Half the world, journalist Jacob Riis once said, doesn’t know how the other half lives, and it doesn’t know because it doesn’t care.
Riis, a social reformer, author and newspaper reporter, used his work to make society take notice, exposing the squalid living and working conditions in late 19th-century New York during the height of European immigration to the city.
“My first assignment as a Reporter – Stayed 25 years – not willingly – after one year wanted to get out – was made to stay,” Riis once wrote about his work in notes for a lecture. “Compelled there to see the seamy side of everything. I looked behind the gore and the grime of it for the cause.”
A new Library of Congress exhibition explores Riis’ life, work and legacy. “Jacob Riis: Revealing ‘How the Other Half Lives’” opens today in the Jefferson Building’s South Gallery and runs through Sept. 5.
The exhibition – a co-presentation of collection items from the Library of Congress and the Museum of the City of New York – showcases correspondence, photographs, maps, drafts and published works, lecture notes, a lantern-slide projector and period camera equipment.
A version of the exhibition concluded at the New York museum on March 20. Other versions will be presented in Denmark later in 2016 and 2017, in Copenhagen and Riis’ hometown of Ribe.
“We settled on a co-presentation approach – creating unique versions of the exhibition for our different audiences that together paint a fuller picture of Riis and his work,” said Cheryl Regan, senior exhibition director in the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office. “The Library’s exhibition brings to the forefront Riis’ passion for social reform, which will resonate with our visitors because the issues Riis sought to address are still very much with us.”
View from the Street
Riis immigrated to the United States in 1870 and, at age 21, embarked on what at first was a difficult life in a new country. He lived an essentially homeless existence for a time in New York City – frequently hungry, sleeping in the street, considering suicide.
Riis eventually found work as a police reporter for the New York Tribune and, later, the New York Evening Sun, work that gave him an intimate view of how New York’s poor lived – a view he shared with his readers.
“He was privy to the inside of people’s apartments, and the people that were in the street in the middle of the night and the alleyways and the newsboys who worked and slept in the street at night,” said curator Barbara Bair of the Manuscript Division. “He got to know all these people. He used their stories in his journalism and books.”
While a reporter, Riis utilized a new German innovation, magnesium powder flash, to photograph residents of the Lower East Side. He used the images in his lantern-slide lectures and published line-drawing and half-tone versions in his articles as vivid proof of the truth of his words.
Shocking into Action
Riis once accompanied health inspectors on a raid of a lodging house and photographed a room that measured not even 13 feet long or wide, he said, but still slept 12 men and women, some in bunks, the rest on the floor.
With such images, Riis hoped to show the wealthier classes just how the other half lived and appeal to their Christian charity to support measures to modernize tenements with better sanitation, ventilation and lighting and with parks for children.
“Part of his purpose was to shock people into action. Some of the photographs had a startling or revealing detective-style quality; others invited personal empathy,” Bair said. “He had the idea that you can use visual evidence to persuade people.”
After he left the Sun in 1899, Riis wrote magazine articles, delivered lectures nationwide illustrated by his photographs, and authored several books, including the best-sellers “How the Other Half Lives” and an autobiography, “The Making of An American.” His work made him a celebrity.
Friend in High Places
Riis’ work in the 1890s made a strong impression on New York City’s new police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt called Riis the “most useful citizen in New York” and helped push through reforms to clean up the police department and improve conditions for the poor.
“No one ever helped as he did,” Riis wrote of the future president. “For two years, we were brothers in Mulberry Street.”
He and Riis remained close friends when Roosevelt became president in 1901.
Riis died in 1914, leaving a legacy of dogged reform on issues of housing, homelessness, public space, immigration, crime, education, public health and labor.
“I was a writer and a newspaper man, and I only yelled about the conditions which I saw,” Riis said, three years before he died. “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.”
“Jacob Riis: Revealing ‘How the Other Half Lives’ ” and its programming at the Library are made possible through the support of the Library of Congress Third Century Fund; Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrik’s Foundation; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Danish Ministry of Culture, and the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces; the Royal Danish Embassy; and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.