July 04, 1988 12:00 PM

by Daile Kaplan

Coming to New York from the Midwest in 1901, Lewis Hine soon learned photography and began making portraits—at Ellis Island and in factories from Maine to Texas—that would help change minds and even laws. Gripped by a Whitmanesque faith in the individual and by the Progressive movement’s fervor for reform, Hine brought frightened new immigrants and, later, weary, work-begrimed children squarely before his camera. They might have been cowed by the bulky black Graflex and the smoke-belching flashpan held aloft like a crucifix, but Hine’s compassion and respect put them at ease. Hine hoped, he said, to demonstrate that “the human spirit is the big thing after all.” And he did. His work was instrumental in spurring on the passage of child labor laws. Later, Hine documented the construction of the Empire State Building. These achievements guaranteed him a place in photographic history. But one major chunk of Hine’s work has been missing—until now. These were the roughly 600 photographs he took for the Red Cross of refugees hobbling across a ravaged Europe during and after World War I. Though some of the pictures were published, most disappeared into the vast Red Cross archives, where they were further obscured by an eccentric filing code. Those archives were donated to the Library of Congress in 1944, but Hine’s contribution remained lost until 1981, when Kaplan, a photo historian, cracked the code after months of spadework. The tolerance for repetition and minutiae that served Kaplan so well as a photographic detective undo her as a writer. Her seven-chapter essay grinds down Hine’s achievements under its trudging gait and inflated claims for Hine as a caption writer. The photographs are a different proposition. As a whole, they never attain the level of Hine’s other work. Some of the portraits of street urchins appear perfunctory, as if Hine was too determined to depict his young subjects as smiling and unbowed. Several, however, are powerful: members of two wan families huddling in a filthy basement in Salonika; a man standing in the ruins of Lens, France, his body one of the few vertical shapes in a sea of blasted brick and timber; a sick boy of about 10 nestling forlornly in the arms of his exhausted mother. More of these pictures would have been worth many thousands of the words Kaplan so numbingly expends on their behalf. (Abbeville, $49.95)

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