The following is a guest post by Ryan Brubacher, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division
Lewis Hine, at a certain point in his career, began to refer to himself as an “interpretive photographer” and not a social photographer as he’d been previously termed. While we might imagine him an investigative photo-journalist by today’s standards, his own assessment points to the degree that style and aesthetic decisions played into the images he created – even before he articulated the change. The Library of Congress holds two significant groups of Hine’s photographs, the images made for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and his work for the American National Red Cross (ANRC) during World War I.
What drew me to the work and inspired a blog post was one particular aspect of many of Hine’s photographs, the extremely limited depth of field, or shallow focus. There are some technical reasons that make the use of this technique perhaps more likely, but I wanted to explore how much of the shallow focus was prescribed by circumstance and how much was an aesthetic decision on the part of Hine.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of depth of field, it refers to the area of a photograph that remains in focus. In photographs with deep depth of field, the entire image appears sharp. With shallow depth of field, as in Hine’s pictures, only a narrow plane appears unblurred. And unlike some photographers making use of this technique to blur out the background, Hine repeatedly uses it in a way that also blurs the foreground. In Hine’s images, he is allowing for a plane of focus sometimes no deeper than a few inches.
In the image below, the grass in the foreground is blurred, and the boys’ game is captured in focus for about 6-10 ft. before falling off again.
In this photo, we can see that the table edge is fuzzy directly in front of the first girl’s bowl, and immediately behind her, such that her neighbor’s cup is already falling out of focus.
Were limitations of the equipment Hine used responsible for the shallow focus in his photos? In the case of Hine, my research revealed he was using large format cameras (most often cited as a Graflex, and most likely to be the Press Graflex, which was produced between 1907-1925) making 4×5 inch and 5×7 inch negatives. The use of larger format negatives, like these, allows greater control over depth of field than what is possible on smaller cameras. Hine also used wide angle lenses and open apertures to capture more light (allowing a faster shutter speed that reduced blur from movement), both of which contributed to shallower depth of field.
Additionally, the Graflex cameras were advertised for the new speed and accuracy by which one could focus and make pictures. A mirrored viewer allowed the photographer to see the exact image that was coming through the lens and allowed a photographer to more quickly make images than the earlier view camera (where the photographer had to focus under a dark cloth). Hine could make last minute adjustments to get the focus he desired moments before the shutter was released. Given the capabilities of his equipment, Hine was apparently making a conscious choice to keep the focus shallow.
Comparing pairs of Hine photographs might help us think about his aesthetic choices with regard to focus:
These two photographs show groups of individuals at about the same distance from the photographer in a work setting. The youngest of his subjects have the sharper focus while the facility and equipment is blurred, yet still purposely in the frame.
Both of these boys are shown at half-length, near a work environment, facing toward the photographer and centered. While one is outside and one inside, the depth of field is pretty shallow in both light situations.
These photos show little girls of a fairly young age engaged in very different activities. The depth of field is extremely shallow in both pictures, though in the Child Labor example Hine appears to have missed his mark, as the ground directly in front of his subject is in focus, but she is not.
This comparison shows children in the same occupation as taken by Hine and Jacob Riis. In this Riis photo the bathroom and the newsboys are basically in focus and they are dispersed doing their washing up. In the Hine image, the newsboys are in a crowd with the foreground newsies out of focus and the center of the madness (boy crouched on the floor) very crisp.
Below is a pair of portraits of younger girls. Situating them side by side allows us to compare the manipulation of focus by Hine with that of his contemporary Alfred Stieglitz. In the Stieglitz photo the girl, in soft focus, is surrounded by nature with tree branches and plant stems behind her and in front of her. She does not acknowledge the photographer and there is no obvious plane of focus. In the Hine image, the girls are shown in sharp focus looking directly toward the photographer, while the world around is blurry.
So what do we make of Hine’s aesthetic decisions? Why did he choose to emphasize selective focus? Does he use it differently in the two bodies of work, NCLC and ANRC? Is it photographing children that seems to provoke him to narrow his depth of field? From biographical accounts of his life alongside the notes and captions for his photos, I tend to think it was a strong and passionate desire to humanize his subjects – to make them appear as real as they would if one was really standing there. Perhaps also he liked the idea that a “slice of a life” is brought into focus, extracting individuals with little financial import from obscurity, and bringing clarity to a messy world of industrialization and war.
Hine’s use of shallow depth of field makes his photos more compositionally interesting, but also introduces a confusion for the viewer. The photos seem to provide objective facts by virtue of their crispness, but we are constantly made aware of things falling out of that precise focus. They play on this line between documentary “honesty” and artful composition. I don’t want to call them haunting since some of them have such smiling, lively subjects, but these photos develop a sublime quality the longer you look at them. They lift their subjects up as worthy of attention. Hine’s photos exhibit a beauty despite the ominous undertones of images depicting the realities of war and the conditions endured by young workers.
- Explore the photographs Lewis Hine made for the National Child Labor Committee. The background and related documents provide context for this work and pointers for further research, and the “Bringing an NCLC Photo into Focus” essay discusses an example of a series of photos and their focus. The Library of Congress also has the textual records of the National Child Labor Committee – view the finding aid.
- Take a closer look at the American National Red Cross Collection photographs that have been attributed to Lewis Hine. Read up on the background of the American National Red Cross Collection.
- The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film has Lewis Hine’s personal papers and photographs. View George Eastman House’s blog entry (Sept. 26, 2012) about Hine, with links to photographs showing the photographer at work. See if you can spot the connection to one of the photos shared in this post!
- If you want to read more about how to achieve different depths of field technically, there is a lengthy article in Wikipedia, “Depth of Field,” that covers quite a bit, including equations and scientific explanations of optics.
- Enjoy a Library of Congress Blog post, “Inquiring Minds: Opening a Treasure Chest of Unfinished Stories,” highlighting the work of a researcher who became fascinated with the faces of the children in the National Child Labor Committee Collection and was inspired to trace their stories.