Joe Manning, a 71-year-old retired social worker from Florence, Mass., has for years had an eerily powerful connection to the early 20th-century photographer Lewis Hine. Perhaps the premier chronicler of the atrocious working conditions endured by laborers — of all ages — in early 20th century America, Hine, mired in debt and living on welfare, died in 1940. Manning was born the next year.
“Some have suggested I am Hine reincarnated,” he muses. Indeed, Manning does bear a strikingly similar physical resemblance to the great photographer and sociologist, whose pictures of the infamous slums, mines, mills and tenement homes of early 1900s America also documented the bleak, brutal lives of men, women and children whose labor fueled the nation’s industrial revolution. Hine’s seminal work provides one of the most comprehensive records of labor conditions ever produced in America. Originally shot for the National Child Labor Committee, Hine’s pictures were intended to bolster the case for child labor laws, especially those covering the country’s most dangerous and, quite literally, deadly work environments. Eventually, more than 5,000 of Hine’s prints were donated to the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, where they remain accessible to the public via the Internet.
Which is where Joe Manning comes in.
In 2004, after retiring from a three-decade career as a social worker, Manning learned from a friend that she was writing a novel based on a 1910 Hine photograph of a Vermont mill girl. Hine’s caption, in shorthand, read simply: Addie Card, 12 years old. Spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill. Vt. Girls in mill say she is ten years. She admitted to me she was twelve; that she started during school vacation and new [sic] would stay.
Intrigued (and later, obsessed), Manning worked to uncover any information he could on Addie, eventually locating her daughter, and then her granddaughter. He learned that Addie had died, at the age of 94, in 1993.
In the course of his research, Manning was able to show Addie’s grandkids the Hine photograph of their grandmother, the first time any of them had seen it.
“Addie’s story lives on,” Manning told TIME. “Her family wouldn’t have had that without this project. It humanizes these kids [in Hine’s pictures] to see them at their later ages.”
Fascinated by the idea that Hine’s subjects grew up and escaped from the often-horrific working conditions of their childhoods, Manning set out to locate more of Hine’s subjects and their descendants, compiling oral histories and family memories.
Today — nearly nine years after retirement and the first stirrings of his Hine project — Manning has researched the backstories of somewhere between 300 and 400 of Hine’s subjects (“I’ve stopped counting,” he muses). Many of his findings are published on his website, MorningsonMapleStreet.com.
“I began to understand that the most important thing was to get these pictures to the subject’s descendants,” he says, “while they still knew and remembered the person. If I can do that for people, why wouldn’t I? In the end, giving people back their own history is a mission for me.”
Manning admits to a strong feeling of kinship with Hine. (“It’s incredible how much I look like him,” he laughs.) Detested by factory managers who saw him as a nuisance and rabble-rouser, Hine assumed a variety of personae – including a Bible salesman or insurance agent — in order to gain access to the workplaces he needed to photograph. Once inside, he documented the labor conditions and produced a monumental typology of the workers — usually children — and their stories. Hine’s exhaustive studies formed such a comprehensive portrait of his time that they comprised a whole new category of documentation, granting countless photojournalists in the decades that followed the license to pursue any story they chose.
Manning, meanwhile, has his own reasons for pursuing the stories that Hine first reported.
“The children and families depicted in Hine’s child-labor photographs were unwittingly caught in the act of making history,” he notes, “but we know almost nothing about them. The pictures were taken for a noble purpose, but a century later, they have become an enormous photo album of the American family. By finding out what happened to some of these people, and by revealing the photos to their descendants, we dignify their lives, and the lives of everyone that history has forgotten.”
Joe Manning‘s extensive research can be seen on MorningsonMapleStreet.com. Manning hopes to one day publish his research in a comprehensive volume.
Vaughn Wallace is the producer of LightBox. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.
An exhibition of Hine’s work is on view at the International Center of Photography through Jan. 19, 2014.