Where do a photographer’s impulse to create a documentary image and aesthetics meet? In the early 20th century, American photographer Lewis Hine (1874–1940) embarked on a decades-long mission to document the abject working conditions of the nation’s child laborers with the hope of provoking change. As a result, he created a catalogue of photographs that not only served as provocative catalysts for American labor reform, but were also striking images in which viewers could clearly see the strength, dignity, and hope of the people depicted.
In addition to photographs by Hine, The Likeness of Labor presents complementary works from the generation of photographers that came after him. Working during the Great Depression, artists such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Margaret Bourke-White, who were influenced by Hine’s interest in American laborers and migrants, sought to portray these individuals in the midst of the nation’s desperate economic conditions. Though most of the photographs feature anonymous subjects, each is a likeness of a man, woman, or child’s persona shaped by hardship.