my contributions to round 18 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme.
The 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.
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.
Riis 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.
Riis 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’.
In 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.