Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Photographer Who Changed the World

After seeing the photos in my previous blogs that revealed the horrors of the slums of Five Points, in NYC, some of you wondered how the photographs affected the photographer. Here’s the answer.

The photographer who documented these slums was Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who suffered in poverty when he first arrived in NYC in 1870. A writer and carpenter, he eventually got a job for the “New York Tribune”. He had a real heart for the poor and decided to take the night shift, where he took photographs of the harrowing victims of the Lower East Side. Robert Hughs said, "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 wanted to change all that. He was one of the first to use flash photography, which enabled him to get photographs of the night, including the stale-beer dives where men (and women) would go to sleep for two-cents. They overpaid. “Usually, as in this instance, it is in some cellar giving on a back alley. Doctored, unlicensed beer is its chief ware. Sometimes a cup of “coffee” and a stale roll may be had for two cents. The men pay the score. To the women—unutterable horror of the suggestion—the place is free. The beer is collected from the kegs put on the sidewalk by the saloon-keeper to await the brewer’s cart, and is touched up with drugs to put a froth on it. The privilege to sit all night on a chair, or sleep on a table, or in a barrel, goes with each round of drinks. Generally an Italian, sometimes a negro, occasionally a woman, “runs” the dive. Their customers, alike homeless and hopeless in their utter wretchedness, are the professional tramps, and these only. The meanest thief is infinitely above the stale-beer level. Once upon that plane there is no escape. To sink below it is impossible; no one ever rose from it.”

The preceding was a quote from Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives, which was instrumental in creating awareness of the slums, and in eliciting change—for in the back of the book, Riis offered suggestions.
Riis’ photographs could not be reproduced at the time, but were the source and inspiration for ink drawings that appeared in many magazines and newspapers.

 The work of Riis inspired Theodore Roosevelt (at the time the New York police commissioner) and Lincoln Steffens, one of many who helped create investigative journalism. "He (Riis) not only got the news; he cared about the news. He hated passionately all tyrannies, abuses, miseries, and he fought them. He was a terror to the officials and landlords responsible, as he saw it, for the desperate condition of the tenements where the poor lived. He had exposed them in articles, books, and public speeches, and with results. All the philanthropists in town knew and backed Riis, who was able then, as a reformer and a reporter, too, to force the appointment of a Tenement House Commission that he gently led and fiercely drove to an investigation and a report which—followed up by this terrible reporter—resulted in the wiping out of whole blocks of rookeries, the making of small parks, and the regulation of the tenements."

 I am inspired by Riis. Without his photographs we might not know how things really were for the immigrants of the nineteenth century. The world changed for the better because of his tenacity./Nancy Moser

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