Even thought it’s been over 100 years since his death, Jacob Riis is a name most New Yorkers still recognize—not necessarily because they are familiar with his work as a journalist and photographer, but rather because his name adorns so many of the city’s important public spaces and residences. The Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, for example, dominate much of the waterline overlooking Williamsburg between East 6th and 13th streets; Jacob Riis Park, on the shoreline of the Rockaways, is known as a summertime hangout of hipsters and Klaus Biesenbach. Currently, “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through Mar. 20, 2016. It is Riis’s first major survey in the United States in over 50 years, and is accompanied by a complete catalogue of his photographs, also titled Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, written by the exhibition’s curator, Bonnie Yochelson.
Born in Ribe, an idyllic village on Denmark’s western shore, in 1849, Riis came to New York in 1870 for the same reason immigrants still come here today—to make money, and perhaps even a name for himself. He wanted to win the hand of his teenage love, Elisabeth Gjørtz, who came from a much wealthier family in his hometown. After struggling for over seven years in low-skilled jobs, he fell into a role as a police reporter for the New York Tribune, writing about crime, disasters and the dismal living conditions he encountered in neighborhoods such as Mulberry Bend in lower Manhattan. His opinionated and sensationalist writing quickly became popular. When “flashlight photography” was invented in 1887 by the German scientists Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke—an innovation that allowed photographers to take images of dark spaces—Riis began taking a camera on assignments. Like users of contemporary technologies such as Instagram or Twitter, who see the tools as a way of creating a narrative as well as building a brand, Riis saw photography as yet another way to document his subjects—the “lost tenth” of New York’s population that lived in abject squalor. “He wasn’t a career photographer,” explained Yochelson. “He just had the genius to see how helpful photographs would be in telling the story.”
Although Riis is best remembered for his photographs, which even today move viewers—in theorist Roland Barthes’ terms, they have considerable punctum, or the ability to wound—the exhibition presents a more holistic view of his career. Of the 125 objects on display, which are culled from the City Museum’s Jacob A. Riis Collection of Photographs, the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, only 50 are photographic images. The rest include correspondence between him and president Theodore Roosevelt, who described him as “New York’s most useful citizen”; handwritten lecture notes; original copies of How the Other Half Lives (1890), the book that would make him world famous; and a lantern slideshow, projected in a back gallery, that re-creates one of the paid lectures he gave on New York’s slums to rich audiences. Most arresting of all, at least for this freelance writer, are the receipts of payments he received for work. In 1889, he was paid $140 for the manuscript of How the Other Half Lives, which was based on an 18-page article in Scribner’s Magazine. Ten years later, in 1900, he was paid $1,000 for a seven-part series of front page articles in the Chicago Tribune—which today, taking inflation into account, would total $28,571.43. A fortune back then, and even more so today, when freelance writers and photographers are lucky to see even that original $1,000.
Beyond being the rare sort of journalist who was able to garner both fame and actual social change with his work, Riis was concerned with fair and affordable housing for all—which, unless you are a millionaire, remains a central concern for almost anyone living in New York. “He believed that children must grow up in a decent home, that people cannot have a decent life unless they have a decent home,” Yochelson said. “He was the first person to try to photograph the poor, to put their pictures in the faces of the middle class, and say, ‘This is New York.'”
We are still looking for ways to effectively make visible what remains invisible, despite living in a world flooded with imager—-the conditions of the untouchables in our society, who include the mentally ill, the homeless, the elderly and those living below the poverty line. The people we only see when there are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, or when an election season approaches.
“The challenge for journalists is to try to get over that flood of images that people see today,” said Yochelson. Riis’s work shows how that may be possible. It’s not only about the images themselves, or even the stories, but about the force of the people telling it—and whether they have the desire, as Riis did, and the charisma, to make people listen. We decry the cult of personality as a symptom of our society’s failure to raise civic-minded people in the modern age, but it was exactly the cult of personality that led to Riis’s success—the strength of his accented voice, which Yochelson describes as high-pitched, imploring audiences during lectures, telling them to see the images he took, and not look away.