Art of the Americas to World War I
- John Choate, Boarding School Portraits of Tom Torlino
- Carleton Watkins and the business of seeing the American west
- Photographing the Battle of Gettysburg, O'Sullivan's Harvest of Death
- Timothy O'Sullivan, Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle
- Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, Knee-Pants at Forty-Five Cents a Dozen—A Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop
The slums of New York
Jacob Riis documented the slums of New York, what he deemed the world of the “other half,” teeming with immigrants, disease, and abuse. A police reporter and social reformer, Riis became intimately familiar with the perils of tenement living and sought to draw attention to the horrendous conditions. Between 1888 and 1892, he photographed the streets, people, and tenement apartments he encountered, using the vivid black and white slides to accompany his lectures and influential text, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890 by Scribner’s. His powerful images brought public attention to urban conditions, helping to propel a national debate over what American working and living conditions should be.
A Danish immigrant, Riis arrived in America in 1870 at the age of 21, heartbroken from the rejection of his marriage proposal to Elisabeth Gjørtz. Riis initially struggled to get by, working as a carpenter and at various odd jobs before gaining a footing in journalism. In 1877 he became a police reporter for The New York Tribune, assigned to the beat of New York City’s Lower East Side. Riis believed his personal struggle as an immigrant who “reached New York with just one cent in my pocket”  shaped his involvement in reform efforts to alleviate the suffering he witnessed.
As a police reporter, Riis had unique access to the city’s slums. In the evenings, he would accompany law enforcement and members of the health department on raids of the tenements, witnessing the atrocities people suffered firsthand. Riis tried to convey the horrors to readers, but struggled to articulate the enormity of the problems through his writings. Impressed by the newly invented flash photography technique he read about, Riis began to experiment with the medium in 1888, believing that pictures would have the power to expose the tenement-house problem in a way that his textual reporting could not do alone. Indeed, the images he captured would shock the conscience of Americans.
At first Riis engaged the services of a photographer who would accompany him as he made his midnight rounds with the police, but ultimately dissatisfied with this arrangement, Riis purchased a box camera and learned to use it. The flash technique used a combination of explosives to achieve the light necessary to take pictures in the dark. The process was new and messy and Riis made adjustments as he went. First, he or his assistants would position the camera on a tripod and then they would ignite the mixture of magnesium flash-powder above the camera lens, causing an explosive noise, great smoke, and a blinding flash of light. Initially, Riis used a revolver to shoot cartridges containing the explosive magnesium flash-powder, but he soon discovered that showing up waving pistols set the wrong tone and substituted a frying pan for the gun, flashing the light on that instead. The process certainly terrified those in the vicinity and also proved dangerous. Riis reported setting two fires in places he visited and nearly blinding himself on one occasion.
Home and work
While it is unclear if Riis’ pictures were totally candid or posed, his agenda of using the stark images to persuade the middle and upper classes that reform was needed is well documented. A major theme of Riis’ images was the terrible conditions immigrants lived in. In the 1890s, tenement apartments served as both homes and as garment factories. “Knee-Pants at Forty-Five Cents a Dozen—A Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop” depicts the intersection of home and work life that was typical. Note the number of people crowded together making knickers and consider their ages, gender, and role. Each worker would be paid by the piece produced and each had his/her own particular role to fill in the shop which was also a family's home.
While Riis did not record the names of the people he photographed, he organized his book into ethnic sections, categorizing the images according to the racial and ethnic stereotypes of his age. In this regard, Riis has been criticized for both his bias and reducing those photographed to nameless victims. “Knee-Pants,” appears in the chapter Jewtown and one can assume that the individuals are part of the large wave of Eastern European Jewish migration that flooded New York at the turn of the twentieth century.
They are likely conversing in Yiddish and share some type of familial or neighborly connection. Some of the workers depicted might have lived in a neighboring New York City apartment or next door back in the old country. Home life, family relations and business relations, are intertwined. Just as it is impossible to know the names of the people captured in Riis’ image, and what Riis actually thought of them, one also cannot know their own impressions of the workplace, or their hopes and day-to-day challenges.
