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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Jacob Riis and Flash Photography

Sleeping Children, 1890
Today, I was helping a former student edit her AP US History paper, and I became captivated by the subject, Mr. Jacob Riis. I was drawn in by the connection between art and science, and the resulting positive changes that occurred due to the meshing of the two. I was inspired by his creative problem-solving and his unwavering humanitarianism.

Mr. Riis was born in Denmark and emigrated to the United States in 1870. Eventually, he became one of many journalists who published works regarding the misery of the New York City slums. But he wondered how he might more vividly portray the destitution he was witnessing. The solution resulted in Riis becoming a self-taught photographer and his work proceeded in making him one of the most influential photojournalists in history. Many of his photographs can be seen in the publication, How the Other Half Lives, which is now on my list of must-read-books.

Taking a position on the night-shift, it became difficult for Riis to photograph the lives of the underprivileged immigrants in the slums. But he resolved this issue with a progressive new technique called flash photography. At the time, this magic potion allowed for photographing in the dark by reacting a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate, the first ever flash powder. Upon heating this (potentially dangerous) mixture, an intense flash of light was produced. What ingenuity! To use the result of a chemical reaction as a means of capturing the injustices of the tenement housing area. Incredible. Riis was one of the first American flash photographers.

The science behind Riis's photographs defined his work and is the reason why he was able to document such horrific conditions in a spontaneous manner, like street photography. It is why he was able to provide an indelible mental image of the these deplorable tenement house living conditions. And it is why he was able to call attention to the need for immediate relief by bringing these images to schools and churches and sharing them with the public.

Furthermore, Riis did not just call attention to these conditions through his photography; he recommended creative, practical and workable solutions. And continued to show off his photographs of  the horrors of the slums until he caught the attention of government officials, including President Theodore Roosevelt—then police commissioner—who called Riis, simply and endearingly, "The most useful citizen in New York." Riis was able to convince the wealthy and powerful to make positive change, and his work influenced new laws in the housing communities in not only New York, but Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and indeed many other corners of the world.

Riis made such incredible strides over the couple decades of his tenure as a police reporter and photo-journalist. So why haven't our present government officials continued the legacy he began in bettering the housing conditions of our current under-privileged communities at the same rate he did? It's been over 100 years...

3 comments:

Molly M. said...

Great post, Joan! Here's my take on the question you conclude with:

Policymakers are great at coming up with new experiments in low-income housing, but not as good at sustaining those programs. For example, the "urban renewal" of the 1950s created public housing, which was celebrated as modern progress at the time. But we (the taxpayers and our representatives in government) failed to provide sustained funding for the long-term maintenance of those developments. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" documentary does a great job of explaining this history (www.pruitt-igoe.com).

Once public housing generally fell into disrepair, we turned to the next big experiment: replacing public housing with mixed-income developments (as well as with housing vouchers, tax-credit housing, and lots of other affordable housing programs).

Housing conditions for poor and working class households are definitely better than in Riis's time (even though we still have a long way to go!!). But will we continue to maintain these properties and programs over the long term? Or will we remake the mistakes we made throughout the 20th century? We're at a crossroads now, as our Congress decides how to navigate the fiscal cliff...

S. Bolos said...

I'm with this Molly M woman. What do we stand for as a nation? It is often revealed by what we do for our most vulnerable populations.

Riis was a groundbreaking muckraker, but was also just a human being, full of his own prejudices. His work on behalf of the poor was illuminating for the reformist middle class progressives, but also revealing of his classist disdain for the tenement dwellers' immigrant ways.

But I never knew that's how flash photography came to be! Great find.

Yael's Blogfolio said...

That's a great example of art and science being unified as one! Reading about Jacob Riis made me think about a biography I once wrote about Dorothea Lange who also took pictures of the horrible living conditions in the Upper East to portray a message to those in control.