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Jacob Riis

Text from The History of Photography

When Jacob A. Riis, a police reporter in New York, began his personal campaign to expose the misery of the underprivileged living in the crime-infested slums of the lower East side, he soon found that the printed word was not sufficiently convincing, and so he turned to photography by flashlight.

In 1888 the New York Sun published twelve drawings from his photographs with an article headlined "Flashes from the Slums" and told how "a mysterious party has lately been startling the town o' nights. Somnolent policemen on the street, denizens of the dives in their dens, tramps and bummers in their so-called lodgings, and all the people of the wild and wonderful variety of New York night life have in their turn marvelled 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.

The intruders were Riis, two amateur photographers, Henry G. Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence (members, be it noted, of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York), and Dr. John T. Nagle of the Health Board. Their purpose, Riis stated, was to make a collection of views for lantern slides to show "as no mere description could, the misery and vice that he had noticed in his ten years of experience ... and suggest the direction in which good might be done."

In the 1880s facsimile reproduction techniques had not reached the point at which photographs could be printed in newspapers, and the column-wide drawings accompanying the article were not convincing. When Riis's famous book How the Other Half Lives was published in 1890, seventeen of the illustrations were halftones, but of poor quality, lacking detail and sharpness. The remaining nineteen photographs were shown in drawings made from them: some of them are signed "Kenyon Cox, 1889, after photograph."

The result was that the photographic work of Jacob Riis was overlooked until 1947, when Alexander Alland, himself a photographer, made excellent enlargements from the original glass negatives that the Museum of the City of New York, through his efforts, had acquired. The exhibition held by the Museum, and the subsequent publication of some of the best of the prints in U,S. Camera 1948, revealed Riis as a photographer of importance.

The photographs are direct and penetrating, as raw as the sordid scenes that they so often represent. Riis unerringly chose the camera stance that would most effectively tell the story. There are glimpses in his second book, Children of the Poor, of his experiences:

Yet even from Hell's Kitchen had I not long before been driven forth with my camera by a band of angry women, who pelted me with brickbats and stones on my retreat, shouting at me never to come back.... The children know generally what they want and they go for it by the shortest cut. I found that out, whether I had flowers to give or pictures to take. . . Their determination to be "took" the moment the camera hove into sight, in the most striking pose they could hastily devise, was always the most formidable bar to success I met."
Riis and his companions were among the first in America to use Blitzlichtpulver - flashlight powder - invented in Germany in 1887 by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke. Piffard had modified the German formula, which he had found extremely dangerous; lye sprinkled guncotton with twice its weight of magnesium powder on a metal tray and ignited the mixture.

Because it burned instantaneously - in a flash - it was an improvement over the magnesium flare, with its several seconds duration, which O'Sullivan had used in the Comstock Lode mines. Riis succeeded in its use; the blinding flash reveals with pitiless detail the sordid interiors, but deals almost tenderly with the faces of those whose lot it was to live within them.

He was always sympathetic to people, whether he was photographing street Arabs stealing in the street from a handcart, or the inhabitants of the alley known as Bandits' Roost peering unself consciously at the camera from doorways and stoops and windows. The importance of these photographs lies in their power not only to inform, but to move us. They are at once interpretations and records; although they are no longer topical, they contain qualities that will last as long as man is concerned with his brother.


 


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