Widgets Magazine

‘Soulmaker’ & Soulfinder: Professor Alexander Nemerov talks on his newest book

The photography of Lewis Hine documented child labor in the late 19th century and led to the vast reform of laws surrounding children in the workplace. In both his recent exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center and his book Soulmaker: The Life and Times of Lewis Hine, art history scholar Alexander Nemerov provides a fresh, contemporary perspective on Hine’s work. The Stanford Daily sat down with Professor Nemerov to talk about the artistic significance and lasting legacy of Hine’s photographs.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Where did your interest with Lewis Hine begin?

Alexander Nemerov (AN): I was always really moved by his photographs. So I first thought seriously about them, maybe 10 years ago. As you know from the show and the book, they’re such emotionally charged pictures. With many of the things I write on, I start by simply being moved by something. And over time, I come to realize how I could write about them. Then, here at Stanford, because of the invitation from the director of the Cantor Museum, Connie Wolf — who’s no longer the director — I had the chance to do an exhibition.

TSD: How did the Jason Francisco collaboration arise?

AN: When we first conceived this, we were going to do a show just of Hine photographs. But my concern was that it would just look like any other another Hine show (even if it wasn’t). And the things in Hine’s photographs that really move me are their sense of time, the eternal presence of the young girl on the book cover, and their remoteness from our time. So, then, it occurred to me that it’d be cool to have a photographer make pictures of those sites as they look now. And I thought of Jason, who I knew back when I used to teach here in the 90s, when he was a student here.

Lo and behold, Jason really liked Hine, too. If you look at his website, he has a lot of photographs, primarily of Holocaust sites in Poland and the Ukraine. There’s a real relationship between those pictures and the pictures he made for the exhibit/book. There’s a similar kind of poignant emptiness — of absence and loss — of the deterioration, not of things, but of memory, and the fugitive nature of the past — of the moral and ethical claims the past makes on us, and the role of art in remembering and forgetting.

These are all qualities present in Jason’s photography. So he was the perfect collaborator.

TSD: Since most people would know Lewis Hine from school textbooks, do you believe that the point of his photographs has been lost in popular culture?

AN: I think so. It’s not that people are wrong to focus on the child labor; that’s what they’re about, that’s what he was being paid to photograph. But the accounts that treat them in those terms don’t really treat the photographs as powerful works of art. If you or I go to a museum and we see something that takes our breath away, that’s the thing we write about. It’s very hard to do; it’s almost impossible, but it is the thing to do. That’s what art history does at its best. It takes the almost-indescribable — something present in a work of art, something which is nothing less than the be-all, end-all of why it moves us — and puts that feeling into words, in a way that doesn’t kill the feeling.

TSD: So was Soulmaker titled with that in mind?

AN: I had thought of the title before I had written a word, but yes, absolutely. Sometimes, you have to follow your intuitions and your insights without exactly knowing what they mean at the start. So instead of feeling like, OK, I have all my ideas and I just need to execute them, you’re actually being led forward into a space that you can’t fully understand. And that point is intellectual inquiry. I knew it was a good title for whatever the photographs and the process of writing about them were going to teach me.

TSD: Do you have a favorite Hine-Francisco pair of photographs from the book or the exhibit?

AN: Well, three sets are from the first day Jason began making these photographs, when I was with him. I don’t know if you can visualize them, but one is of Knoxville, Tennessee, one is of Rossville, Georgia, and the third is of the bridge in Columbus, Georgia. We did all those on the same day, got to the bridge in Columbus at about midnight. Just to have a camaraderie of experiential wonder at those sites, to be there, right there at the exact spot, I’ve always gotten a big charge out of that. And so has Jason.

TSD: Do you think that Hine photographed actively or passively? How would that play into the significance of his photographs?

AN: Well, I think that’s a great question. I mean, any great photographer has to have a blend of those two things. You have to have some sense of what you’re about, but you also have to be open or active to whatever happens. I feel Hine was able to react very openly and opportunistically to whatever happened to be in front of his camera. His active role was to document child labor, and sometimes he really does pose people to that effect. But the best qualities of his work are those which he could not have planned. And that goes back to my point about writing about Hine, because you have to put into words that which he did not plan.

The simple, declared, intentional thesis of a work of art is often the easiest, least interesting, least rewarding thing to write about. A great example of Hine’s active passiveness would be all the photographs he took outside of factory-gates. The photos at Southbend of the little girl who can’t get into the factory. That’s why he’s there, but it’s such an incredible space where people are coming out on their lunch break or at the end of the day. Anything could happen; anyone could appear. Every moment, there’s a different constellation of figures and activities. Now, if you have an intuitive sense of that, you can somehow get that and make a truly memorable photograph.

It makes me think of something that Jason said: “What would Hine think if he saw this show?”  Jason thought that Hine would be a little perplexed but pleased. I think he’d be pleased, but it probably was a source of frustration to him that he was never really recognized as someone with a real gift during his lifetime. He was recognized as an impeccable documentarian, but he was so much more than that.

Contact Eli Gwin at eli.gwin.5@gmail.com.