Jacob Riis, 1849-1914, is another one of my favorite photographers. Born in Denmark but later immigrating to New York City, the vast majority of Riis’ work was spent photographing and documenting the lives of poor immigrants in New York’s slums.
Riis spent many years living in and out of poverty and unemployment, so he had a lot of personal experience in the horrors of everyday life in certain areas of the city. He was educated and had a talent for writing, however, which landed him a job at a local newspaper. He eventually worked as a police reporter for the New York Tribune on Mulberry Street, right in the heart of the notorious Five Points slum. This slum was famously depicted, albeit with lots of violent exaggeration, in Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York. This photo below, taken by Riis in 1888, served (I believe) as inspiration for one of the opening screen shots in that film.
Riis tried to advocate for the poor through his writing but eventually turned his focus to photography in order to better illustrate his charges. He was one of the first American photographers to use flash photography. In 1890 he published a now-famous book called How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, which is today considered an early piece of muckraker journalism.
How the Other Half Lives meant to bring awareness to the middle and upper classes in New York , to show them just how squalid and deplorable the living conditions were in certain parts of the city. He also laid out solutions he believed, with the higher classes’ help, would help ameliorate the situation.
I own a copy of this book but admit I have yet to read it. Still, Riis’ photographs and the stories behind them are a fascinating part of New York’s history that I never ever forget. He may be in a totally different genre than Eugene Atget, but to me his work is equally compelling.
If you want to learn more about the Five Points slum area, or about the lives of its immigrant residents, visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. They have some great walking tours of the area where Riis’ photographs are set.
September 11, 2008
By Mike LandryIt’s easy to dismiss the 19th century from our everyday lives. It was an era of Napoleonic wars, slave trading and the wild west. But it also was an era that saw the invention of the bicycle, stethoscope, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner and modern computing.
The exhibition Blood, Sweat and Tears: Labour in Art at the Art Gallery of Hamilton aims to show how the 19th century is still alive today. Providing visitors with not just beautiful art from the 19th to the mid-20th century, the show also intends to provide a greater sense of history.
“We’re still continuing that trend of total transformation, which we first saw in the 19th century in industry and the move away from agriculture and the market,” says Dr. Patrick Shaw Cable, who curated the exhibition. “As a person working in an office for a big computer firm it might be interesting for people to be reminded in this day and age who’s making all the money for these workers.”