“Jacob August Riis (1849–1914) was a Danish American social reformer and social documentary photographer.He is known for helping the impoverished in New York City, the subject of most of his writings and photography. He attempted to alleviate the bad living conditions of poor people by exposing their living conditions to the middle and upper classes.
“Large groups of migrants and immigrants, seeking prosperity in a more industrialized environment, came to urban areas during the years after the American Civil War. Twenty-four million people relocated to urban areas, causing their population to increase eightfold. During stints as a police reporter, Riis worked the most crime-ridden and impoverished slums of the city. Through his own experiences in the poorhouses, and witnessing the conditions of the poor in the city slums, he decided to make a difference for them.
“Working night-shift duty in the immigrant communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Riis developed a tersely melodramatic writing style and he became one of the earliest reformist journalists. Riis had for some time been wondering how to show the squalor of which he wrote more vividly than his words could express. Recognizing the potential of the flash, Riis and his photographers were among the first Americans to use flash photography.
“For some three years Riis combined his own photographs with others commissioned of professionals, donations by amateurs and purchased lantern slides, all of which formed the basis for his photographic archive.
“Because so much of the work was done at night, he was able to photograph the worst elements of the New York slums, the dark streets, tenement apartments, and “stale-beer” dives, and documented the hardships faced by the poor and criminal, especially in the vicinity of notorious Mulberry Street.
“How the Other Half Lives, subtitled “Studies Among the Tenements of New York”, was published in 1890.
Children of the Poor (1892) was a sequel in which Riis wrote of particular children that he had encountered.
“Theodore Roosevelt introduced himself to Riis, offering to help his efforts. After reading his exposés, Roosevelt befriended Riis for life, later remarking, “Jacob Riis, whom I am tempted to call the best American I ever knew, although he was already a young man when he came hither from Denmark”.”
“After Roosevelt became president, he wrote:
“”Recently a man, well qualified to pass judgment, alluded to Mr. Jacob A. Riis as “the most useful citizen of New York”. Those fellow citizens of Mr. Riis who best know his work will be most apt to agree with this statement. The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent ever encountered by them in New York City.”
“Though Riis emphatically supported the spread of wealth to lower classes through improved social programs and philanthropy, his personal opinion of the natural causes for poor immigrants’ situations tended to display the trappings of a racist ideology. Several chapters of How the Other Half Lives open with Riis’ observations of the situations of different ethnic and racial groups via indictments of their perceived natural flaws”