Jacob A Riis: The Supreme Weapon of Fact

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October 22, 2016 by Rob Cook


Editors Note: I have wanted to do a post on Jacob Riis for several years now. I have been reading and corresponding with experts for five years or more. Years ago my daughter started a history fair project on Riis that never got finished. Some of this research is from that time. I am going to draw heavily on the writings of authors Bonnie Yochelson and Alexander Alland Sr. They are in my opinion the foremost experts on Riis and especially his photography. I am taking a little different track with this paper and going to focus more on his photography and less on his social activism, although they are interconnected. This is NOT intended to be a life history of Riis. It IS intended to be a photography history of Riis.



Jacob A Riis


Jacob Riis is hard to write about. This is a photo history blog, but Jacob Riis was not a photographer; he was a crusading journalist, a muckraker that used photography as a weapon. Amazingly, today Riis is probably better known for his photographic images then the significant advances he made for the poor through his writing. In Alexander Alland’s book Jacob A Riis: Photographer and Citizen, Alland writes:

Two unique attributes of photography attracted Jacob Riis and enabled him to become — nearing forty and a reporter by trade — America’s first true journalist-photographer. First, the camera is unsurpassed for recording what is there; words describe, the camera shows. Second, formal training is not a necessity; even with the primitive equipment of Riis’s day, a neophyte could become a proficient photographer in a relatively short time. What mattered, then as now, was the use one made of the camera.[1]


Black and Tan Dive

Jacob Riis wrote in his autobiography, The Making of an American, “The power of fact is the mightiest lever of this or of any day.” Riis recognized in the photographic image a supreme weapon of fact, a mighty lever for exposing, persuading, and convicting.[2] Riis continued, “I came to take up photographing . . . not exactly as a pastime. It was never that with me. I had a use for it, and beyond that I never went. I’m downright sorry to confess here that I’m no good at all as a photographer.”[3] I’m not sure history would fully agree with Riis’s assessment of his own skills. Over the years the legacy of Jacob Riis Photographer has come out through the dedicated work of Alexander Alland Sr., Bonnie Yochelson and others. It’s a fascinating story that preserves Riis for all time.

Alexander Alland wrote:

Riis’s extraordinary photographic legacy was accom­plished in a short duration. In 1887 he enlisted two amateur photographers and then two professionals to illustrate his stories with pictures made instantaneously by means of a new technique — flash powder. A few months later Riis himself bought a camera outfit and made his first photographs. Only one plate turned out: a dramatically overexposed view of a common grave. Some ten years later, he put away the camera and apparently never again took it up. He had made enough photographs to document his writ­ings and lectures.[4]

        Alland Continues:

The collection that survived him is tes­timony to the extreme practicality with which he approached photography. It embraces 412 glass-plate negatives consisting of original pictures
taken by Riis and by four other men, a large number of copy negatives of pictures and drawings Riis obtained from the files of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Rogues Gallery, Board of Health, and the Children’s Aid Society, and a few subjects copied from commercially sold stereographs. The negatives by Riis him­self probably do not exceed 250 . . . He photographed only what he needed and nothing more.[5]



It Costs a Dollar a Month to Sleep in These Sheds …

Jacob Riis’s photographs are inseparable from his ac­tivities as a journalist. He was one of the first of the great investigative reporters, and he brought all his considerable skills as a reporter, author, pho­tographer and lecturer to exposing corrupt politics, inhuman housing, and the plight of neglected children. For much of his life Riis railed against social injustice through his writing. Riis knew first hand what it was like to live in these conditions and how it damaged the soul. When Riis found photography, it was the perfect hammer he needed to hit home his message.

Many people question if Riis really was a photographer. He only photographed for a very short time and his technical skill was poor. Millions of citizens take pictures today, but are they photog­raphers? Alexander Alland says this:

Riis qualifies as a photographer by at least two definitions: Webster’s “one who is engaged in the business of taking pictures” and the more exalted standard laid down almost a century ago by the celebrated spokesman for naturalistic photography, Dr. P. H. Emerson, who said pictures should be judged by “the truth of sentiment and high intellectual standards.[6]

The allegation of poor technique is not valid. In my opinion it’s the vision not the technique that gives the value to the image. There is a famous story that puts technique in proper perspective. In 1939, Edward Weston, toured the Hollywood storage lots of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “Edward was in seventh heaven,” his wife wrote, “he couldn’t take a step in any direction without seeing something he had to photograph. When he found a whole street full of stairways leading to nowhere he nearly went mad with delight.”[7]

Alland said:

Ultimately, not technique but point of view determines whether the photograph will have lasting value. The photog­rapher chooses what image his camera is to record. The power of the choices Riis made is borne out by the tremen­dous and enduring appeal of his pictures to large and eru­dite groups of viewers. Given such choices, technique tends to take care of itself. Riis’s photographs are like children’s drawings — spontaneous, uninhibited, and honest.




Shooting Craps: The Game of the Street

Maybe the greatest example of this point is that of Riis and his contemporary Alfred Stieglitz. The contrast between Riis’s work and Alfred Stieglitz encapsulates two divergent streams of twentieth-century photography. Alland further explains,

Stieglitz, who almost single-handedly elevated the status of photog­raphy to that of a fine art, used the camera to create; Riis used it to record. One believed that the camera should por­tray the beauty that nature wrought, the other used it to re­cord the ugliness wrought by man. The work of Stieglitz is photography at its creative best, Riis’s photographs are not pretty pictures but they aroused the public indignation that led to many vital re­forms. Both men were visionaries, whose photographs today are treasured, studied and often exhibited side by side. Be­tween the two extremes lie the spectrum of human experi­ence and the range of individual preference.


