Looking Back At Jacob Riis, The World's First Photojournalist

If you’re anything like this author, you would only recognize the name Jacob Riis in association with a middle school history class, where you spent all your time daydreaming of a pleasant beach inlet on the tip of Long Island, home to many an interesting gay man. But as these things usually turn out, there’s more to something than a name. I learned a great deal about that name at a new exhibition at the Museum of the City New Yorktitled Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, a show that forever shattered my understanding of middle school social studies and technically illegal nude beaches.

“Street Arabs in Night Quarters” 1888-1889

Jacob Riis was a fiercely popular social reformer, activist, journalist, and a highly influential photographer. He is often considered the world’s very first ‘photojournalist,’ though as I learned when looking into oblong glass cases of his personal belongings, he receives this credit on many photos he never even took.

“The early part of his career in photography are all shots that he arranged, but definitely did not take himself,” said the exhibition’s curator, Bonnie Yochelson. “Riis had to be taught in great detail how to use the camera by his assistants. He never even worked in a dark room.” This means that, despite being credited frequently for the production of numerous iconic images, Riis simply acted as the creator of the scene, much like the director of a film.

“Bandit’s Roost” 1890 and “Children’s Playground, Poverty Gap” 1892

Like the title of his book and the exhibition, Riis’s photographs exposed what he called ‘the other half,’ i.e. the people of New York who were living in squalor blocks away from the wealthy elite. While his books became bestsellers, and he eventually was able to make a living just by going on lecture tours of America, it was these photographs that made the most direct impact. For the very first time, people everywhere were given visual proof of the human atrocities all around them. “The aristocracy was face to face with the urban poor. It was no longer possible for them to ignore it,” stressed Yochelson.

And amazingly, people got involved. After a heart-wrenching (and honestly eerie) photo of children gathered round to pray in their orphanage was published in multiple newspapers, visitors to the children increased exponentially. Many even brought toys and gifts to these kids, who were left without families. Similarly, Riis’s photographs of tenement houses, which showed beds filled with as many as six people slumped together, led to radical reforms. These photos incited real, and often dramatic, social change.

The public housing projects in the Lower East Side of Manhattan were comprehensively reformed, which in his honor, are today named the Jacob Riis Houses. His photographs helped establish early laws against police brutality, the establishment of parks and recreation, and widespread health and sanitation laws throughout the city, including a huge overhaul on the city’s water system.

“Prayer-Time in the Nursery, Five Points House of Industry” 1887 and “Five Cents a Spot” 1890

But given the primitive technologies in cameras at the time (remember those clunky boxes where the cameraman had to put a cape over their heads?), there was a great deal of danger involved in these shoots. Considering that many of the photographs in the exhibition were taken in dark rooms without electricity, lighting was achieved with the use of flashpowder, an ignitable substance that technically works just like gunpowder. Yochelson regaled me with a story of how “Riis set an entire tenement building on fire taking a photograph, and in another instance set himself on fire.”

Riis was certainly an innovator of photography, but as Yochelson told me, he would never have described himself as a photographer. “Riis did not use the camera as means of artistic expression. The camera was a means of highlighting the social issues he sought to eliminate. As he said himself, he was a ‘photographer, after a fashion.’” A photojournalist he may be, but given that the latter half of his life was spent touring the country giving lectures and documenting the inhumanity of the urban poor, a more accurate term may be ‘photoactivist.’

“Jacob Riis,” by the Pach Brothers, 1903

Riis had an incredible background. As an immigrant who was homeless for over five years in gross 1800’s New York, Riis had a surprisingly fast rise to success. He became a nationally renowned journalist, published the aforementioned bestseller The Other Half, as well as an autobiography, and was literally best bromance buddies with Theodore Roosevelt, the president of the United States. Riis used his platform of success not for politics or material wealth, but to shed light on the worst poverty on the planet, and even more amazingly, getting people to give a shit about it.

The Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition is the biggest collection of Riis’ photographs ever put together, and taking it all in was an overwhelming experience. Seeing images of graphic destitution is thought provoking, but perhaps what hit closest to home is just how pertinent the issues Riis explored remain today. Gentrification? Urban poverty? Welfare? All were explored by Riis with blaring honesty, the kind of ingenuity and objectivity that is rare to find in examinations done today. It’s the most powerful message he’s left behind, one that many an impassioned blogger would do well to learn from.

‘Jacob Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half’ is on display through March 20th at the Museum of the City of New York

All imagery courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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