At the turn of the twentieth century, the lenses of both photography and film captured a new modern subject: the worker in an urban environment. These mediums, documenting reality, recorded anonymous workers on the street and in factories and houses, shaping their public image while offering visual documents inclined to being interpreted through historical, political and anthropological optics.
From the end of the nineteenth century and systematically, Eugène Atget recorded the city of Paris under transformation through photography. Despite his encounters with avant-garde art and Surrealism, Atget saw his photographs merely as documents. Berenice Abbott, responsible for raising awareness of and placing value on his work, declared he would be remembered as an “urban historian, a true romantic, a lover of Paris, a Balzac of the camera; his work is able to weave a major tapestry of French civilisation”. In 1904, the editor Victor Porcher wanted to publish a collection of postcards with a selection of Atget’s images under the title Les p’tits métiers de Paris — in addition to documenting disappearing itinerant trades, the images depict a broader experience of life in the city, modern urban space and its relationship with the working classes in turn-of-the-century Paris.
Eugène Atget’s series on urban trades made him a forerunner of the social photography American photographer Lewis Hine would produce. After studying sociology, Hine understood photography as a medium of education and social reform, and in 1908 he was hired by The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), an organisation working to promote rights and welfare for children at work. His works were used on posters and reproduced in numerous publications to reveal and denounce injustices and risks in the working conditions of child labour.
Lewis Hine’s influence was far-reaching, as much through the dissemination of his images as his teaching work; for instance, Paul Strand was one of his students on the photography course he taught at the Ethical Culture School. The school organised a visit to Gallery 291, where Strand met Alfred Stieglitz, who would transmit ideas that fostered his development from pictorialism to a more direct style. A few years later, in 1915, Strand showed Stieglitz some new street photographs that deeply impressed him, describing them as “brutally direct, clear and free from all deceit”. As well as finding a home in Gallery 291, his images were published in the latest issues of the magazine Camera Work. Thus, on the pages of what had been the Pictorialism publication par excellence, he was foregrounded in a modern documentary style that recorded reality with purely photographic media.