Baxter Street Alley on Mulberry Bend.


When many people think of Riis, they don’t think Stieglitz they think Lewis Hine. In my early research I spent many hours trying to tie Riis and Hine together. It took Bonnie Yochelson to set me straight. Years ago my daughter Michelle was researching a National History Day project on Riis, and Bonnie was kind enough to correspond with Michelle and answer all of our questions about Riis. One of the main questions was how were Riis and Lewis Hine connected? The answer: they weren’t. Yochelson explained,

Riis is from an older generation of social reformers whose impulse for helping people came from his religious beliefs.  Hine was of the younger generation trained in the new field of sociology — he actually had a degree in social work from Columbia University — who believed that social problems were best addressed “scientifically,” that is through new ideas about public policy developed by experts who used statistics, etc.  Hine became a professional photographer specializing in “social photography.” Riis, on the other hand, was a professional journalist and sort of a lay preacher for social reform, and his photographic work was strictly amateur.  When he took his photos in the late 1880s and early 1890s, he was doing something very new — he was a groundbreaker.  But by the time Hine was photographing after 1900, government and philanthropic agencies to publicize their work regularly hired professional photographers. Hine a professional photographer who specialized in this field, and to that extent he was a pioneer — a different sort of pioneer than the amateur Riis.  In short, Riis was a precursor of the Progressive Era and Hine was a Progressive.

 That said, they did know of each other. In 1905, Riis was appointed to the publications committee of Charities and the Commons, a social work journal published by the Charities Organization Society, with which Riis had been associated since the 1880s.  In 1908, Hine was appointed staff photographer for the journal.  In 1911, when Riis was looking for illustrations for an article, he bought some of Hine’s photos as illustrations, and these photos are in the Riis Collection at MCNY.  This was typical for Riis — when he couldn’t get the photos he needed for his talks and publications (before 1895), he took them himself (after he learned to use the camera).  After 1895, when professional photographs were available, he bought them.

In sum, Riis had no ambition attached to his photographs. He was a writer by profession and a propagandist by passion, and his photographs advanced his cause. Hine is a completely different character — a professional photographer.  Riis dabbled briefly in photography; Hine devoted his life to it.   That said, Riis’s photographs are incredibly important — they were a primitive attempt to provide photographic evidence of what no one before him had tried to do.  Their primitive technique in fact makes them all the more powerful to the modern eye.[8]



The story of how Riis’ photography came to light is an interesting one. In the Epilogue to Alexander Alland’s book, Jacob A Riis, Photographer and Citizen, Alland tells the story of how he re-discovered the Riis collection.

Long before his death, Jacob Riis had ended his career as a photographer. There is no evidence that he made pictures for his own use after 1898. He apparently did not make family snapshots.

While his photography was quickly forgotten. Riis’s vo­luminous writings and other papers took their place in major libraries and archives, including the Library of Congress. In addition to his letters and diaries, there were fifteen books, more than one hundred magazine articles and at least two hundred major newspaper feature stories. As the years went by, even the reputation of Riis the writer and reformer became dimmed.

Alland first became interested in Riis in 1941 when a book critic compared his own work to that of Riis.

Though a documentary photographer for many years and a teacher of the subject, Alland had not learned of Riis’s photography. Alland continues the story:[9]

I went to the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, city and social agencies and finally the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House. I could not find a single Riis photograph; I could not find anyone who knew anything about his photography. My search widened. I inquired of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and the George Eastman Museum of Photography. I contacted photo agencies, newspaper morgues, and manufacturers of lanternslides. I checked books and magazines devoted to photography during the years from 1880 to 1900. Not one mentioned Riis.

Finally, in January 1942, I located Jacob Riis’s second wife Mary and sent her a letter … I told her that I was most eager to bring to light her husband’s photography and asked if she had his negatives. After months of unsuccessful attempts to discuss the matter with her by phone, Mrs. Riis referred me to her stepson Roger Wil­liam Riis. He agreed that his father’s pictures ought to be found and put to some use, but he had no idea where they were and doubted they could be found. At any rate, he promised to see what he could find.

Over the next few years I kept up my search for the Riis negatives. I stayed in touch with Roger William Riis, but there was no new information. He was always very gracious and kept my hopes up. In 1945 I went to see him again. Together we reconstructed Jacob Riis’s whereabouts shortly before his death and concluded that the negatives and lanternslides must have been left on the farm in Massachusetts. I sug­gested Roger William should visit Pine Brook Farm to search the attic where some of his father’s personal effects were stored after the funeral.

