Jacob Riis may have set his house on fire twice, and himself aflame once, as he perfected the new 19th-century flash photography technique, but when the magnesium powder erupted with a white, blinding light, he illuminated some of the darkest corners of Manhattan’s impoverished tenements. Despite the journalist now mostly being remembered for his photography of turn-of-the-century New York City, he only considered himself an amateur, a “photographer after a fashion.” He used the novel technology of glass plate photography as a visualization for his greater focus: the reform of housing, police, and other social issues in the city.
Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, which opened last month at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), is the first retrospective of his work since 1947. With 125 objects, the exhibition brings together photographs and archival material from MCNY, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library.
When Riis packed up his Richmond Hill, Queens, home and relocated to Massachusetts in 1912, he put all his papers in order, and abandoned his photography archives in the attic. It wasn’t until the 1940s that his son, Roger William Riis, went back to the attic at the behest of photographer Alexander Alland. William Riis recovered a box containing old lantern slides, negatives, and prints, most of which were donated to MCNY.
Riis worked for over two decades as a journalist, and he may have considered his words his legacy, yet Revealing New York’s Other Half places his photography at the center of a narrative on how a Danish immigrant became a social crusader, friend of Teddy Roosevelt, and pioneer of photojournalism. Curator Bonnie Yochelson, former MCNY curator of prints and photographs, bookends the exhibition with two videos that recreate a condensed version of the lantern slide shows Riis toured around the country. With first-hand anecdotes, a moralistic tone, and a reedy, accented voice, he took viewers on a journey through the squalid tenements. Ticket sales from these lectures would support the King’s Daughters Settlement on the Lower East Side, renamed the Jacob A. Riis Settlement House in 1901. In between are displays in wood cases of prints from his rare surviving negatives, as well as a map that plots out his subjects, from the Mulberry Police Station on the Lower East Side to the Foundling Asylum near Central Park.
As a relentless reform advocate, Riis rallied public attention through his friendship with Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, which continued to Roosevelt’s presidency, as well as with his opinionated writing in the New York Tribune and the Evening Sun. You get a sense of his muckraking spirit in a 1911 letter from an exasperated New York Mayor William Gaynor in regards to the seaside hospital project: “I beg to remind you again that it is not necessary to keep urging me about the hospital. I am just as friendly to hospitals as you are, at least, and it is possible that I know as much about surgical tuberculosis and the method of treating it as you do.”
Riis’s writing can now feel florid and very Victorian — in describing a lodging house in his most popular book, How the Other Half Lives (1890): “On cold winter nights, when every bunk had its tenant, I have stood in such a lodging-room more than once, and listening to the snoring of the sleepers like the regular strokes of an engine, and the slow creaking of the beams under their restless weight, imagined myself on shipboard and experienced the very real nausea of sea-sickness.” However, his photographs still feel immediate, often startling people in the night with the flash and capturing starkly — without metaphor or embellishment — the poverty, overcrowding, and harsh conditions of living for a huge population of immigrants that was ignored by the upper and middle class.
Long after Riis’s death in 1914, his photographs received renewed attention in the 1940s, following the hard times of the Great Depression, and they’re just as powerful now. It’s possible to still see his influence on photographers, such as Matt Black who traveled the United States this year documenting places of American poverty in black and white. And many of the issues and sites Riis visited remain problematic. For example, Hart Island — where he photographed the indigent dead, buried anonymously in stacks in a potter’s field and interred by prisoners from Rikers Island — continues to be mostly overlooked today. Poverty rates in New York City remain high, and the people impacted can still be almost invisible to a wider populace. Revisiting Riis’s work over a century later is a reminder of the importance of visibility for reform, and also how individual advocates can influence that attention.
Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half continues at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, East Harlem, Manhattan) through March 20, 2016.