Focusing on Lewis Hine’s Photographic Technique

The following is a guest post by Ryan Brubacher, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division

John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy ... Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 Aug. (The shadow of the photographer and his camera are in the foreground.) National Child Labor Committee Collection //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.03225

John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy … Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 Aug. (The shadow of the photographer and his camera are in the foreground.) National Child Labor Committee Collection //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.03225

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.

Chateau de Grand Val, Sucy-en-Brie. Country home for refugee children from St. Sulpice... Photo by Lewis Hine, 1918 August. American National Red Cross Collection.

Chateau de Grand Val, Sucy-en-Brie. Country home for refugee children from St. Sulpice… Photo by Lewis Hine, 1918 August. American National Red Cross Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.17213

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.

One of the most important occupations in life at La Jonchere. This is one of the colonies established by the Comite Franco-Americain pour la Protection des Enfants de la Frontiere... Photo by Lewis Hine, 1918 27 August. American National Red Cross Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.09027

One of the most important occupations in life at La Jonchere. This is one of the colonies established by the Comite Franco-Americain pour la Protection des Enfants de la Frontiere… Photo by Lewis Hine, 1918 27 August. American National Red Cross Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.09027

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.

Newberry Mills (S.C.) Noon hour. All are working here ... Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 December. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01476

Newberry Mills (S.C.) Noon hour. All are working here … Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 December. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01476

In centre is one of the young boys working underground in the Bliss Shaft of the D.L. & W. at Nanticoke, Pa. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1911 January. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01123

In centre is one of the young boys working underground in the Bliss Shaft of the D.L. & W. at Nanticoke, Pa. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1911 January. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01123

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.

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, W. Va... Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 October. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01070

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, W. Va… Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 October. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01070

Young Driver in Mine: Had been driving one year. (7 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. Daily) Brown Mine, Brown, W. Va. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 September. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.0105

Young Driver in Mine: Had been driving one year. (7 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. Daily) Brown Mine, Brown, W. Va. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 September. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.01059

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.

Renee Grouyer, "the adopted daughter" of the Intelligence Section of the Army Field Clerks, 2nd Section, GHQ, cant's play ball very well... Photo by Lewis Hine, 1918 August. American National Red Cross Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.17112

Renee Grouyer, “the adopted daughter” of the Intelligence Section of the Army Field Clerks, 2nd Section, GHQ, [can’t] play ball very well… Photo by Lewis Hine, 1918 August. American National Red Cross Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/anrc.17112

Little girl, apparently 6 yrs. old - but didn't know her name or age - tending stand at Washington and 3rd St. for older sister...Hoboken, New Jersey. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1912 December. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.03824

Little girl, apparently 6 yrs. old – but didn’t know her name or age – tending stand at Washington and 3rd St. for older sister…Hoboken, New Jersey. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1912 December. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.03824

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.

"Washing up" in the newsboys' lodging house. Photo by Jacob Riis, ca. 1890. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a18571

“Washing up” in the newsboys’ lodging house. Copy of photo by Jacob Riis, ca. 1890. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a18571 (View original photograph at Museum of the City of New York)

Amusing themselves while waiting for morning papers...New York, NY. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 February. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.03181

Amusing themselves while waiting for morning papers…New York, NY. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1908 February. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.03181

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.

Spring. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, published in Camera Notes, 1902 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b46416

Spring. Photo by Alfred Stieglitz, published in Camera Notes, 1902 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b46416

Maud Daly, five years old. Grade Daly, three years old. ... Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1911 March. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00907

Maud Daly, five years old. Grade Daly, three years old. … Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1911 March. National Child Labor Committee Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00907

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Sherry L.
    January 31, 2019 at 1:52 pm

    Thank you for this excellent post: we will use it in our work with teachers. You have added new dimensions and deeper understanding of the Hine collection.

  2. John McNamara
    January 31, 2019 at 3:14 pm

    Very nicely done! As a photographer and photography teacher your article was a pleasure to read. So well written! Explaining how the technical aspects were used to create an artful image. Thank you!

  3. Pam Rickman
    January 31, 2019 at 7:55 pm

    Thank you for these observations that even a layman can understand. I often use Hine’s photos to engage my 8th-grade students (in fact, teaching this era right now). Now I have an additional artistic element to bring to the conversation when we discuss and analyze medium, message, and impact.

  4. Harriet
    February 1, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    Thank you for this fascinating article. I am so grateful for this blog!

  5. Robert Shanebrook
    February 3, 2019 at 3:00 pm

    Small point. Wide angle lenses increase the depth-of- field. A few measurements and calculations would identify the effective focal length. I say effective because cropping increases the effective focal length.

    “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.”

  6. Robert Shanebrook
    February 3, 2019 at 6:31 pm

    The Press Graphic that Hine used was a SLR so there had to be a distance between the back of the lens and the film plane so the mirror could swing out of the way. This eliminated the possibility of the camera using a true wide angle lens.

  7. Ryan Brubacher
    February 5, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you everyone for the comments. Very glad to hear you found it useful. Robert, thanks for your photo knowledge, and for the correction on the effect of the wide-angle lens! You bring up an issue I found in my research, which is that there does not seem to be sufficient information about specific equipment combinations he used during the different projects.

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