Rediscovering Jacob Riis:
Photographer, Journalist, Social Reformer

 
  Journalist and self-taught photographer Jacob Riis documented the grim realities of America's urban poor, as seen in this 1890 image of a New York City peddler. He will be the subject of an illustrated lecture at Mount Holyoke on Thursday, February 15.

In 1905, fifteen years after the publication of his groundbreaking book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Jacob Riis visited Mount Holyoke College. He presented his famous "lantern slide" lecture, using powerful photographs he had taken to tell the story of America's urban poor. Next week, nearly a century later, the MHC community will have the opportunity to reevaluate Riis's work and influence. Daniel Czitrom, MHC professor of history, and Bonnie Yochelson, photographic historian and author of Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, will present "Rediscovering Jacob Riis: An Illustrated Lecture," Thursday, February 15, at 7:30 pm in Gamble Auditorium. The event is cosponsored by the Weissman Center for Leadership, the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, and the history department.

America's first photojournalist, Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was born in Denmark and emigrated to the United States in 1870. He became a police reporter in New York City, where he wrote detailed accounts of the city's poor and of their struggles at work and at home. In order to document the grim realities of tenement life, he taught himself photography and eventually had his images made into "lantern slides," which he projected before large audiences in churches and community centers around the country. He published the landmark How the Other Half Lives in 1890, and the book had a profound influence on a whole generation of Progressive reformers. One who fell under its spell was Frances Perkins, who read it as a Mount Holyoke undergraduate in the 1890s and later credited its impact in turning her toward a career as a social reformer. Perkins later served as secretary of labor and the nation's first woman cabinet member under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

 
Jacob Riis.  

Riis captured the material conditions of the poor and the homeless with a sympathetic eye, and his photographs continue to be among the most widely circulated and reproduced in the history of the medium. They provided dramatic visual commentary on the tenements, sweatshops, and street life of the city's poor and homeless, especially in immigrant neighborhoods. Riis's writing often evinced far less sympathy for his subjects than the photographs, and this disjunction can be found in his later writings, such as The Battle with the Slum (1892), The Children of the Poor (1902), and his best selling autobiography, The Making of an American (1901).

"Riis remains important and intriguing because our society still struggles to resolve many of the problems and issues he addressed," says Czitrom, an expert on New York City history and a consultant on last year's PBS documentary series on the city's past. "Riis's work inspired people to ask difficult questions about the relationship between ethnicity, race, and poverty; about the roles of government and private charity in ameliorating suffering; and about the connections between social reform and publicity."

Yochelson curated the recent national touring exhibition featuring the work of documentary and portrait photographer Berenice Abbott. She has a special interest in Riis's picture making and the changing meaning of his images over time. The project, funded by a Collaborative Research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will result in a book, Rediscovering Jacob Riis, and an accompanying exhibition of Riis's photographs.


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