At this point, my frustration was mounting. The many years of procrastination by the Riis family led me to resort to a slightly devious strategy. I suggested to Miss Grace Mayer, a curator at the Museum of the City of New York, that she write Riis saying that the museum was trying to locate his father’s pictures. A month later Riis brought to the museum a box containing 163 lantern slides which had been found at the farm. I was delighted to see the old pictures in any form and began work in the darkroom. Lantern slides are positive images; they must be converted into negatives from which prints can be reproduced. Many of the slides were cracked, faded or discolored. These had to be enlarged into paper negatives and turned into positives through contact printing so that the damage could be retouched. Only then could they be photographed as negatives and the final prints made. After several months of tedious work I had a portfolio of satisfactory prints. I rushed them to the office of U.S. Camera; certain that the editors would want to break the news of my discovery in their 1947 Annual. Two months later I re­ceived an apologetic note saying, “Although the story is good, the decision is, unfortunately, in the negative.”

Then occurred the event that made worthwhile my nearly five years of searching, prodding and hoping. Some time before, I had suggested to Roger William Riis that he look for the negatives in the old family house in Richmond Hill on Long Island. He promised to alert the occupants. A few months later the house was sold and about to be torn down. The owners, rummaging around the attic, found stored between the rafters the priceless photographs of Jacob Riis — 412 glass negatives, 161 lantern slides and 193 prints. They took the collection to Roger William’s home in Manhat­tan and, Finding no one there, left it outside the door.


Eldridge Street Police Station Lodgers

On November 15, 1946, R. W. Riis presented the collec­tion to the Museum of the City of New York. Now the road was open for presenting his father’s photography to the world. Miss Mayer, curator of prints, and I decided an ex­hibit of his prints should open the following May, the month of Riis’s birth. I selected fifty negatives I considered to be most representative of his work and began preparing prints. At first I was dismayed when I saw the original negatives. In his haste to bring before the public the evidence contained in his negatives, Riis had neglected to fix and wash them prop­erly and some had deteriorated. The negatives presented an even more serious problem, which required a carefully con­trolled method of printing. In Riis’s day, photographic emul­sion was not as sensitive to all colors as it is in modern film. It did not reproduce tonal values correctly and, as a result, parts of the negatives were either overexposed or underex­posed, thus creating unnatural contrast. If an old glass nega­tive is held up to the light, the image is seen in full detail because our eyes concentrate on the darker areas while skimming over the lighter ones. In printing from such nega­tives, however, an even exposure does not render the grada­tion of tones from black to white in the same relationship as they appear to the eye. Riis could not possibly have visualized precisely the entire gamut of values that would appear in the final prints. He was totally unaware of the interrelation of the three principal variables — subject brightness, exposure

Meanwhile, my search for additional historical material to enhance the show led me to a trunk filled with Riis man­uscripts and letters at the New York Public Library. I first heard about the trunk from Mitchell Kennerley, a pioneer in publishing and exhibiting photographs. He told me the first of three dramatically different versions of how the trunk had come to the library. His story had it that agents of the library had snatched the manuscripts and letters from the Mas­sachusetts farm while Riis’s family were still at his funeral. Another version came from Riis’s grandson Dr. Owre, who heard it from the former chief of the library’s research sec­tion. This man told him that many years ago, hearing that tenants of the farm were using Riis’s papers to light fires, he had sent agents to rescue the papers. Paul R. Rugen, the library’s keeper of manuscripts, related the third version to me. According to Rugen, the library had learned of the papers in 1936 from Jacob Riis Praeger, president of the Jacob A. Riis Youth Foundation in Boston. “The farm at Bane was owned (not rented),” said Rugen, “and the story of ‘using the Riis papers to light fires’ would appear to be apoc­ryphal.”

The show was announced as “Special Exhibition, ‘The Battle With the Slum,’ 1887- 1897. Fifty Prints by Alexander Alland from the original negatives by Jacob A. Riis, pre­sented to the Museum by Roger William Riis. May 20 through September 14, 1947.” In her introduction for the show Miss Mayer wrote:

About 5 years ago Alexander Alland – himself engaged in the battle for which Jacob A. Riis gave his life-made a discovery that eventually led to the present exhibition. Searching for early pictorial records of the lives of newcomers to America’s shore, he came upon a group of illustrations by Jacob A. Riis that antedated all others. Searching further, he established the fact that Jacob A. Riis was the first jour­nalist photographer to make use of the flashlight to document the social scene. Through Alexander Alland’s efforts the monumental Riis Collection was rediscovered and generously given to the Museum by Roger William Riis. As a labor of love, Alexander Alland has made the fifty exhibition prints from the fading 4×5 glass negatives, brilliantly surmounting the most difficult technical prob­lems to bring back these epic documents of the eighties and nineties to fight again “The Battle With the Slum.”

From the start the show was one of the most popular ever held at the museum. It was not dismantled until January 1948, long beyond the scheduled closing date.[10]



Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis the man deserves to be studied. He was a man forged through adversity, faith, hard work and dedication. From his early days in Ribe, Denmark, to the hardship of finally realizing love with his first wife, Elizabeth, to his immigration to America that led to his personally experiencing the brutality of the slums of New York, his life was one of hardship and work. In many ways, Riis would have fit very nicely in our day and age. He was a fierce advocate and evangelist for the poor and for children and one of the first true social progressives of our time. His accomplishments are great and wide ranging. Through his work, New York City has clean water today; Playgrounds and parks were built; and the slum houses of New York were exposed and demolished. Sadly, these accomplishments and many more are largely forgotten in today’s world. Today, Riis is best known for his photography, which in my opinion would cause Riis to howl with laughter. As stated above, for Riis, photography was a means to an end that started with the invention of flash powder.

