R is for Jacob Riis

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for
my contributions to round 18 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme.

Jacob RiisThe power of documentary imagery can bring about great change and one of the pioneers of this technique was Jacob Riis, the photographer whose work brought about social reform to the housing of New York.

He was born in Ribe, Denmark in 1849. His father was a schoolteacher, Niels Riis, who encouraged his son to learn English through works of Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper.

lewis-hine-child-labor-just-wandered-in-1908Riis showed an early interest in improving the lot of those forced to live in poverty and at the age of eleven or twelve, he gave all the money he had to family living in Ribe in squalid conditions.

He was apprenticed as a carpenter, but jobs were hard to find and in 1870, at the age of 21, Riis emigrated to America. The New York where he landed was changing rapidly as more and more people moved to the cities, their population growing eightfold.

In the 1880s, 334,000 people were crammed into a single square mile of the Lower East Side, making it the most densely populated place on earth. They were packed into filthy, disease-ridden tenements, 10 or 15 to a room, and the well-off knew nothing about them and cared less.

012_jacob-riis_theredlistRiis quickly discovered that work was just as hard to find in America as it was in his homeland and despite doing farm work and other odd jobs, he became destitute and would sleep rough or in foul-smelling police lodging-houses. He left New York and made his way to Philadelphia where he was taken in by the Danish Consul, Ferdinand Myhlert who also found him work as a carpenter and then as a salesman.

He also became interested in writing and after a few abortive attempts at journalism, he was taken on as a trainee by the New York News Association. Riis eventually became a police reporter on the New York Tribune, working in the most crime-ridden and impoverished slums of the city, witnessing the appalling conditions in which people lived.

Jacob_Riis_-_Bandits'_RoostRiis wrote about what he saw, but realised that he needed to publish images if he was to bring it to life. He tried sketching, but wasn’t very good at it. The alternative was to use photography, but the slow exposures made it useless for recording the dark conditions he saw. However, he read about the development of flash powder which he realised might well do the trick.

Riis and three colleagues began to record events with this primitive flash photography and he published the results, the first in February 1888 in The Sun newspaper, described as ‘pictures of Gotham’s crime and misery by night and day’.

b3ed8f170fa95ab8d29d6e8ad85283b0In 1890, Riis published How the Other Half Lives, subtitled Studies Among the Tenements of New York. The book used line drawings that had appeared elsewhere and also seventeen photographs, the first extensive use of halftone photographic reproductions in a book.

He continued his work and in 1895 met Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the New York City Police Department, who said of Riis: ‘The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr Riis the most formidable opponent ever encountered by them.’

Riis’s photographs and writing led directly to an improvement in social conditions in the city and a permanent record of the lives of those forced to live there.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • Yorkshire Pudding 11th May 2016

    As far as I can make out, the saying “how the other half lives” was first coined by Riis and now, like many other helpful phrases, it has become embedded in our language even though most people have no idea about its origin.

    Was Riis’s nickname Basmati?

  • Trevor Rowley 11th May 2016

    Mr Riis has a striking resemblance to Cliff Clavin, the postal worker in “Cheers” who always arrives at the bar in his work uniform.

  • Melody Steenkamp 11th May 2016

    I had not heard of him before, a very impressive person he was!

    Have a nice ABC-Wednesday-day / – week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ <abc-w-team)

  • Reader Wil 11th May 2016

    Riis was a great man, caring for his fellow human beings. We need more of such men.
    Thanks for your comment.
    Wil, ABCW Team

  • Roger Green 13th May 2016

    One of the few people you’ve mentioned that I’m at least vaguely familiar with! A decent man.



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