Jacob Riis was an innovative photographer who utilized his unique style of photographing to expose social issues like poverty and healthcare during the Industrial Revolution His exposé in a book titled How the Other Half Lives impacted public opinion on these issues among the upper classes and encouraged the enactment of political reforms to alleviate the poor s plight Riis s own background as a middle class citizen allowed him to understand the importance of revealing the dangerous housing situation in many New York slums Riis eventually become a champion of tenement housing reform adding to his reputation as an author and photographer Riis was born on May 3 1849 in Ribe Denmark and immigrated to the United States at the age of 21 His life in the US began shakily as he wandered through Pennsylvania New Jersey and New York taking up various jobs like ironworking farming bricklaying and salesman all of which allowed him to gain an acquaintance with the less prosperous side of city life In 1873 he began working as a police reporter for the New York Tribune specifically in the New York City's Lower East Side where he gained further exposure to the ragged underside of New York s population in poverty
The Lower East Side at the time was notoriously known for being riddled with crime and violence and he was struck by the state of despair among citizens In New York City during the Industrial Revolution thousands of immigrants arrived in search for a better life Due to the population spikes of doubling every decade from 1800 to 1880 a shortage of living spaces became a major issue With prices for single family dwellings soaring buildings were increasingly divided into multiple living spaces to accommodate this growing population These narrow low rise apartment buildings many of them concentrated in the city's Lower East Side neighborhood were called tenements Tenements were almost always cramped poorly lit and lacked indoor plumbing and proper ventilation According to History com by 1900 some 2 3 million people a full two thirds of New York City s population were living in tenement housing Riis began his career in photography after his job as a reporter guided him to recognize the importance and power of photographs He is known to have said he believed that the camera was the most effective weapon in his arsenal against unsanitary tenement conditions He taught himself the basics of photography and developed an affinity to the art With practice he began taking his camera with him on his reporting excursions By the late 1880s when he was in his 40s Riis began professionally photographing the interiors and exteriors of New York slums with a flash lamp Due to the lack of light in tenements he needed to learn and employ flashbulb photography At the time flash photography had just recently been invented so
Riis became a pioneer in its use The style of photography involved igniting flash powder a mixture of chemicals which then burns extremely quickly and produces a cloud of smoke and a bright flash that can be captured on film Igniting flash powder by hand was an extremely dangerous endeavor that could seriously injure the photographer and those in close proximity However Jacob Riis used the technique effectively A safer solution was not designed until 20 years later Ultimately Riis used the powerful images in books and reports The crowded tenements dangerous slums and downtrodden street life provided most readers an image of the horrendous conditions of tenement life The images followed a variety of themes that were knitted together to develop a poignant report these themes included neighborhoods mother and children dwellings and weakness of the individual Images displayed the how society s unincorporated were living dangerously that their abodes were dirty and that the neighborhood streets were crime ridden Riis s mother and children photos were particularly effective because they challenged Victorian notions of mothers and children One of his photographs shows a mother with her naked children standing on a rooftop and in others children play out on the streets unattended
These photographs undermined popular opinions of images of children at the time Riis's photographs of dwellings and home life also challenged Victorian notions of the home In one photograph a tenement family makes cigars at the table In another a man sits down to a solitary meal in a coal cellar He also photographed the dilapidated housing composed of cheap materials Interestingly he photographed many of his subjects at a distance to show them in their squalid surroundings He generally did not provide the names of his subjects but when he did it was often condescending This demonstrated Riis s own ambivalence to his subject matter Like many middle class Americans Riis disapproved of immorality and disorder and he found both in the neighborhoods in which he worked Although he stood strongly against tenement housing he did not contribute to that goal on his own Riis s lack of experience as a photographer sometimes worked to his advantage His often blurred and half lit images further fascinated and frightened his audiences His images in How the Other Half Lives combined with his skillful writing skills made even President Theodore Roosevelt respond personally to Riis saying I have read your book and I have come to help The book s success made Riis famous and How the Other Half Lives stimulated the first significant New York legislation to curb tenement house evils Riis stood at the forefront of photography as he began using photography to advocate for social reform a unique stance that led future photographers to continue exploring photography s potential in other realms of life
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