Riis had been searching for a way to show to the public what he was seeing during his midnight raids through the tenement houses. Then, early in the spring of 1887, four lines of newspaper type brought Riis his flash of light.

“One morning scanning my newspaper at the breakfast table, I put it down with an outcry that startled my wife sit­ting opposite. There it was, the thing I had been looking for all these years. A four-line dispatch from somewhere in Germany, if I remember right, had it all. A way had been discovered; it ran, to take pictures by flashlight. The darkest corner might be photographed that way.”[11]

The new method was a forerunner of the modern flashgun, a pistol lamp that fired magnesium cartridges to pro­vide light for instantaneous unposed photographs. Riis im­mediately saw its potential for his own crusades and told his friend Dr. John Nagle, an enthusiastic amateur photog­rapher.[12]

In Tom Buk-Swienty’s book, The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America, he gives an excellent description of the nightly raids led by Riis.

The next big question was how to test this new invention’s limits. When Nagle presented Riis’s idea of photographing the slums to the members of the photographers’ association, it imme­diately became clear that the police reporter on a mission and the amateur photographers on the lookout for extraordinary in-the-dark images shared a common goal. Riis could deliver dark and sinister themes and the photographers could test the new technique. In turn, the photographers could secure Riis photos that were bound to elicit sympathetic responses from audiences, once he was ready to present them. It was seemingly a perfect match.

A few days later a small party of men went on a night expedition down the crooked alleys of Mulberry Bend. The group consisted of Riis, as guide and leader; Henry Piffard; Richard Hoe Lawrence, a well-to-do adventurer; and John Nagle. They brought along the fashionable detec­tive camera, which was new and less clumsy than the earlier generations of cameras. They also brought a pistol loaded with cartridges stuffed with magnesium and gunpowder.


Mulberry Street Police Station

The four men, whom the press soon dubbed “the intruders,” looked quite daunting when they came marching with all their gear down the narrow alleys. Crowds of people would gather around them to see the strange spectacle that unfolded when they took a picture. Police officers on duty were just as curious and often escorted them on their mysteri­ous nightly expeditions in teams of two or four. When Riis found a shot he wanted to capture, the small entourage would stop and set up the camera, and then one of them would pull the gun and fire. Startled onlook­ers thought they were being shot with live cartridges, but instead the brief, crackling blue-white light of the flash appeared before their eyes quickly followed by a billow of thick, gray smoke. At other times the four men would barge in on people asleep in their beds, ignite the flash, and shoot a picture. The whole affair was over so quickly that many of their unwitting subjects never even registered what had happened; some barely woke up before the slum photographers had vanished again into the darkness of the night.[13]


One story even tells of how Riis accidently lit his own hair on fire as the flash gun went off.

Riis described the drama of these bizarre expeditions some months later in an unsigned article that appeared in the New York Sun on February 12, 1888. It was the first published account of the use of the new technique in America.

 Flashes from the Slums
Pictures taken in dark places by the Lighting Process
some of the Results of a Journey Through the City with an Instantaneous Camera —The Poor, the Idle and the Vicious.

    With their way illuminated by spasmodic flashes, as bright and sharp and brief as those of the lightning itself a mysterious party has lately been startling the town o’nights. Somnolent policemen on the street, denizens of the dives in their dens, tramps and bummers in their so-called lodgings, and all the people of the wild and wonderful va­riety of New York night life have in their turn marveled at and been frightened by the phenomenon. What they saw was three or four fig­ures in the gloom, a ghostly tripod, some weird and uncanny move­ments, the blinding flash, and then they heard the patter of retreating footsteps, and the mysterious visitors were gone before they could col­lect their scattered thoughts and try to find out what it was all about. Of course, all this fuss speedily became known to the Sun reporters, and equally as a matter of course they speedily found out the mean­ing of the seeming mystery. But at the request of the parties interested the publication of the facts was delayed until the purpose of the ex­pedition was accomplished. That has now been clone, and its history may now be written.

 The party consisted of members of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York experimenting with the process of taking instantaneous pictures by an artificial flashlight and their guide and conductor, an energetic gentleman, who combines in his person, though not in practice, the two dignities of deacon in a Long Island church and a police reporter in New York. His object in the matter, besides the interest in the taking of the pictures, was the collection of a series of views for magic lantern slides, showing, as no mere description could, the misery mid vice that he had noticed in his ten years of experience. Aside from its strong human interest, he thought that this treatment of the topic would call attention to the needs of the situation, and suggest the direction in which much good might he done. The nature of this feature of the deacon-reporter’s idea is indi­cated by the way he has succeeded on Long Island in the work of helping the destitute children of the metropolis. The ground about the little church edifice is turned into a garden, in which the Sunday school children work at spading, hoeing, planting, and weeding, and the potatoes and other vegetables thus raised are contributed to a children’s home in the city. In furtherance of such aims the deacon- reporter threw himself with tireless energy into the pursuit of pictures of Gotham’s crime and misery by night and day to make a foundation for a lecture called “The Other Half: How it Lives and Dies in New York.” to give at church and Sunday school exhibitions, and the like.

