“We used to go in the wee hours of the morning to the worst buildings…and the sights I saw there made my heart ache until I felt I had to talk about it, or burst out, or become an anarchist, or something…I wrote, but it seemed to make no impression.One morning, flipping through my journal at the breakfast table, I put it down with an outcry that startled my woman, sitting opposite. There it was, the thing I had been looking for all these years. A four-line despatch from somewhere in Germany, if I remember correctly, had everything. A way had been discovered, he was running, to take pictures with a flashlight. The darkest corner could be photographed this way. -Jacob Riis
Jacob Riis was one of the first photographers to use flash powder to illuminate his images of slums and their conditions on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1880s. His work brought to light the horrific conditions suffered by workers who survive it. He immigrated to America from Denmark to find a better life. Instead, he ended up living in tenements.
Jacob Riis had been 21 when he arrived in New York. He was surprised to find himself living in misery in a cramped and disease-ridden building. Other immigrants suffered similarly.
He held many different jobs, from farm laborer to ironworker. He eventually got a job with the New York News Association as an apprentice reporter. His job was to document living conditions he knew very well. He has reported for various newspapers.
The New York Tribune hired him as a police reporter. He wrote stories that described how people lived in the poor neighborhoods of the city. He wanted to tell these stories with more force. Jacob Riis decided to teach himself to become a photographer.
He was very good at describing the plight of poor immigrants. He began photographing in the streets, slums, saloons and buildings of New York. His work was often done at night. It was very difficult for Jacob Riis to shoot in the dark, dimly lit places that housed so many people.
Jacob Riis embraced the innovation of flash powder to illuminate gloomy, unlit scenes audiences had never seen. He accompanied his photos with graphic written descriptions of the poverty he witnessed and recorded with his camera. Newspaper editors demanded more and more of his photos.
Jacob Riis collected his photos in a book called How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. His photographs as well as his brutal writing revealed a part of the city that few had seen. New Yorkers have become aware of the conditions in the slums of their city. The book became a catalyst for social reform.
Jacob Riis became a social reformer through his writings and images. He lectured, showing slides of his lantern pictures to his audience. His work led to reforms in the city. “that every man’s experience should be worth something to the community from which he has drawn it”, believed Jacob Riis, “whatever that experience may be, so long as it has been gleaned in the sense of decent work and honest”
Jacob Riis’ work was well regarded during his lifetime. After his death, he was largely forgotten. At the end of World War II, his negatives were rediscovered and sent to the Museum of the City of New York. A retrospective of his work was held in 1947.
Sources: My Modern Met, International Center of Photography.
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