Homeless boys sleeping.
There is an explosion and a flash of light. A revolver has fired against the black midnight of New York’s lower east side. But there is no crime: the cartridges’ destination is a frying pan, and their purpose to is ignite enough light for a clumsy camera to take a picture. In the late 1880s, a reporter for the Tribune and the Associated Press bureau is trying to document scenes he’s frequented during the course of his job.
Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism. An immigrant from Denmark, he published these early images in a book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890. Recently named by the Library of Congress to “The Books That Shaped America,” it displayed the lives of the poor living in tenement houses, and the homeless, in the nation’s largest city. Riis at first hired a photographer, but it wasn’t long before he bought a new camera that could be portaged throughout the city, and taught himself how to use it. He caught his clothes on fire more than once, and had to smother a blaze his equipment started in a home where several blind people were sleeping.
Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt called Riis “New York’s most useful citizen.” Offered several upper level government jobs, he declined, to continue what he considered more important, sharing the plight of the poor. “He has been my brother since I met him,” TR said.
“Hunting River Thieves”
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, How the Other Half Lives presented the photographs in a form which was overdrawn by notable artists. These were in stark contrast to the pictures printed today in halftones, which break them into a series of dots.
The timeless photos have beauty in spite of the despicable circumstances that prompted them. The beauty of a child, of a soul, of a bridge over a river at night. The beauty of hope that some American citizens would get a better chance, made possible by the dedication of Jacob Riis.
Some of the information in this post comes from the preface by Charles A Madison for How the Other Half Lives (New York: Dover, 1971)
Richmond Hill Historical Society photo
By the by, the 2012 “Books That Shaped America” exhibit may still be browsed online at loc.gov. What others do you suppose made the list? Guess before you look.