Pioneers of Documentary Photography Featured in New Exhibit on "Scientific Charity"
by Nick Obourn
A boy with leg braces and crutches rests against a fire alarm. A woman hangs laundry from a clothesline strung across an airshaft behind a row of tenement buildings. Pushcarts line a crowded street in lower Manhattan.
|Exhibition organizers talk about the development of Social Forces Visualized. (3:14)|
These haunting black-and-white photographs are featured in a new exhibition at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery that explores the role that social welfare organizations founded in the 19th and early 20th century played in documenting and alleviating the plight of the urban poor.
Social Forces Visualized: Photography and Scientific Charity, 1900-1920 includes 125 photographs by such influential photographers as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and Jessie Tarbox Beals, who were hired by the charities to illustrate the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the slums of lower Manhattan.
The photographs, many of which have not been seen in public for close to a century, were selected from 1,300 images in the Community Service Society (CSS) records donated to Columbia's Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 1979.
The CSS was formed by the 1939 merger of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, started in 1843, and the Charity Organization Society, founded in 1882. The latter organization’s summer course on philanthropy in 1898 pioneered the formal study of social work, which eventually led to the creation of Columbia’s School of Social Work.
The exhibition was organized by Drew Sawyer and Huffa Frobes-Cross, both Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Art History and Archaeology. They first learned of the CSS archives in 2008 through an independent study with Elizabeth Hutchinson, an associate professor of art history at Columbia and Barnard.
"Social Forces Visualized does more than offer a chance to see extraordinary documentary images from leading American photographers," says Hutchinson, faculty advisor for the project. "The show helps viewers see the role photographs played in the watershed public reforms of the early 20th century.”
Riis and Hine have long been acclaimed as key figures in the tradition of social documentary photography. But their best-known images have usually been seen in isolation, without the publications and annual reports in which they first appeared.
The exhibition places their work, and that of other documentary photographers, within the broad framework of the “scientific charity” of the organizations that hired them to capture images of such pressing social problems as tenement housing, tuberculosis, food safety and widow's pensions. Though intended purely as documentation, the photographs are now recognized for their artistic merit.
“Many were published in Community Service Society periodicals and brochures as a means of raising awareness of the living conditions of New York’s poor and advocating for change,” said Eric Wakin, the Lehman Curator for American History at the library and adjunct assistant professor of history.
Social Forces Visualized is divided into four categories: housing, health, social surveys and welfare. “As you move through the exhibition to the later images, you can see the shift these organizations made from producing images as scientific research primarily for a professional audience of social workers and sociologists to making images as publicity materials for a broader public,” says Frobes-Cross.
Sawyer said he and Frobes-Cross sifted through hundreds of boxes in the CSS records before deciding to focus on the years 1900 to 1920. “We wanted to recreate some of the diverse and multimedia visual strategies that were just being tested during these years,” he said. “Many of the photographs would have been seen in lantern-slide shows, exhibitions, annual reports, journals, pamphlets and posters alongside other visuals and texts such as graphs, statistics, maps, charts, three-dimensional models and even films.”
In keeping with the goals of the original charities, the library is now working to make the CSS photography collection, one of the most used in the library, available to the broader public by digitizing its contents. The project, headed by Wakin, also will allow the library to link the material to its other historic collections related to social welfare.
The exhibition, which is accompanied by an illustrated book published by the gallery, is on view through Dec. 17.
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