“I was a writer and a newspaper man, and I
only yelled about the conditions which I saw.
My share in the work of the slums has been that.
I have not had a ten-thousandth part in the fight,
but I have been in it.”
Quoted in the San Jose Mercury (March 11, 1911)
Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914) was a journalist and social reformer who publicized the crises in housing, education, and poverty at the height of European immigration to New York City in the late nineteenth century. His career as a reformer was shaped by his innovative use of photographs of New York’s slums to substantiate his words and vividly expose the realities of squalid living and working conditions faced by the inhabitants. Harrowing images of tenements and alleyways where New York’s immigrant communities lived, combined with his evocative storytelling, were intended to engage and inform his audience and exhort them to act. Riis helped set in motion an activist legacy linking photojournalism with reform.
This exhibition repositions Riis as a multi-skilled communicator who devoted his life to writing articles and books, delivering lectures nationwide, and doggedly advocating for social change. Jacob Riis: Revealing “How the Other Half Lives” features Riis’s correspondence, documentary photographs, drafts and published works, lecture notes, scrapbook pages, appointment books, financial records, family history, and alliances from throughout his career. The side walls of the exhibition frame Riis’s call to action on problems he focused on as a reporter—housing, homelessness, public space, immigration, education, crime, public health, and labor. These pressing issues remain at the forefront of many public debates today.
By merging, for the first time, the papers the Riis family gifted to the Library of Congress and his photographs in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, Jacob Riis: Revealing “How the Other Half Lives” provides visitors with an unprecedented opportunity to understand the indelible mark Riis’s brand of social reform left upon our vision of humanity and poverty in the urban landscape as the Gilded Age shifted into the Progressive Era.