- Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine by Alexander Nemerov
From the outset, Alexander Nemerov’s Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine is more than a study of Hine’s photographs in his time. Nemerov seeks to teach a fresh approach to visual culture studies. His text presents multiple critical narratives, and readers can certainly view it as an avenue to exploring Hine’s work, studies in naturalist imagery, or a number of cultural studies [End Page 95] inquiries. However, navigating Nemerov’s text through just one of these perspectives does not register Soulmaker’s visual theory-altering possibilities. The most powerful value of the book is in how Nemerov trains us to read photographs in order to look for the transcendent and the ethereal—temporal beauty made visible in the image. To appreciate this text fully and to learn to look in richer ways, one should read Nemerov’s book from beginning to end.
He teaches us to see ephemerality, vulnerability, ecstasy, transfiguration, and soulfulness in the moment both captured and liberated by Hine’s photographs. Learning to see in these ways can be unsettling. We want evidence, cultural contexts, political events, and social shifts. To moor us and also contribute to several lines of critical investigation, Nemerov deftly interweaves familiar markers and locates Hine’s work within the era of notable figures such as Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, and Walter Rauschenbusch; of writers including Jack London, Sherwood Anderson, and H. G. Wells; and artists like Maxfield Parrish, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Giorgio de Chirico. Jacob Riis does not number among Nemerov’s numerous and varied references, but this absence may invite further discussion about each photographer’s works and methods.
Throughout Soulmaker, Nemerov asks that we look again at Hine’s works which we think we have seen, but likely with a glance, a sympathetic grimace, and dismay. This rapid, visceral response was not Hine’s intent, as Nemerov reminds us: “But I suspect that Hine knew early on that he would have to find another kind of time than just the portrayal of disenchanted drudgery. Otherwise his photographs would merely portray the degradation instead of envisioning the soulfulness, peeping out, escaping, transfiguring, that alone could make the degradation appear such an outrage” (112). Although Nemerov’s lyrical writing engages us to ponder topics such as the relationship between time and photography, it is his methodological instruction that is especially skillful and surprising.
Soulmaker begins by drawing readers into common visual ground: some of Hine’s most well-known images, such as that of the Whitnel girl spinner who stands between a window and rows of bobbins and of Addie, the spinner girl who has short-cropped hair, thin arms, and a dirty apron with a drooping pocket. Hine’s child workers are so familiar to us, but Nemerov asks us to look by moving our eyes across the images: “Drawn down the middle, her pretty face is shaded on the left and lit on the right …” (1). Presently, we notice details that we had not seen earlier: the missing button, the fresh face in the morning compared to the exhausted one in the evening. Nemerov guides us through photograph after photograph, [End Page 96] directing us to look at a mill boy against the light and inspect his slanted shoulders and the buttons on his coat, or to note the light upon Addie’s iconic thins arms but also how the fingers on her right hand curve differently from those on the left. He focuses our untrained gaze, telling our eyes where to alight closely, where to take in the entire image.
Nemerov is imperative as he urges us to sweep our eyes up toward a corner window to notice a child’s face brightening the otherwise darkened glass of a building, for example, or down into the coal mines to see a boy who sits underground for most of each day. Such intense looking is rewarding, as Nemerov proves, by sharing that the boy and his drawings are invisible...