Documenting "The Other Half": The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine
Photography and Social ReformJacob RiisLewis HineSlideshows

Photography and Social Reform

Gilded Age Reform

Progressive Era Reform

During the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, photography was increasingly used as a method of documentation. The photographer's audience became the mass readership of newspapers, magazines, and books. Line drawings made from photographs, and later, halftone photography, enabled people to see as well as read about the world around them.

The media became a buffer between the wealthy and the working class, framing events so that middle-class and upper-class audiences could maintain their distance and choose their level of involvement in the issues at hand.

The invention of the gelatin dry-plate process, the introduction of roll film and the hand-held camera, and new artificial light technologies inspired many photographers in the 1880s.

The Photo-Secessionists, a group headed by Alfred Stieglitz, promoted photography as fine art. The Photo-Secessionists favored soft lighting and muted scenes, similar to impressionist art.

Photographers of the documentary style—a genre not so-named until the early twentieth century—attempted to capture the realities of life in nineteenth-century America. Solomon Butcher documented the lifestyles of Midwest pioneer families. Adam Clark Vroman, Ben Wittick, and Frank Rinehart created a photographic record of Native American cultures. Arnold Genthe recorded the sights of San Francisco's Chinatown. Joseph and Percy Byron photographed New York's wealthy citizens.
Hine Photographing Children
Lewis Hine Photographing Children, c. 1910

Social reformers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine used the medium of photography to bring evidence of their claims to these viewers. Their style of photography may best be called "social reform," for each photographer used the medium to effect social change.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2000-2003