 The entire composition of the night rousing party was: Dr. Henry G. Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, two accomplished and progressive Amateur Photographers; Dr. John T. Nagle of the Health Board, who is strongly interested in the same direction, and Jacob A. Riis, the deacon-reporter. Mr. Riis kindly furnished a number of his photographs to the Sun artist and they are given here.[14]




In the early days, Riis hired two advanced amateur photographers to help him with his photography. Riis had no intention of taking the photos himself. He was a writer, not a photographer, so he took his pictures by proxy. At Riis’s direction, Dr. Henry G Piffard, and Richard How Lawrence photographed a few of the more familiar images in the Riis collection. Images like Bandit’s Roost and Gotham Court are now attributed to all three men. Riis said about these early days, “We took some good pictures, but very soon the slum and the awkward hours pulled upon the amateurs. I found myself alone just when I needed help most.”[15] Riis hired another professional but soon fired him when he discovered him selling the images on the side. In January 1988, Riis bought a camera and decided to go it alone.

Riis’s first photograph was a grossly over exposed image of grave diggers. He captured them lowering pine boxes into graves in the Potter’s field where the poor were taken to be buried. He double exposed the negative to make sure he got the image and put the undeveloped film back into the box. He ended up having to develop all the film to find the exposed negative. With this first experience he became, “a photographer after a fashion.”

That same month Riis gave his first illustrated lecture on his experience with the poor in New York. These lectures continued through his life and became his major source of income along with his books and other writings. The lectures general consisted of approximately 100 lantern sides and commentary from Riis taking the viewer on a journey deep into the underbelly of New York City. Riis’s presentations were a sensation. Over the years the presentations morphed with Riis using images from his own work and many other photographers. Riis was not only a photographer but also a photographic collector. He didn’t hesitate to use any image he thought would advance his message. In Bonnie Yochelson’s book, Rediscovering , she gives a vivid description of a Riis lecture:

Riis led his audience from the infa­mous Gotham Court on Cherry Street, a “model” tenement where it was said a thousand people lived; to Bandit’s Roost, a narrow, filthy alley in Mulberry Bend; to Corlears Hook on the East River, where the Short Tail Gang sat under the docks drinking beer. Among the indoor scenes were a “black-and-tan dive” on Wooster Street, where “the white and black races meet in common debauch”; Happy Jack’s Palace, a seven-cent lodging house on Pell Street; and an opium den on Pell between Mott Street and Chatham Square. Riis also recounted missed opportunities, like the Italian ragpickers at work in a South Fifth Avenue alley who “were suddenly dispersed by one word from the Italian proprietor before their pictures could be caught.” His tour of the slums complete, Riis showed slides of charitable organizations, such as the Five Points House of Industry and the Children’s Aid Society, as well as scenes from a police sta­tion, the Tombs, and the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. He concluded with images of “how the other half dies in New York,” presenting Bellevue Hospital, the city morgue, and Potter’s Field on Hart’s Island.[16]



Riis with Colleagues in Reporter Office

Riis is probably best known for his work, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. It was his first book and a sensation from the beginning. Riis wanted his reading public to truly experience how it felt living in the tenements and through photography he could finally do that. Riis being inspired by the James Russell Lowell poem, “A Parable” and his Christian moral convictions combined brutally honest and harsh stories, equally terribly statistics, and toped it off with pictures showing the deplorable conditions. The result was a religious experience for many that had never been seen before and a terrible shock for 1890’s America. How the Other Half Lives had an immediate and lasting impact that is still being felt today. In the preface to How the Other Half Lives, Riis gave a hint as to what inspired him to write the book. Riis believed “that every man’s experience ought to be worth something to the community from which he drew it, no matter what that experience may be, so long as it was gleaned along the line of some decent, honest work.”[17] How the Other Half Lives was a bestseller for many years and resulted in great improvements being enacted for the poor across the country. For me, How the Other Half Lives is the first great example of the power of photography.



The First Board of Election …


In my opinion, Riis’s stronger photographic work was in his second book, Children of the Poor.

Riis’s most productive years were 1891-1892 as he prepared Children of the Poor.[18] It generally received good reviews, but the photography received little notice. Despite the good reviews, Children of the Poor was not a game changing sensation like How the Other Half Lives was. During this time, Riis also photographed to provide illustrations for his numerous newspaper and magazine articles. His lecture tours became national in scope and the demands on his time increased. As his fame grew his photography waned, and by 1895 he was only shooting a handful of images a year.[19] After 1898 Riis gradually became less a photographer and more a collector or consumer of photography. He collected images from other photographers, including 13 by Lewis Hine, that told the story he wanted to tell in his lectures. That was good enough for Riis.

Riis’s photography career was finished, but he was still going strong preaching his message against poverty. During the next 16 years, Riis published more books and articles, but mostly traveled giving illustrated lectures to earn income. He remarried after his first wife Elizabeth died, and he remained in good enough health to work until near the end. His health had suffered greatly over the years due to his long hours and exhaustion, but he had always recovered enough to continue with his tours.



