Saturday, May 24, 2008

New York through the muckraker's lens

"Five cents a spot", by Jacob Riis, 1889. Image source: The New York Times

When I was about 16 or 17, the brother of a girl in my college (I think she was called Deepa), who went to Brandeis, brought back a book on one of his visits home. That book was called American Pictures, by Jacob Holdt. A friend of mine borrowed that book from Deepa, and I borrowed it from her (Jacob Holdt touched many lives in India with that one much-borrowed copy of his book!). And so I learned that there was poverty in America. And I learned that another Dane, Jacob Riis, had recorded alarmingly similar wrenching poverty a century before Holdt. Thanks, Deepa's brother!

The New York Times today has a review of a new book on Jacob Riis, titled Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Daniel Czitrom, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, co-author of the book with Bonnie Yochelson, art historian at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, is quoted in the NYT as saying:

“I’ve always been struck by the tension between the empathy and sympathy that’s powerfully depicted in many of those images, and the kind of stereotypes, racial language, that he uses in the text... There’s a tension between the text and the photographs. Today, no one really reads Riis anymore, and yet the photographs remain incredibly moving.”

The NYT reviewer, Sewell Chan, writes:

The commonly held view of Riis is that of the muckraking police reporter, whose seminal 1890 work, “How the Other Half Lives,” prompted legislative reforms, focused attention on the desperate lives of poor urban immigrants and left an enduring mark on the history of documentary photography.

Less well-known are the contradictory elements of Riis’s life and work. He was an entertainer, a self-promoter, an evangelical, and a political conservative who had little faith in the power of government to correct social ills, arguing instead for Christian charity. He held views on race and ethnicity that would be considered offensive today. Though he is now heralded as a major figure in photographic history, he declared in his 1901 autobiography that he was “downright sorry to confess here that I am no good at all as a photographer.”

"The Baby's Playground", by Jacob Riis, c. 1890. Image source: The New York Times

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