WASHINGTON (CN) – More than a century after Jacob Riis first trained his early flash-powder camera on the grit and squalor of life in the tenement homes of 19th century New York City, a new exhibit at the Library of Congress showcases the enduring relevance of the muckraker’s work.
Riis, a Danish immigrant born in 1849, occupied a space somewhere between a photojournalist, reporter and activist during his four-decade career exploring the living conditions and people who occupied the immigrant neighborhoods on the lower east side of New York City.
“These are the same issues we’re talking about, the ones they were, sort of, addressing then,” said Cheryl Regan, the director of the new exhibition.
The display, which opened Thursday and runs until Sept. 5, showcases the many different ways Riis communicated his message and features him not just as a reformer who spawned movements to improve the living conditions in New York’s immigrant communities, but also as a man ahead of his time.
“We do think he is the pioneer of photojournalism of a certain kind,” said exhibit curator Barbara Bair, who gave Courthouse News a tour of the exhibit before it opened to the public.
His skills went beyond even his eye for the right shot and his ability as a writer, Bair said. He also was a “very good publicist” and was renowned for his sense of humor.
“He would be a social media giant,” Bair said, of Riis if he were still alive today.
The exhibit first opened at the Museum of the City of New York last year and the museum contributed to the organization and content of the Washington exhibit. The museum lent the Library of Congress Riis’ photographs, while the Library of Congress combed through thousands of his manuscripts to chose the ones that fill out the 140 or so pieces in the exhibit.
After its six-month run in Washington, the exhibit will transfer to Riis’ native Denmark, Bair said.
The Washington version takes visitors through each stage of Riis’ career by dedicating a display case filled with artifacts to each distinct role, going from reporter to photographer to writer to lecturer and finally ending with his life as a reformer. Another display case features some of Riis’ allies, like Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, while another highlights his legacy.
Along the walls of the narrow, high-ceilinged room on the second floor of the Library of Congress that houses the exhibit are eight tall informational boards that highlight some of Riis’ personal causes, including crime, public health, housing and labor.
Along the back wall, towering over the exhibit is a blown-up version of a famous Riis photograph of Mulberry Bend, flanked on each side by motion pictures of like in New York taken around the same time, though not by Riis.
As a photographer, Riis used an early version of the flashbulb camera that required two people to operate, one to pour and light the explosive powder into a tray and the other to snap the shot. The contraption “really did sound like a gunshot,” and Riis’ practice of following the sanitation department into pitch-black tenements late at night to get his pictures meant many of his subjects were surprised, Regan said.
A camera similar to the one Riis would have used is on display in the exhibit, part of a section examining Riis’ life as a photographer.
He would then use these pictures to complement the articles he wrote in papers like the New York Evening Sun. Because printing was not yet advanced enough to allow for high-quality pictures, much of Riis’ work was actually portrayed in paper as line-drawings transferred to engravings and stamped in ink.
The broadsheets of the papers are on display at the exhibit and show how Riis blurred the lines between activism and journalism, partly as a coping mechanism for the horrors he witnessed following the sanitation department into the slums and the police department to fresh crime scenes.
“One of the things that we stressed in our labeling is, you know, this idea that he did it to make a living, and at the same time, it was really gruesome things that he was seeing all the time,” Bair said. “And he kind of developed into a social reformer partly to make it all worthwhile, to make it have meaning. Otherwise it would have been very, very depressing.”
His efforts contributed to the adoption of major reforms to tenement housing in New York, including an effort to redesign the buildings that housed New York’s poor and another to force some existing homes to cut 40,000 new windows to improve conditions, Regan said.
“There were changes that made differences by degree,” Bair said.
But Riis didn’t just document these horrors, he lived them as an immigrant.
When Riis first arrived in New York he sometimes stayed in public police lodging houses. One night Riis had a golden locket he wore around his neck stolen, but when he complained to police about the theft they tossed him out of the lodging, Bair said.
Outside of the house a dog that Riis had bonded with came to his defense, barking at the officer who threw Riis out of the house. The officer didn’t take kindly to the dog’s defense, and clubbed it to death, Bair said.
An article Riis later wrote questioning whether police lodging houses were “hotbeds for typhus fever,” is on display in the exhibit, and Bair said it helped shut down the lodging houses in the city, with the unfortunate consequence of increasing homelessness for a time.
Three larger-than-life pictures Regan and Bair said capture the breadth of Riis’ work greet visitors just inside the doors of the exhibit. Two, one of bowler-sporting men with canes standing on a grubby street and another of a tired-looking girl standing against a wall, are likely staged, while the third of a group of men crammed into a tiny bedroom, was the result of Riis’ trips with the sanitation department, Bair said.
Riis interviewed the girl, whose name was Katie, before snapping her picture, almost in the style of the popular Humans of New York social media campaign. Together, the three pictures showcase Riis’ varied methods of getting his work and message to the people.
“We did want that impact,” Bair said. “We did look at several different combinations of three and ended up with these for a combination of reasons, including that they, as Cheryl said, represent the famous phases of Riis’ photography and the different ways he communicated, which is our major theme.”
Riis’ dirty, poor and world-weary subjects stare out of display cases and down from life-size blown up images throughout the exhibit, showing both the technology the pioneer used and how people would have seen his work at the shows that helped make his message so famous.
Riis used these shows as guided tours of the slums for middle-and upper-class people who wanted to see, as the title of the shows suggested, “how the other half lives and dies in New York.” Riis used a projector to display blown-up versions of his pictures for up to two hours, during which time he lectured and even cracked jokes before asking the groups he talked to for donations to charities, Bair said.
“The fact that these figures were projected life-size really was startling for the audience,” Regan said. “I mean, he’d be lecturing for two hours and leave them wanting more, apparently, according to the reviews.”
He started the shows in 1888 and as he toured the country displaying the world he illuminated with his rudimentary flashbulb, his message gained followers.
“He was just very successful at it, he was a very good publicist,” Bair said. “And that’s one of the points we want to make, that he used all these ways to communicate and he was really good at it. He reached a very broad audience because of it.”
The shows led to a story in Scribner’s Magazine, which in turn spawned his most famous book, “How the Other Half Lives.” The book reads as a “slum tour,” Bair said, leading its readers through immigrant neighborhoods and documenting their conditions for middle-and-upper class people who were otherwise unaware of the life. .
A first-edition copy of Riis’ most famous book sits in the center of a display case towards the back of the exhibit.
He later published “The Children of the Poor,” which focuses on children and combines “Dickens-like” stories with statistics meant to make readers sympathetic to the plight of immigrants.
Behind the three arresting pictures that greet new visitors to the exhibit, which Regan says should take about 40 minutes to walk through, is a six-minute version of Riis’ lantern shows. Pulled from a transcript in one of the display cases, the condensed version brings to an entirely new audience a message that, while more than 100 years old, could still sound relevant today.
“You’ll notice this one thing,” a narrator reads over a picture of children in the poor neighborhoods he documented. “That once they’re cleaned up and made presentable, they’re just as sweet and nice as your children and mine. It’s the surroundings that make the difference.”
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