Home / PhotographyJacob Riis: The Photographer Who Showed “How the Other Half Lives” in 1890s NYC

Jacob Riis: The Photographer Who Showed “How the Other Half Lives” in 1890s NYC

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Bandit's Roost

In 1870, 21-year-old Jacob Riis immigrated from his home in Denmark to bustling New York City. With only $40, a gold locket housing the hair of the girl he had left behind, and dreams of working as a carpenter, he sought a better life in the United States of America. Unfortunately, when he arrived in the city, he immediately faced a myriad of obstacles.

Like the hundreds of thousands of other immigrants who fled to New York in pursuit of a better life, Riis was forced to take up residence in one of the city's notoriously cramped and disease-ridden tenements. Living in squalor and unable to find steady employment, Riis worked numerous jobs, ranging from a farmhand to an ironworker, before finally landing a role as a journalist-in-training at the New York News Association.

As he excelled at his work, he soon made a name for himself at various other newspapers, including the New-York Tribune where he was hired as a police reporter. Faced with documenting the life he knew all too well, he used his writing as a means to expose the plight, poverty, and hardships of immigrants. Eventually, he longed to paint a more detailed picture of his firsthand experiences, which he felt he could not properly capture through prose. So, he made a life-changing decision: he would teach himself photography.

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Portrait of Jacob A. Riis

Riis soon began to photograph the slums, saloons, tenements, and streets that New York City's poor reluctantly called home. Often shot at night with the newly-available flash function—a photographic tool that enabled Riis to capture legible photos of dimly lit living conditions—the photographs presented a grim peek into life in poverty to an oblivious public.

In 1890, Riis compiled his photographs into a book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New YorkFeaturing never-before-seen photos supplemented by blunt and unsettling descriptions, the treatise opened New Yorkers' eyes to the harsh realities of their city's slums. Since its publication, the book has been consistently credited as a key catalyst for social reform, with Riis' belief “that every man’s experience ought to be worth something to the community from which he drew it, no matter what that experience may be, so long as it was gleaned along the line of some decent, honest work” at its core.

Photographer Jacob Riis pioneered social reform through his photographs of everyday life in New York City's slums.

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Hester Street

Riis often photographed the decrepit conditions of the tenements.

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Dens of Death, New York

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

An Old Rear Tenement in Roosevelt Street

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Bottle Alley, Mulberry Road

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Bottle Alley, Mulberry Bend

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Bunks in a Seven-Cent Lodging House, Pell Street

Additionally, his photographs include many upsetting shots of immigrants and poor people simply struggling to get by.

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Room in a Tenement

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Blind Beggar

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Five Cents Lodging, Bayard Street

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Bohemian Cigarmakers at Work in their Tenement

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Fighting Tuberculosis on the Roof

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

The Short Tail Gang Under a Pier

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Family Making Artificial Flowers

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

In Sleeping Quarters – Rivington Street Dump

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Home of an Italian Ragpicker

…Including impoverished children.

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Minding Baby, Cherry Hill

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Didn't Live Nowhere

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Drilling the Gang on Mulberry Street

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Children's Playground in Poverty Cap, New York

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

In the Sun Office, 3 AM

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Girl and a Baby on a Doorstep

Riis published his photographs in a book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Pupils in the Essex Market Schools in a Poor Quarter of New York

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

The Baby's Playground

This treatise brought attention to the issue and helped pioneer social reform in New York City.

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Street Arabs in their Sleeping Quarters

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Girl from the West 52 Street Industrial School

Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives Jacob Riis Photographs

Boys from the Italian Quarter

All images via Museum Syndicate

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