The work performed in tenements like these throughout the Lower East Side made New York City the largest producer of clothing in the United States. Under the contracting system, the tenement shop would be responsible for assembling the garments, which made up the bulk of the work. By 1910, New York produced 70% of women’s clothing and 40% of men’s ready-made clothing. That meant that the knee-pants and garments made by the workers captured in this Ludlow Street sweatshop were shipped across the nation. Riis’ photographs helped make the sweatshop a subject of a national debate and the center of a struggle between workers, owners, consumers, politicians, and social reformers.
The Progressive Era
Riis’ photographs are part of a larger reform effort undertaken during the Progressive Era, that sought to address the problems of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Progressives worked under the premise that if one studies and documents a problem and proposes and tests solutions, difficulties can ultimately be solved, improving the welfare of society as a whole. Progressives like Riis, Lewis Hine, and Jessie Tarbox Beals pioneered the tradition of documentary photography, using the tool to record and publicize working and housing conditions and a renewed call for reform. These efforts ultimately led to government regulation and the passage of the 1901 Tenement House Law, which mandated new construction and sanitation regulations that improved the access to air, light, and water in all tenement buildings.
In the introduction to the How the Other Half Lives, Riis challenged his readers to confront societal ills, asking “What are you going to do about it? is the question of to-day.” It was a question of the past, but one that endures.
Essay by Miriam Bader
- Jacob Riis, The Making of An American, 2: 18
Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York ( Chicago University Press, 2014).
Want to join the conversation?
- @ Jeff Kellman you are missing the point. Riis, who was himself an immigrant, argues in all of his work that the conditions in which people re living in the New York slums are in fact terrible for the future of American Society. It is not a question of whether or not they are better off. In fact, many were poor but not living in the kinds of slum-like conditions us NEw York Lower East Side (where same apartments now rent for $4000 per month!) the rents were VERy high for these death-box firetraps, ravenous landlords were making a killing. Riis felt these living conditions ruined people, created criminals and sickness and would prevent these people from becoming full Americans (he blames the environment - its called environmental determinism, major set of beliefs that the time - see Herbert Spencer etc. ) he championed what today we call social entrepreneurs. When studying history you do not want to project your own beleifs and politics on but instead carefully study the topic. For Riis, the thesis is that decent homes (very straigh-laced ideas about privacy etc) were central to decent families, which are central to decent working class. Alfred Treadway White, a businessman, built housing for his workers, Riis publicized these - White made a profit, but not the insane profits the slum lords made. and his workers had ventilation (everyone was terrified about TB) a library for the biuldings to share, and playspace where kids could be supervised. Riis thinks this is a national problem, that corrupting slums are a threat, not immigrants (he was one!.)(10 votes)
- Isn't it possible (even likely) that if these people were immigrating after all from all over the world and continued to immigrate after the first wave (sent word back home for their relatives to come next), that in fact these conditions were far better than they experienced in their own feudal environments? If that is the case (and I believe it was, and still is as we continue to see many from around the world wish the immigrate to the US), then perhaps it is the free and unregulated world that these people were seeking in such great numbers? Perhaps it was the ability for these people to work within "...the intersection of home and work life..." unimpeded by the various "Tsarist guards" of the world who would have continually terrorized them that actually was so appealing to immigrants. No doubt, the world was completely without the modern idea of a "social safety net", but it there was an alternative "social safety net" in place. Family, friends, and those that shared an ethnicity with one's self. That is why we saw things like "Jewtown" and "Chinatown" after all. When you move to a new an foreign place, people tend to cling to that which is "familiar" and it is this "familiar" social bond that serves as a far more natural (and perhaps effective) "social safety net." Most importantly, it was perhaps this bold, and unregulated new world, no doubt that had it's down sides, but that must have been better than that which these poor immigrants had previously lived in that actually encouraged and welcomed the "tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." to come to this new land in such grand numbers...
Perhaps the message we should take from these (often smiling) immigrants faces is to never sacrifice the freedom in the USA that encourages immigrants to come in the first place...and that in fact what an outsider views as "...terrible conditions..." may in fact be a "terrific improvement" over their previous conditions...(1 vote)
- Interesting the entire concept of better than where they were from and the thoughts of freedom from their mother countries woes. Working conditions for children and women were bad, but starving would be worse. Have no real answers, must think more about it.(3 votes)