Jacob Riis was born in Denmark in 1849 and emigrated to the US in the 1870’s, he was a pioneer in photography, a social reformer and journalist. He pioneered his use of photography and journalism to bring social changes in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where poverty and dire living conditions were rampant.

At the time of Riis’ arrival in New York and like so many immigrants before him, he ended up on the Lower East Side where he would reside, all he had was $40, which he used $20 purchased a gun to protect himself, such was the rampant poverty and conditions. At the time of his arrival on the Lower East Side there were an estimated 334,000 people crammed into a single square mile, making it the most densely populated place on earth. People were packed into filthy, disease-ridden tenements with 10 or 15 people to a room.

Jacob Riis worked as a police reporter for the New York Tribune and decided to do a series of exposés on slum conditions on the Lower East Side including Mulberry Street, The Bowery etc, which gave him the idea view photography as a way of communicating the dire conditions of the slums to the general public. Having experienced this poverty himself, he decided to use his work for good. He took photographs of the areas, the people and places, he published articles and also gave lectures which resulted in the establishment of the Tenement House Commission in 1884.

Real Gangs of New York

Jacob Riis worked as a police reporter for the New York Tribune and decided to do a series of exposés on slum conditions on the Lower East Side including Mulberry Street, The Bowery etc, which gave him the idea view photography as a way of communicating the dire conditions of the slums to the general public. Having experienced this poverty himself, he decided to use his work for good. He took photographs of the areas, the people and places, he published articles and also gave lectures which resulted in the establishment of the Tenement House Commission in 1884.

In 1888, Jacob Riis left his position at the New York Tribune to go and work for the New York Evening Sun, where he began taking the photographs that would be reproduced in an exhibition called How the Other Half Lives, this was his celebrated work documenting the living conditions of the poor. This work was published to widespread acclaim in 1890.

Dive Bars & Saloons

Riis along with a couple of amateur photographers first report was published in the newspaper The Sun on February 12, 1888; it was an unsigned article by Riis which described its author as “an energetic gentleman, who combines in his person, though not in practice, the two dignities of deacon in a Long Island church and a police reporter in New York”. The “pictures of Gotham’s crime and misery by night and day” are described as “a foundation for a lecture called ‘The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York.’ to give at church and Sunday school exhibitions, and the like.”

Police Station Lodgings

Riis and his companions were among the first photographers to ever use flash photography. For three years Riis working mostly at night taking photographs he was able to capture some of the worst elements of the New York had to offer, the slums, the dark streets, tenement apartments, and “stale-beer” dives, and documented the hardships faced by the poor and criminal, especially in the vicinity of notorious Mulberry Street.

For the remaining 25 years of his life Riis dedicated himself to writing, lectures and publishing articles, drawings and photographs highlighting the dire conditions of the poor and needy, social reform. And his pictures really do illustrate his point, looking at them today tell the story of the conditions people lived in.

Locations

Amazingly his photographs were largely forgotten after his death, even though they had received great acclaim during his lifetime, the negatives were found and brought to the attention of the Museum of the City of New York, where an exhibition of his work was held in 1947. His worked is now housed in the International Center for Photography.

Sources:
https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/jacob-riis?all/all/all/all/0

Owen Forsyth

Web Designer, Teacher, Artist, Writer, 3D & Visual Effects, DJ

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