Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

The Kids Are Alright: Anna Kuperberg and Lewis Hine

Posted in 35mm, art, awareness, black and white, family, film, interview, photography, Uncategorized by Jason Gray on November 22, 2013

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Lewis Hine; Newsies at Skeeter’s Branch (They were all smoking), A.M. Monday, May 9, 1910; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-03489

On Black Tuesday, November 28, 1939, the thick gray smoke billowing from the many coal-burning furnaces around St. Louis literally choked out the sun. Noontime on Black Tuesday was described to have looked like just after sunset. Resulting from this, the city passed stricter legislation requiring infrastructure change and the use of cleaner burning fuels, which had the support of residents, who had foresaw something of their possibly catastrophic future in “the day that the sun didn’t shine”. Sometimes it takes a dramatic gesture to stir change…

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Lewis Hine; Joe Smith (1927 1/2 Morgan Street; 8 years old), May, 1910; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-03468

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Lewis Hine; Truants Like These May Be Found Most Any Day Between 11 and 12 A.M. (Jefferson Street near Washington),Thursday, May 5, 1910; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-03463

Almost thirty years earlier, a photographer named Lewis Hine arrived in St. Louis. At this time, the city was a bustling metropolitan hive, with streetcars zipping down corridors lined by tall buildings. Hine was working for the National Child Labor Committee, which had organized to combat the employment of young children in activities that were meant for adults, and had come to document the conditions of the youth who sold newspapers on the streets to passerby. In May of 1910, the photographer spent much time around the newsboys and newsgirls, learning about their gangs and turf disputes, living conditions and recreational activities, and ultimately photographing more than 80 images portraying their cumulative story. By 1920, Federal legislation severely limited how children could be exploited as workers, and the overall number of child laborers was reduced to pre-Civil War figures. As time moved on, the Children’s Bureau, an extension of the NCLC within the Labor Bureau, honed the restrictions to further advantage young men and women. Lewis Hine was a major part of that success, and his images taken here in St. Louis form a cornerstone of that effort.

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Lewis Hine; Inside View of “Piedmont Hotel” (Where some of the boys from the Poolroom Branch sleep on hot nights),Thursday, May 5, 1910; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-04640

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Lewis Hine; Jefferson Street Gang of Newsboys (Over campfire in corner lot behind billboard; Jefferson Street near Olive), 10 P.M. Saturday, May 7, 1910; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-03470

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Lewis Hine; Boy Named Gurley (An eight-year-old newsie; 18th Street and Washington Avenue), May, 1910; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-03498

Of course, Lewis Hine’s photographs firstly portray the rough and tumble existence of children in St. Louis at the time; still, something beyond their gravity offers them an innocent beauty. This is because sometimes he catches a broad smile or a mischievous grin, evidence of play, or of kids just being kids. It is uncertain whether or not Hine looked for these moments or if they happened upon him, despite his best efforts. Of his photography, Mr. Hine remarked, “[A good photograph is] a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others.” Categorically, he saw his work as having a purpose: to erase child labor. Maybe though, he also desired to show something of what childhood should be, thereby broadening the underlying question and deepening its moral impact.

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Lewis Hine; St. Louis Star-Times Newsboys on Street, May, 1910; Missouri History Museum, St. Louis 1805

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Lewis Hine; Newsie, May, 1910; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-04663

Almost a century later, another photographer arrived in St. Louis to aim her lens at its children. San Francisco-based photographer, Anna Kuperberg, moved to the city after studying photography at Washington University. She became quickly fascinated with the city’s South Side, and the children that lived and played there. Using her camera as a passport, Kuperberg was able to gain access to their world of play, and her fascination grew to become a multi-year project documenting, in exquisite detail, the broad potential of innocence.

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Anna Kuperberg; South Side, St. Louis; image courtesy of Anna Kuperberg, © Anna Kuperberg

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Anna Kuperberg; South Side, St. Louis; image courtesy of Anna Kuperberg, © Anna Kuperberg

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Anna Kuperberg; South Side, St. Louis; image courtesy of Anna Kuperberg, © Anna Kuperberg

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Anna Kuperberg; South Side, St. Louis; image courtesy of Anna Kuperberg, © Anna Kuperberg

In addition to contributing images, Anna was very kind to also answer a few of my questions below:

HOI- What made you choose to work in 35mm, as opposed to a larger format?

AK- I generally prefer a smaller camera because it is faster, but I used to shoot with a Hasselblad, and that was really nice too.

HOI- Do you see some of the problems affecting the larger community (income disparity, racial tension, educational inequality) surfacing in the games and activities of its children?

AK- No, the opposite. Kids tend to be more similar to each other across cultural lines than adults are. Are you asking me if poor kids play differently from wealthy kids? They do seem to be more resourceful and creative.

HOI- What is it about children that make them such compelling subjects for your camera?

AK- I love kids. They are camera aware, but not concerned with how they look in the way adults are. They are very upfront with their emotions and sometimes very intense.

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Anna Kuperberg; South Side, St. Louis; image courtesy of Anna Kuperberg, © Anna Kuperberg

HOI- How do you get kids to open up and behave so authentically while you are photographing? How have the parents responded?

AK- I don’t know. I think they can tell I like them. In this series, sometimes the parents were not around, other times they responded with curiosity, other times with apathy. I asked permission from them which most gave. They generally ignored me after that. This reaction was typical to the time and place. Later I moved to San Francisco, and found that people were more suspicious and had a lot of questions about my motives, especially after websites and social media were invented (late 90′s).

HOI- With the advent of tools like Photoshop, some argue that there is a subsequent degradation of “photographic truth”. As a photographer who documents, do you see this as negatively impacting your work?

AK- No.

HOI- You appear to work in both film and digital; do you have a preference for either?

AK- I shot film until 2004; digital after that. I like both, but digital is more versatile and generally faster to focus and shoot.

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Anna Kuperberg; South Side, St. Louis; image courtesy of Anna Kuperberg, © Anna Kuperberg

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Anna Kuperberg; South Side, St. Louis; image courtesy of Anna Kuperberg, © Anna Kuperberg

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Anna Kuperberg; South Side, St. Louis; image courtesy of Anna Kuperberg, © Anna Kuperberg

In the time between both photographers, much has changed about St. Louis. Up until fairly recently, the city has shied away from its earlier promise, having slid into a long period of decline. Many of the problems which plaque other rust belt cities also restrict opportunities locally, and this continues to be true even though some determined advances in the other direction have been made.

Certainly though, the city’s best asset continues to be its children, for they offer the reality that today can only be hoped for. Both Lewis Hine and Anna Kuperberg saw this to be true, which is why their images share so much, despite being at the opposite ends of a century and portraying the opposite extremes of youth.

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For more information on Lewis Hine see the excellent Lewis Hine Project.

Anna Kuperberg’s work can be viewed locally at the Saint Louis Art Museum, and is featured in several major collections across the country, including those of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Portland Art Museum.

Many thanks to Anna Kuperberg and the Missouri History Museum for their information and support.

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  1. […] 4. The Kids Are Alright: Anna Kuperberg and Lewis Hine […]

  2. […] Side, opens on February 7th. Readers may already be familiar with Anna’s work from a recent HOI post comparing her work to Lewis […]

  3. […] For more on Anna Kuperberg, please see my previous post here. […]


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