In April of 1914, while in New Orleans for a lecture, Riis col­lapsed and was hurried back to Battle Creek, Michigan where he had been recuperating before his last lecture tour. Alexander Alland tells of Riis’s final days:

He came down with bronchitis . . . Early in May; Mary his second wife received urgent word from her hus­band in the sanitarium. Though spent with his illness, he wanted to come home. She and Roger William[20] rushed to Bat­tle Creek to bring him back. “The railroad journey was al­most more than his strength could endure,” wrote Dr. Owre. “Then came the automobile trip, over a rough road. Just be­fore they came in sight of the farm, Riis collapsed again. He rallied briefly, and then began to lose strength each day. Friends gathered and messages of sympathy poured in. Riis fell into a coma; occasionally he was able to recognize those around him. On May 26, 1914, he died … he was . . . buried, as he had specified, under an unmarked granite boulder in the cemetery situated down the hill from the farm.”[21]

Riis was buried on the afternoon of May 28, 1914. His funeral was small and simple, as he had requested. The service was held in the room where he had died. Present were a few of his closest friends, most of his children and his second wife, Mary.

After a short service, two of Riis’s favorite hymns, “Abide With Me” and “Hark! Hark! My Soul!” were sung by a boy’s choir. After the last notes of the hymns had faded, local farm workers carried Riis’s casket to Riverside Cemetery where he was laid to rest in a secluded corner. He had not wanted a traditional headstone but had requested a simple granite stone with no inscription. Riis had further asked that no flowers be sent. The family put notices in the papers asking that donations be sent to charities that helped the children of the slums.[22]

After Riis’s death, the first telegram to reach the family was from Riis’s friend Teddy Roosevelt. It read:

Mrs. Jacob A. Riis, Barre, Mass.:

I am grieved more then I can express. I feel as if I have lost my own brother. Jake’s friendship has meant more for me then I can say.

Riis’s death was front page news in papers across the Country. Numerous obituaries were published upon Riis’s death. None mentioned his photography.


Police Station Lodgers 19. The Single typhus lodger in Eldridge

Police Station Lodger

I will give the last word on Riis to Ansel Adams. In Alexander Alland’s exceptional book on Riis, Ansel Adams wrote the preface and told of his intense feelings for Riis’s work:

   . . .These people live again for you in print — as intensely as when their images were captured on the old dry plates of ninety years ago. Their comrades in poverty and suppression live today in all the cities of the world. … It is because in view­ing those prints I find myself identified with the people photographed. I am walking in their alleys, standing in their rooms and sheds and workshops, looking in and out of their windows. And they in turn seem to be aware of me. Many of the people shown in Riis’s work looked at the camera and the photographer at the moment of exposure. They did not realize that they were looking at you and me and all humanity for ages of time. Their postures and group­ings are not contrived; the moment of exposure was selected more for the intention of truth than for the intention of ef­fect.

   To my list of intense experiences in photography, including a preview of some Strand negatives in Taos, the Portraits and Shells of Weston, the Equivalents of Stieglitz and the mag­nificent human affirmation of Dorothea Lange, I must add the [Jacob] Riis-Alland prints . . ..

For me these are magnificent achievements in the field of humanistic photography. I know of no other contemporary work of this general character, which gives such an impres­sion of competence, integrity and intensity.[23]



Jacob Riis Lantern Slide Box

In 2016, The Library of Congress mounted an exhibition on Jacob Riis. 58 Items were put on display. These were taken from the Library of Congress’ own collection and photographs from the Riis collection based in the Museum of the City of New York. Many rarely seen personal items were on display including a negative inventory from his collection of photographs, and several of the lantern slides he used on his lecture tours. Several modern prints from Riis’s negatives were also on display including my personal favorite, I Scrubs.


Some of My Favorite Riis Images

Bonnie Yochelson and Alexander give insights about some of Riis’s specific images and tell the story behind the image. I have selected a few of my favorites for this posting.


Bandit’s Roost

One of Riis’s better know images. This is one of my favorites due to its menacing nature. It portrays thugs in an alley protecting their turf. An early stereographic negative photographer 1887 -1888 attributed it to Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence, and Henry G Piffard. In an article that appeared in the New York Sun, February 12, 1888 describes the Roost as it had become known.

… At 59 Mulberry Street, in the famous Bend, is another alley of this sort [like Baxter Street Alley] except it is as much worse in character as its name, “Bandits’ Roost,” is worse than the designations of most of these alleys. It has borne this name these many years, and though there have been many entire changes in the occupants in that time, each succeeding batch seems to be calculated in appearance and character to keep up the appropriateness of that name. Many Italians live here. They are devoted to the stale beer in room after room, where the stuff is sold for two or three cents a quart. After buying a round the customer is entitled to a seat on the floor, otherwise known as a “lodging,” for the night …[24]


Five Cents a Spot

One of Riis’s best-known early images attributed to Riis himself.

The huge influx of Italian immigrants to Mulberry Bend left thousands homeless and forced to sleep in illegal lodging houses for “five cents a spot,” This room and an adjoining one held fifteen men and women and a week- old baby. Riis took the photograph on a midnight expedition with the sanitary police who reported overcrowding. In his autobiography, he explained, “When the report was submitted to the Health Board the next day, it did not make much of an impression—these things rarely do, put in mere words—until my negatives, still dripping from the dark-room, came to reinforce them. From them there was no appeal.”[25]

Riis’s powerful book How the Other Half Lives was the first, best example of mending words and photographic images. In it, Riis describes the squalor that these people lived in:

What squalor and degradation inhabit these dens the health officers know ... From midnight until far into the small hours of the morning the policeman’s thundering rap on closed doors is heard … The doors are opened unwillingly enough … upon such scenes as the one presented in the picture. It was photographed by flashlight on just such a visit. In a room not thirteen feet either way slept twelve men and women, two or three in bunks set in a sort of alcove, the rest on the floor. A kerosene lamp burned dimly in the fearful atmosphere ... The “apartment” was one of three in two adjoining buildings we had found, within half an hour similarly crowded. Most of the men were lodgers, who slept there for five cents a spot …[26]


I Scrubs

If I could have one Jacob Riis Image on my wall it would be this one. For Riis’s second book, The Children of the Poor, Riis documented several children. The resulting images were very different from his earlier works, and I believe it is his best work. It was later in the photographic experience for Riis and you can tell his quality has improved. In my opinion the Alexander Alland modern print does a lot to enhance this image.

