How The Other Half Lives – Jacob Riis and the birth of street photography

When I started taking photos (I don’t call myself a ‘photographer’ and I don’t ‘do photography’, those words infer a degree of technical prowess that I don’t master) my only source of inspiration was the occasional copy of the National Geographic I could lay my hands on at home or in the school’s library. Unsurprisingly, then first pictures were all panoramas, overly saturated to the point of parody, as I tried to mimic, with my cheap point-‘n’-shoot and open source editing programmes, what pros with hugely expensive cameras did.
Then, as time passed, I discovered black and white through the work of Don McCullin or the Magnum Photos cooperative. I began to love, and to imitate, sometimes grainy and blurry, sometimes perfectly focused and crisp clean pictures that big hands of photography had taken from conflicts, far-flung places and cities all around the world.
Without realising it my focus shifted, from panoramas to detail, from nature to cities, from the deserts of nature to human landscapes. My passion for what I’ve grown to call street photography, for lack of a better term, was blooming and, today, is in full swing. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like nature photography anymore, but there’s no denying that, today, my favourite subjects are urban and.
How did it start, though? How did we pass from the rigid, composed portraits taken with daguerreotypes to the fluid, dynamic photographs snapped everyday with DSLRs, mirrorless cameras and phones? Somewhere, sometimes, photography must’ve made a quantum leap out of the studio and into the streets.
Well, it started with this. (click on the photos to start the slideshow).
These pictures come from the granddaddy of those articles that made the history of modern journalism and the fame of many photographers from the Vietnam war onwards. The only difference is that they date from 1889 and they depict the notorious Five Points borough of Lower Manhattan, New York. They were published as corollary and integration of an article (later book) called How The Other Half Lives, by a man called Jacob Riis.
The name Jacob Riis, I suspect, will fail to raise even half an eyebrow in anyone but his descendants, and that’s a shame for this man lived a life worth putting in film, and went on to leave a long-lasting impact on the American society of his time.
Born in Denmark, Riis moved Stateside at 21 with $40 in his pocket, leaving behind a job as a carpenter and a failed love. Upon arrival in New York he spent half of his possessions on a revolver, for New York in those days was anything but safe. Like the majority of the new arrivals, he ended up in the Lower East Side, where some 300,000 immigrants lived shoulder-to-shoulder, packed up to 10 a room, reaching levels of density unparalleled until the creation of the Jewish ghettoes organised by Nazi Germany.
To say that life in America was a roller coaster of emotions for the young Riis would be an understatement. He became an accomplished carpenter, then lost everything and ended up sleeping on tombstones, living off apples fallen from trees; pushed at the margins of society, he ended up living with a stray dog. He bounced back and made a business out of his skill at making flatirons, opening shops in Chicago and Pittsburgh, only to be cheated and ending up in misery once again, ending up again in the squalid Five Points’ police lodgings.
His fortune changed when, after various stints as a journalist, he was offered the post of police reporter for the New York Tribune. His job was to follow the cops on the beat in Lower Manhattan around Mulberry Bend, then known as “Death’s Thoroughfare”. It was this experience, following the police on night shifts through the dark alleyways of Five Points, witnessing the Hobbesian condition of the city’s own untouchables, that made Jacob Riis one of the best reformist journalists, or muckrackers as they were called, of his period.
Riis’ aim was to raise awareness around the squalor and hopelessness of the immigrants’ quarters in town but, however well written, his articles lacked edge. Lost in a sea of similarly written dispatches, his articles seldom succeeded in titillating the curiosity of the city’s well to do and, if they did, it was more a morbid interest that they arose, rather than a genuine intention to do something to mend the situation.
An image, the adage goes, is worth more than a thousands words. Riss knew that but was also acutely aware that, unfortunately, photography wasn’t ready just yet: the technology still revolved around plates, sheets of glass coated with an emulsion of silver salts which, in turn, reacted to light and created the negative of the photo. This whole process required plenty of natural light, absolute stillness and quite a long exposure time. Needless to say the dim recesses of the Lower East Side, with their continuous flurry of human activity, offered neither light, quiet or time.
Then, in 1887, Riis was startled to read that, in Germany, a couple of inventors had managed to harness the powers of magnesium to create a flash powder capable of generating a vamp of light bright enough to impress a plate. The whole affair was complicated and dangerous as the operator was to fire a cartridge containing a chemical compound similar to the one used in the flares that planes deploy to deviate heat-seeking missiles. Not exactly what you’d like to hold in your hands.
In a few years’ time Riis became a professional photographer, taking snapshots of the seediest blocks around Mulberry Streets, documenting the desperation and the destitution in which the poorest New Yorkers were thrown in and left, seemingly forgotten, by the rest of the city.
His works, which he gathered in multiple publications and articles, sent shockwaves through the New York society. The future US President Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the Board of Commissioners of the NYPD, befriended him and went with him on night patrol (and on their first night out found that 9 cops out of 10 had decided not to bother turning up). The images of utter squalor and brutal exploitation forced the City to intervene with much needed sanitation and led, ultimately, to the restoration of a large parts of the Lower East Side.
More than 120 years have passed from the time when Jacob Riis, armed with an antiquated camera, tripod and a flash that often set fire to houses, went in the most violent slum on Earth, alone, for the sake of helping out its unfortunate dwellers. His pictures might lack the crispness or the quality of more modern executions but, in terms of poignancy and sentiment, well, they still give a run for their money to those made by many well-known professional photographers of today.
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2 Responses to How The Other Half Lives – Jacob Riis and the birth of street photography

  1. richandalice says:

    Extremely interesting post — well researched and well written.


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