Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half

Jacob Riis’s “Magic Lantern” Lecture

Women's Lodging Room in W. 30th Street Station

A Layman’s Sermon: Jacob Riis’s “Magic Lantern” Lecture 

Starting in 1888, Jacob Riis traveled the country presenting illustrated lectures about life among New York’s poor. Audiences would sit in a darkened room and Riis, using an early form of projector known as a “magic lantern,” would show dozens of slides of photographs lit from behind by a candle in a lantern. Riis accompanied the images with 2 hours of commentary about the people he photographed, their surrounding environment, and stories about his experience photographing them. 

Watching the video today, it is important to note that Riis adapted the voyeuristic genre of “slum tours,” to give his accounts of tenement conditions a spiritual message with religious overtones.  

Viewing the video today, it is important to  note that Riis speaks for his subjects and projects his authority in portraying their lives for middle and upper-class audiences. He ends the presentation with a spiritual message with religious overtones.  

Riis delivered his first lecture, “How the Other Half Lives and Dies in New York,” on January 22, 1888, at the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York. He invited the press, and in 1889 a version of his lecture was published in Scribner’s Magazine, which he turned into his book How the Other Half Lives. This book became a national bestseller, making Riis a well-known public figure and social reformer. Throughout the rest of his life, Riis worked steadily as a touring lecturer. In 1901, he gave 19 lectures in February alone. 

In this recording, Terry Borton of the American Magic-Lantern Theater created the abridged version of the lecture based on a transcript of the 1888 lecture. This presentation reminds us how Riis’s images were originally seen and experienced. Keep in mind that these images were projected at life-size, an experience that would have been unfamiliar to most viewers. In the 1890s Riis’s photographs were printed as wood engravings in newspapers and in his books. It was only in his magic lantern lectures that his images were seen as photographs, until halftone reproduction technology enabled photographs to be reproduced in print media in more detail.

Click on the link in "Additional Resources" to watch the video. As you observe the lecture, consider:  

  • What strategies does Jacob Riis use to persuade his audience to pay attention to the conditions of the poor?
  • How would you describe his tone?
  • What did you notice about the ending of the lecture? 
  • How and why might Riis deliver a spiritual message at the end with religious overtones?