Jacob Riis: Social Reformation

Jacob Riis: Social Reformation

Urban concerns dominated 19th century philanthropy across Europe and North America. In most cases, those trying to alleviate the dire situations they witnessed came from the middle classes, and had little personal experience of poverty. Jacob Riis (1849-1914), however, was different. At the age of 21, he arrived in New York City with, so the story goes, just $20 to his name. Over his working life, Riis became preoccupied with documenting and improving living conditions, subsequently becoming one of the most important social reformers of his day.

To do so, the artist took photographs, even becoming a pioneer of using flash powder to capture the darkest recesses of alleyways and tenements, but he was never recognised for his work in this regard during his lifetime. Now, the Museum of the City of New York holds the complete collection of his prints, negatives and lanterns slides. The gallery has collaborated with Foam, Amsterdam, to produce a full retrospective of this important body of activist images, which is on show until April.

The exhibition focuses on Riis’s social efforts, exploring the streets exactly as he did: that is, through the lens of the camera. It also reconstructs a further crucial element of his campaigning – the lecture. This was his main avenue for communicating with the politicians, policy-makers and influencers of the day, and his talks were reliably popular. To display the images, which essentially functioned as illustrations for his broader points, he used a stereopticon, or “magic lantern”, a thrilling new use of technology that made him famous well-beyond philanthropic circles. This equipment is on show along with a full reconstruction of one of his talks, which the audience can see and listen to. These elements add authenticity to an already comprehensive take on a life and body of work that continues to influence the way urban deprivation is viewed today.

The Activist Photography of Jacob Riis runs until 15 April. Find out more here.

Anna Feintuck

1. Bandits Roost © Jacob Riis.