You can just see the resolve in those eyes. When Riis met nine-year-old Katie at the 52nd Street Industrial School, he asked what kind of work she did. And she answered, “I scrubs.” Katie and her three older siblings took their own apartment after their mother died and their father remarried. When asked if she would pose for this picture. Katie “got right up . . . without a question and without a smile.”[27]

In Children of the Poor Riis told a little more about Katie. “What kind of work do you do?” I asked. “I scrubs,” she replied promptly, and her look guaranteed that what she scrubbed came out clean. Katie was one of the little mothers whose
work never ends. Very early the cross of her sex had been laid upon
the little shoulders that bore it so stoutly. On the top
floor of a tenement . . . she was keeping house for her older sister
and two brothers, all of whom worked. Katie did the cleaning
and the cooking of the plain kind. She scrubbed and swept and went to
school all as a matter of course and ran the house generally with
an occasional lift from the neighbors, who were poorer than they…[28]


Minding the Baby

This image taken by Riis is another photograph used in Children of the Poor. This shows a “Little Mother” with a baby in the Cherry Hill housing yard. Probably the family was either moving in or out based on the household items scattered in the photograph. Young children were often needed to mind the baby while a parent was away working.

In Children of the Poor Riis told the story of Susie who minded the baby. Of Susie’s hundred little companions in the alley playmates they could scarcely be called—some made artificial flowers, some paper-boxes, while the boys earned money at
“shinin’ ” or selling newspapers. The smaller girls “minded the baby,” so leaving mother free to work … In an evening school class of nineteen boys and nine girls … I found twelve boys who “shined.” five who sold papers, one of thirteen years, who by day was the devil in a printing-office and one of twelve who worked in a
wood-yard. Of the girls, one was thirteen and worked in a paper-box factory, two of twelve made paper lanterns, one twelve-year-old girl sewed coats in a sweat-shop, and one of the same age minded a push-cart every day. The four smallest girls were ten years old, and of them one worked for a sweater. . The three
others minded the baby at home, one of them found time to help her
r sew coats when baby slept.[29]


Slept in that Cellar for Years

This image shot by Riis for his second book, Children of the Poor is one of his best images. He describes it below:

. . . It was only last winter [189l] I had occasion to visit
repeatedly a double tenement at the lower end of Ludlow Street, which
the police census showed to contain 297 tenants, 45 of whom were
under five years of age not counting 3 peddlers who slept in the moldy
cellar, where the water was ankle deep on the mud floor.

The feeblest ray of daylight never found its way down here … It was an
awful place, and by the light of my candle the three, with their
unkempt beards and hair and sallow faces, looked more like hideous ghosts
than living men. Yet they had slept here among and upon decaying
fruit and wreckage of all sorts for over three years . . . There had been
four. One was then in the hospital . . . He had been run over in
the street . . . Upstairs, especially in the rear tenement, I found the
scene from the cellar repeated with variations . . .[30]


The Tramp

This image attributed to Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence, and Henry G Piffard was one of the early images and was used in, How the Other Half Lives. This was Riis’s landmark study of the tenement houses of New York and is still read and studied today.

On one of my visits to “the Bend” I came across a
particularly ragged and disreputable tramp, who sat smoking
his pipe on the rung of a ladder with such evident
philosophic contentment in the busy labor of a score of
ragpickers all about him, that I bade him sit for a picture,
offering him ten cents for the job. He accepted my
offer with hardly a nod, and sat patiently watching me from
his perch until I got ready for work. Then he took
the pipe out of his mouth and put it in his pocket, calmly
declaring that it was not included in the contract,
and that it was worth a quarter to
have it go
in the picture. I
had to give in.[31] 


Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters

This image attributed to Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence, and Henry G Piffard was one of the early images and was used in, How the Other Half Lives. The image dates from 1887 – 1888.

. . . The Street Arab is as much of an institution in New York
as Newspaper Row, to which he gravitates naturally .
. . Crowded out of
the tenements to shift for himself
… he meets there a host of adventurous
runaways from every state in the Union. A census of the
population in t
he newsboys’ lodging-house will show such an odd mixture
of small humanity as could hardly be got together in any other spot.

The Street Arab has all the faults and all the virtues
the lawless life he leads. Anyone, whom business or curiosity has
taken through Park Row or across Printing House Square in the
midnight hour, when the air is filled with the roar of great presses
has seen little groups of these boys hanging about the n
offices: in winter f
ighting for warm spots around the grated vent-holes
that let out the heat and steam from t
he underground press-rooms
and in summer playing craps and 7-11 on the curb for their hard-earned
Here the agent of the Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Children finds those he thinks too young for “business”
but does not always capture them . . .[32]


The Baby’s Playground

This image is considered by many to be one of Riis’s most powerful images. It’s not one of my favorites, but to each his own. It was published for his book, The Peril and the Preservation of the Home.

