Jacob Riis: “How the Other Half Lives”

See image credit below.

Photojournalism can be an extraordinarily powerful way to raise the public’s concern about extreme situations. An early pioneer in this realm was Jacob Riis, whose 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, exposed the underbelly of life in New York City during the Gilded Age, with a particular focus on the Lower East Side.

Though Riis has been occasionally criticized for asking some of his subjects to pose for the photographs, the truth of their surroundings and the veracity of the degradation they faced on a daily basis cannot be denied. Along with the photographs is Riis’s text – chapters about the various ethnic groups that lived together on the mean, intensely crowded streets of Manhattan.

The book achieved its purpose as it successfully provoked a public outcry about living and working conditions in the slums of New York. Most notably, Theodore Roosevelt, then the city’s police commissioner, answered Riis’s call to address the dire situations in which newly arrived immigrants found themselves. In fact, so taken was Roosevelt with Riis and his work that he dubbed Riis “the most useful citizen of New York” and “the best American I ever knew.” Roosevelt said Riis had “the great gift of making others see what he saw and feel what he felt.”

Riis’s book stripped the gilding off the era of extreme wealth and conspicuous consumption to reveal the extreme poverty and squalid living conditions that lay underneath. No longer could upper- and middle-class New Yorkers ignore the “other half” who lived just a few short miles from the Fifth Avenue mansions of the Upper East Side. The title of the book is taken from a quote from French writer François Rabelais: “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.”

Riis himself was an immigrant (he hailed from Denmark) and lived for a time in the slums of the Lower East Side. Getting a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune, he began to photograph crime scenes to augment his reporting. “I was a writer and a newspaper man,” Riis said, “and I only yelled about the conditions which I saw. My share in the work of the slums has been that. I have not had a ten-thousandth part in the fight, but I have been in it.”

In addition to facing charges of staging his photos, Riis also comes in for some criticism for indulging in ethnic slurs and stereotypes in his text. But very importantly, Riis saw that it was the conditions surrounding the immigrants that made their lives wretched – their ill-fated position in New York City was not due to their ethnicity or nationality but to unscrupulous tenement landlords and sweatshop bosses.

To learn more about life in the Lower East Side tenements, visit the Tenement Museum online or – better yet! – in person. And to learn more about Riis, take a look at an exhibit from the Library of Congress and the Museum of the City of New York: “Jacob Riis: Revealing How the Other Half Lives offers a deep exploration of and numerous resources related to this groundbreaking book. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine explains how innovations in flash photography helped Riis in his efforts to use photos as a tool for social reform. Finally, the third episode of Ric Burns’s outstanding series, New York: A Documentary Film, offers a great segment on Riis and his book (go to approximately 1:20 – or 80 minutes into the clip – to view the segment on Riis).

If you’re ready to read this book that was so central in the history of U.S. social reform, you can check it out online on the History on the Net website. If you want a hard copy for your collection (highly recommended so that you can pore over the powerful photographs), check out this special edition.

And finally if you’re curious about the ways another photographer was chronicling life in New York City at this same time, stay tuned for next week’s StoryWeb episode on Alfred Stieglitz.


Image Credit: Photograph of a tenement in the Lower East Side, Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives.