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

Images and Technology in Jacob Riis's Era

Jacob Riis took advantage of a new technology - flash powder - to capture images that had previously been impossible to photograph: the city by night and dark interior scenes.

Although Jacob Riis is best known today for his photographs, he was a journalist and best-selling author and did not consider himself a photographer at all. He began taking photographs as a way to illustrate his writings and was at the forefront of photographic journalism because of his early adoption of flash powder. In November 1887, Riis read about the invention of “flashlight” photography, which could illuminate a dark night or building interior. He took advantage of this new technology to capture images that had previously been impossible to photograph--the city by night and dark interior scenes.  

Resource 1: “2 a.m. in the delivery room in the ‘Sun’ office,” Jacob Riis, 1890. From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, The Sun was a NYC newspaper and the boys are newsies, or newspaper boys who would sell the daily newspapers to people on the streets of NYC.

In this image, Riis used flash technology to illuminate young newspaper boys asleep inside the delivery room outside of the New York Sun. Riis worked for the New York Sun in the 1890s and may have known the subjects of this image. Riis wrote: “The great mass….of newsboys who cry their “extrees” in the street by day…are children with homes who contribute to their family’s earnings…. In winter the boys curl themselves up on the steam-pipes in the newspaper offices that open their doors at midnight on secret purpose to let them in.”

Examine Resource 1, the photograph and caption above, and consider these questions:

  • What are the people in this photograph doing?
  • Where were they photographed?
  • Why do you think Riis wanted to capture this scene?
  • How can you tell that Riis used flash powder to take this picture?

Resource 2 and 3

Jacob Riis wrote about the process of taking photographs - and about the reactions of the people he photographed. Read the two resources below to learn more and answer the questions that follow:

Resource 2: Excerpt from Jacob Riis in “Flashes From the Slums,” The Sun, 1888.

“With their way illuminated by spasmodic [bursting] flashes, as bright and sharp and brief as those of the lightning itself, a mysterious party has lately been startling the town o’nights…all the people of the wild and wonderful variety of New York night life have in their turn marveled at and been frightened by the phenomenon. What they saw was three or four figures in the gloom, a ghostly tripod, some weird and uncanny movements, the blinding flash, and then they heard the patter of retreating footsteps, and the mysterious visitors were gone before they could collect their scattered thoughts and try to find out what it was all about.”

Resource 3: Excerpt from Jacob Riis in The Making of an American. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1901.

“It is not too much to say that our party carried terror wherever it went. The flashlight of those days was contained in cartridges fired from a revolver. The spectacle of half a dozen strange men invading a house in the midnight hour armed with big pistols which they shot off recklessly was hardly reassuring, however sugary our speech, and it was not to be wondered at if the tenants bolted through windows and down fire-escapes wherever we went…Twice I set fire to [my] house with the apparatus [flash mechanism], and once to myself. I blew the light into my own eyes on that occasion, and only my spectacles saved me from being blinded for life.”

Document Based Questions:

  1. In the Resource 2, the excerpt from the newspaper The Sun, how does Riis describe the people taking the photographs? Whose perspective (or point of view) is he imagining?
  2. What words does Jacob Riis use to capture the experience of taking flash photographs in Resource 3, the excerpt from his autobiography The Making of an American? From whose perspective (or point of view) is he writing?
  3. How does Riis’s description in his autobiography compare to his account from The Sun? What is different about the narrative (the story, or what happens) and tone (the attitude, or feelings) in both passages?

Resource 4

Starting in 1888, Jacob Riis travelled the country presenting illustrated lectures about life among New York’s poor. Using an early form of projector known as a “magic lantern,” he showed dozens of slides and accompanied them with 2 hours of commentary about the people he photographed, their surrounding environment, and stories about his experience photographing them. Jacob A. 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. He was in high demand, and in 1901, he gave 19 lectures in February alone.

Note: You can learn more Riis's lectures and watch a recreation of one of his talks in the Activity "Jacob Riis’s “Magic Lantern” Lecture"

Many newspapers reported on Riis's lectures. Below is an excerpt from the New York Daily Tribune, May 11, 1888. Read what the reporter wrote and consider the questions below:

"In his lecture last night at the Association Hall, Jacob A. Riis, the well-known police reporter, gave a graphic account of the 'Other Half'…His practiced observations on the state of some of the tenement-house districts of New York were frequently greeted with applause, and the audience, which nearly filled the hall, took a serious and sympathetic interest in the gloomy picture which he presented. The stereopticon [3D] views of the dark alleys, courts, cellars, sheds and other resorts of wretchedness, poverty and crime that lurk in dark corners of the metropolis gave his hearers a realistic assurance of the existence of such dens of infamy [wickedness] as few of them had ever suspected.

Document Based Questions:

  1. What did the reporter think was effective about the magic lantern show?
  2. How would the lecture have been different if it had just been Jacob Riis describing what he had seen without visual aids?
  3. How does the reporter describe the audience’s reactions to the lecture?
  4. According to this review, what seemed novel (new) about the ways that these images were seen and shared?

Changing Technology

While many people were drawn to Riis’s photographs, in his first book his images were not produced as photographs but rather as line drawings based on the photographs. In the 1880s and 1890s, most people would have encountered his images as single-line wood engravings, unless they were attending his slideshows.

By the mid-1890s, after Jacob Riis first published How the Other Half Lives, halftone images (images that used tiny printed dots to reproduce an image), rather than line drawings became a more accurate way of reproducing photographs in magazines and books. They could include a greater level of detail and a fuller tonal range. The arrival of the halftone meant that more people experienced Jacob Riis’s photographs than before.

For Further Discussion:

  1. Can you think of other ways visual technology has changed since Jacob Riis’s time?
  2. How have these new inventions changed the way we see and share images?