I went up the dark stairs in one of those tenements and there I trod upon a baby. It is the regular means of introduction to a tenement house baby in the old dark houses, but I never was able to get used to it. I went off and got my camera and photographed that baby standing with its back against the public-sink in a pool of filth that overflowed on the floor. I do not marvel much at the showing of the Gilder Tenement House Committee that one in five of the children in the rear tenement into which the sunlight never comes was killed by the house. It seemed strange, rather, that any survived.[33]


Blind Beggar

This image by Riis is of James M’Bride, a pensioner in New York. It was used in How the Other Half Lives, Riis’s first book.

Nothing short of making street begging a crime has availed to clear our city of this pest to an appreciable extent. The blind beggar alone is winked at in New York’s streets, because the authorities do not know what else to do with him. The annual pittance of thirty or forty dollars which he received from the City serves to keep his landlord in a good humor; for the rest, his misfortune and his thin disguise of selling pencils on the street corners must provide. Until the City affords him some systematic
way of
earning his living by work to banish him from the street would be tantamount to sentencing him to death by starvation. So he possesses it in peace, that is, if he is blind in good earnest . . .[34]


Home of Italian Ragpicker

This image was used as part of Riis’s illustrated lecture series. It is part of the Riis collection. It came from a lanternslide dated 1889.

     . . . Sometimes they ask me. What is all this about, with your “infant slaughter” in the tenements? The children are bright and strong to look at … A doctor once said, “It is a clear case of the survival of the fittest. Only those who are strong as cattle can ever stand it.” Those who are sick or dying you do not see. Come with me when those stony streets are like fiery furnaces, and see those mothers walking up and down the pavements with their little babes . . . and hear the feeble wails of those little ones! Here is one of them, an Italian baby in its swaddling clothes. You have seen how they wrap them around and around until you can almost stand them on either end, and they won’t bend, so tightly are they bound. It is only a year ago that the
Italian missionary down there wrote to the city mission that he did not know what to do with these Italian children in the hot summer days, for “no one asked for them.” They have been asked for since, Thank God![35]

Final Thoughts

In my opinion if Jacob Riis had continued in Photography he would have excelled. Riis improved as a photographer over the years. If you compare the images from How the Other Half Lives to those from Children of the Poor there is a stark difference in feel and quality. In the early days the light quality was often poor and Riis couldn’t build a rapport with his subjects. He burst in on a situation grabbed the image and was gone. Later as he grew more confident with the camera I believe he developed a sensitivity and vision and his subjects trusted him. His photography became more natural and his technique improved. You can see in his later images a bond between photographer and subject, especially the children. He used more natural light in the later images, which improved the quality also. Riis had the skills, just not the need.

As I stated at the beginning, this is by no means a complete life history of Riis. I have left out many important parts of Riis’s amazing life on purpose. If you would like to read more about Riis and his early life living in the slums of New York, or his amazing relationship with his friend Teddy Roosevelt, or the love of his life, his first wife Elizabeth, I would highly encourage you to do so. Riis was by no means a simple man. His life should be actively studied in our schools today, but sadly it’s not. There is a reason why Teddy Roosevelt called Jacob Riis, “The Ideal American.” In so many ways, he was.


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Additional Reading

Here are several of the better books I would recommend to further your study of Riis:


The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America – by Tom Buk-Swienty

Jacob A Riis: Photographer and Citizen – By Alexander Alland

Rediscovering Jacob Riis by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom

The Making of an American – By Jacob A Riis


End Notes

[1] Alexander Alland Sr.. Jacob A Riis, Photographer and Citizen: Aperture Inc., 1974.

[2] Alland Sr.. 11.

[3] Jacob A Riis. The Making of an American: The Macmillan Company, 1902.

[4] Alland Sr.. 12.

[5] Alland Sr.. 12.

[6] Alland Sr.. 13.

[7] Alland Sr.. 13.

[8] E-mail interview with Bonnie Yochelson. Bonnie was the former curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York and current instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

[9] Alland Sr.. 43.

[10] Alland Sr.. 44-45.

[11] Riis. 173.

[12] Alland Sr.. 26.

[13] Tom Buk-Swienty. The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America: W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2008. Original published in Danish. Translated to English by Annette Buk-Swienty.

[14] Alland Sr.. 27.

[15] Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom. Rediscovering Jacob Riis: The New Press, New York, 2007.

[16] Yochelson. 132.

[17] Jacob Riis. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York: Scribner’s Books, New York, 1890.

[18] Yochelson. 177.

[19] Yochelson. 177.

[20] Riis’s Son

[21] Alland Sr.. 42.

[22] Buk-Swienty. 8.

[23] Alland Sr.. 6-7.

[24] Alland Sr.. 59.

[25] Yochelson. Pictorial Survey.

[26] Alland Sr.. 80.

[27] Yochelson. 166.

[28] Alland Sr.. 142.

[29] Alland Sr.. 140.

[30] Alland Sr.. 130.

[31] Alland Sr.. 114.

[32] Alland Sr.. 146.

[33] Alland Sr.. 120.

[34] Alland Sr.. 154.

[35] Alland Sr.. 128.


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