RIIS, Jacob

b. 3 May 1849; d. 26 March 1914

Jacob Riis arrived in America as an immigrant from Denmark at the age of 21. He found life hard, and only just made a living as a police court reporter for the New York Tribune.

By the end of the 1880s photography was becoming cheaper, and he hit on the idea of using photography to draw attention to the conditions under which the poor in America (particularly the immigrants) were living. He was clearly committed to this cause, and as a Sunday school teacher he had successfully encouraged his students to become involved in numerous fund-raising activities to help the poor.

His first book, "How the other half lives," exposed the appalling conditions of the time. It caused a considerable stir. One day Riis returned to his office to find a note reading "I have read your book and I have come to help." It was from the (then) head of the New York Police Board of Commissioners, Theodore Roosevelt, later to become President of the United States. Moved by the photographs Riis had taken he was instrumental in securing a number of reforms. Riis was offered public office on more than one occasion, but always refused.

Many of his photographs needed to be taken at night. His artificial lighting consisted of open flash, for which he used a frying pan. Twice he set fire to the places he visited, once he set fire to his own clothes, and on another occasion he almost blinded himself. An article in the Sun (New York) for 12 February 1888 described his antics:

"With their way illuminated by spasmodic flashes... a mysterious party has been startling the town o' nights. Somnolent policemen on the street... 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 thoughts and try to find out what is was all about.... The party consisted of members of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York experimenting with the process of taking instantaneous pictures by an artificial flash light, and their guide and conductor, an energetic gentleman who combines in his person... the two dignitaries of deacon in a Long Island church and a police reporter in New York....."

Other books by Riis include "Children of the Tenements" (1903) and "Children of the Poor" (1892).
"How the other half lives" can be seen here.


© Robert Leggat, 1999.