Sections: Biography | Reporter | Photographer | Writer | Reformer | Lecturer | Ally | Riis and Reform | Legacy

Jacob A. Riis’s success as an agent of reform derived not only from his passionate advocacy in print and on the lecture circuit but from his innovative use of the media of his time. He was the first reformer to recognize the potential in new methods of low-light flash photography. He used photographs of squalid conditions in the poorest parts of New York City to convince middle-class audiences of the need for action. Describing himself as a “photographer after a fashion,” he first guided avid amateur photographers willing to test new flash techniques to take nighttime pictures in the slums. Soon Riis began taking photos on his own, letting commercial firms do the darkroom work. The 100 images he assembled for his “Other Half” lecture slides were powerful persuaders, but the impact of those pictures was diminished in print because 1890s printing technology dictated that images be reproduced as crude wood engravings or tonally flat halftones.

The Tramp

Riis’s earliest photographs were taken in association with amateurs Richard Hoe Lawrence and Dr. Henry G. Piffard. Riis’s lecture notes describe the first flashlight photographs taken by the trio, who also posed this “tramp” in a “yard” only a block from Riis’s Mulberry Street newspaper office. Riis had little sympathy for chronically unemployed men, whom he characterized as content to live off the charity of others. He described the “Tramp” photo shoot this way: “On one of my visits to ‘the Bend’ I came across this fellow sitting . . . and he struck me as being such a typical tramp that I asked him to sit still for a minute and I would give him ten cents. That was probably the first and only ten cents that man had earned by honest labor in the course of his life and that was by sitting down at which he was an undoubted expert.”

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  • Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence (1858–1936), and Henry G. Piffard (1842–1910). Tramp in Mulberry Street Yard, 1887–1888. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.93, 90.13.4.94) (052.00.00)

  • Jacob Riis. “The Making of an American,” handwritten lecture notes. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)

    Read the transcript

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Making an Impact with Images

Riis’s earliest lantern slide shows were modeled on the “slum tour” genre that he honed into a popular lecture and his bestselling book How the Other Half Lives. In his later years, Riis offered lectures based on two of his books, The Making of an American (1901) and The Battle with the Slum (1902). His standard lecture fee was $150, and the venue was required to supply a magic lantern and a technician to operate it. Riis arrived with his box of lantern slides and rough notes jotted in pencil on whatever paper was handy.

Lantern slide box owned by Jacob Riis. Canvas on cardboard. Museum of the City of New York (085.00.00)

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Riis’s Collection of Photographs

After 1895, Riis took very few photographs of his own. He may have been too busy; in this period, he was devoting much more time to politics and writing for national magazines. The decline in his photographic output also coincided with the rise of halftone reproduction in magazines, which spawned a growing number of professional photographers working in the reform field. When preparing A Ten Years’ War (1900) and The Battle with the Slum (1902), Riis was able to acquire professional photographs, from which he ordered copy negatives, copy prints, and lantern slides. The sudden increase in the size of his collection led him to number his negatives and create this inventory.

Jacob Riis. Negative inventory, ca. 1902. Museum of the City of New York (084.00.00)

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Mulberry Street Yard

The portrait of the tramp, taken by Riis, Lawrence, and Piffard, was among the group of images that Riis was invited to show at the monthly lantern slide meeting of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York in January 1888. Before 1898, the year that marked the demolition of this yard, Riis returned alone to the same spot at the junction of Jersey and Mulberry Streets to photograph the new occupants of the yard. This later photograph was published in Riis’s 1902 book The Battle with the Slum with the caption: “It costs a Dollar a Month to sleep in these sheds.”

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  • Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence, and Henry G. Piffard. The Tramp. Original lantern slide. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.2.50) (053.00.00)

  • Jacob Riis. Yard in Jersey Street (now gone) Where Italians Live in the Worst Slums, before 1898. Modern gelatin silver printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.102) (054.00.00)

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Sections: Biography | Reporter | Photographer | Writer | Reformer | Lecturer | Ally | Riis and Reform | Legacy