Tuesday, 17 February 2009


No person could have done more than Jacob Riis (above) (1849-1914) to improve the appalling conditions that many thousands of people were forced to live in amongst the slums and stench-ridden tenements that proliferated in lower Manhattan. An immigrant from Denmark in 1870 he was unable to find work, he was often forced to spend the night in police station lodging houses. Riis did a variety of menial jobs before finding work with a news bureau in 1873 and by 1877 had progressed to a police reporter with the New York Tribune, staying until 1888 when he was employed as a photo-journalist by the New York Evening Sun.

a multi-occupancy dwelling at Bleeker Street (corner of Mercer and Greene Streets)
Aware of what is was like to live in poverty, Riis was determined to employ his journalistic skills to communicate this to the public. He constantly argued that the "poor were the victims rather than the makers of their fate". Riis was among the first photographers to use flash powder, which enabled him to photograph interiors and exteriors of the slums at night. He also became associated with what later became known as 'muckraking' journalism nowadays softened to 'investigative' journalism.

With unfailing accuracy, he questioned some of the things he saw and didn't like, used his pen and was a pioneer in photo-journalism. Using his own photography to fully illustrate his documentaries to indict the slums and tenements of a New York City in the dawn of a new century.

young children grabbing some sleep in Mulberry Street

In December, 1889, his account of the abysmal quality of city life, illustrated by photographs, appeared in Scribner's Magazine which created a great deal of interest and, so the following year, a full length version, "How the Other Half Lives" was published. The book was read by Theodore Roosevelt, the New York Police Commissioner, and he had the city police lodging houses, that were featured in the book closed down. Roosevelt was much moved by Riis's accounts and photographs of the deprivations suffered by those poor souls living in such turgid conditions, that as he rose up the political ladder to President of the United States, he contributed greatly to increasing the living standards of the ordinary working classes.

basement lodgings

a typical tiny tenement apartment where a family both lived and worked

For the rest of his life Riis wrote and lectured on the problems of the poor. This included magic lantern shows and one observer noted that "his viewers moaned, shuddered, fainted and even talked to the photographs he projected, reacting to the slides not as images but as virtual reality that transported the New York slum world directly into the lecture hall."

President Roosevelt was so deeply moved by Riis's sense of justice that he remained a close friend for the rest of his life, calling him "the best American I ever knew."

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