Recovering the Complex Legacy of the Photographer Jacob Riis

VERLYN KLINKENBORG – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
If you have seen any of Jacob Riis’s photographs, you have probably never forgotten them. Riis was the Danish-born police reporter who in the late 1880s brought magnesium-flash photography into some of the darkest and most troubled spots in New York City — the tenements near Mulberry Bend, where Columbus Park now stands. New immigrants were crushed together there in some of the worst squalor and highest population densities ever recorded on this planet.
By Riis’s time, social and political reform efforts had been going on for half a century, but to little effect. What made the difference was his photographs, which Riis used in popular lectures and in his best-selling book, “How the Other Half Lives,” published in 1890, five years before the Mulberry Bend tenements were finally torn down.
His photographs showed a hidden city, a morgue of the living. He allowed New Yorkers to witness, as if firsthand, the overcrowding he caught in the cellars and flophouses, the tenement rooms where sleeping bodies were stacked on top of each other, the dingy corners that had been turned into sweatshops.
His pictures are a harsh, unofficial census, a record of impossible conditions in immigrant New York. On each face he photographed, there is a look of personal extinction except, that is, on the faces of children, who somehow manage to look only hardened.

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