emigrated to the USA from Denmark in the 1870s and settled in New York. Initially struggling to find work and therefore seeing the poverty of the slums first-hand, after some time he became established as a police reporter and he made it his goal to campaign against the social inequality of the time.

Riis did not consider himself primarily a photographer; to him the camera was a means to an end. Wells (2009:78) relates how Riis’ frustration with the lack of impact of “mere words” led him to move to taking pictures. His determination led to him becoming a pioneer in the use of flash – the tenements were too dark for natural light photography so once magnesium flash was available he chose to use the technology to literally (and metaphorically) shine a light on the appalling conditions suffered by the New York poor.

His most famous work How the Other Half Lives (1890) is one of the first examples of published social documentary, and in the words of Clarke (1997:147) “associates documentary photography with a moral and radical vocabulary”, setting an early benchmark for what documentary photography can achieve.

New York Tenement – Jacob Riis, c.1890

His style was objective in the extreme, documentary in the literal sense as well as under the accepted definition of social documentary. He took pictures without permission – the subjects often heard men approaching, saw a flash of light and heard them scurrying away – and in almost all cases the subjects do not face the camera. Wells (2009:78) quotes Stein (1983:14) as attributing the lack of subject gaze to a very deliberate idealogical decision: “That he rejected those rare photographs in which the subject did happen to look back suggests how premeditated the effect was”.

Riis had a rough and ready style that disregarded the technical norms of the time (composition, posing etc) and insisted on showing the previously unseen truth of how the poor lived and died. His visceral, uncompromising approach would be softened by Hine and others in subsequent years before being reclaimed and magnified by contemporary social documentary photographers decades later.

Riis deserves his place in the history of photography as a pioneer of the medium as a tool of social communication and change. That his style was a little crude for some tastes and was succeeded by a more stylised form of social documentary is, however, understandable.

Lewis Hine

Although often mentioned in the same breath as Riis, Hine is remembered as being altogether more nuanced. Where Riis was the objective photographer thrusting blunt images of poverty in people’s faces, Hine took a more humanist and hopeful approach.

For a start, Hine was a professional photographer who knew how to make aesthetically pleasing images, and he was hired by the US National Child Labor Committee specifically to record the use of children in the workplace. He applied a more thoughtful approach to his work, and spoke to the subjects to find out more about them before taking their photograph.

His images come across as less ‘angry’ than those of Riis, and display a deeper understanding of the complexity of social issues. While Riis shot his subjects as though inmates in a human zoo – emphasising their ‘otherness‘ – Hine appealed to the viewer to empathise with the children in his images.

Sadie Pfeifer at Lancaster Cotton Mill – Lewis Hine, 1908

Hine applies more subjectivity to structuring his message, as though he understands how to affect his audience better than Riis did. Clarke (1997) puts it well:

“Hine’s great strength, however, was to inform each image with a complex (but seemingly effortless) awareness of the multiple contingencies which informed and controlled an individual’s life.” – Clarke (1997:147-148)

This is maybe the crux of the difference to Riis: Hine was concerned with individuals. The subjects are never simply ciphers to be exploited to make a point, they are people. One gets a greater sense of the horrors of social injustice from Hine’s work as he is more successful in personalising the problem being examined.

Early British social documentary

The course notes suggest a few names to research to compare how British documentary photography developed in parallel with the better-known US examples examined above. Once again I find myself scratching my head regarding the examples chosen.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) is famed more for her portraits, often of the celebrities and upper class of the day, and for her artistic techniques such as selective focus than for any social documentary work. In a sense the most interesting aspect of Cameron’s work from a sociological point of view is that she was one of very few women practicing photography at the time – but the work itself displays no significant social or moral dimension.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) gave an exemplary extended study of place and community identity in his work on Whitby, bringing to life the character and activities of the seaside town in Victorian times. His work was sympathetic without being overly sentimental, everyday without being banal and objective without being harsh or impersonal. He is perhaps closer to my idea of a documentary photographer than Cameron was, in that he was documenting Whitby life – yet I see no campaigning imperative, no social conscience, no overriding desire to educate or change. So again I wonder if he is a representative example.

Finally, Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) is mentioned. Yet again I question the inclusion: he is most famous for his use of early photomontage (along with the likes of Oscar Rejlander). Like Cameron and Stieglitz, Robinson is most renowned for pushing photography closer to the status of art.

Given that I basically disagree with the examples provided – none of them strongly demonstrate a moral or campaigning element to their most famous work – I felt the need to do a little more research of my own.

Whilst a strong thread of social documentary photography would establish itself in the 1930s with the work of Bill Brandt and others, including the Mass Observation programme of social research, my objective here was to find British documentarians in the same era as Riis and Hine, broadly the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century.

Thomas Annan (1829-87) fits the bill, being a photographer of Glasgow slums as early as 1866 – some time before Riis had established himself on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fellow Scot John Thomson (1837-1921) worked with radical journalist Adolphe Smith to expose the conditions of life in the less salubrious quarters of London in the 1870s.

Both of these can be considered to be peers of, or equals to, Riis and Hine – if less well-known.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.



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