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

Photographs and Lantern-Slide Lectures

The Reporter of Mulberry Bend

Photographs and Lantern-Slide Lectures

How the Other Half Lives

Later Reform Efforts

Analysis of Riis Photographs

In the mid-1870s, between reporting jobs, Jacob Riis began an advertising business. He purchased a stereopticon and developed slideshows consisting of advertisements interspersed with photographs of people and places.

Riis presented his slideshows outdoors on a sheet tied between two trees, or indoors on a window screen. The popularity of these slideshows later convinced Riis to use visual imagery to convey to the public what he saw each day on his reporting beat.

Early Photographs

In 1887, Riis learned of the development of a magnesium-cartridge pistol lamp that enabled photographers to take pictures in dim-lit settings. He thereafter determined to use photography to document conditions in Mulberry Bend.

Riis had no experience with photography, so he asked Dr. John Nagle, chief of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the City Health Department, and two other amateur photographers, Dr. Henry G. Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, to accompany him to Mulberry Bend to take photographs of tenement and lodging house interiors. In his autobiography, The Making of an American, Riis described the group's activities:

"It is not too much to say that our party carried terror wherever it went. The flashlight of those days was contained in cartridges fired from a revolver. The spectacle of half a dozen strange men invading a house in the midnight hour armed with big pistols which they shot off recklessly was hardly reassuring, however sugary our speech, and it was not to be wondered at if the tenants bolted through windows and down fire-escapes wherever we went." [14]

Riis's companions soon tired of the outings, and he had to resort to other means. Dissatisfied with the results of a professional photographer, Riis decided to take his own photographs.

Eldridge Street Lodgers
On His Own
In 1888, Riis purchased a 4 x 5 wooden box camera, plateholders, a tripod, a safety lantern, and developing trays. [15]

He traveled to Potter's Field, a gravesite for the poor, to take his first pictures. By trial and error, he learned how to take a proper exposure. He later used a frying pan with magnesium powder to create a flash.

When Riis made an inspection with the sanitary police one night in Mulberry Bend and submitted a report to the Health Department the next day, the officials did not respond until Riis showed them his photographs of lodgers in filthy quarters. Riis recalled, "I had at last an ally in the fight with the Bend."

Illustrated Lectures

Riis gave his first illustrated lecture in January 1888 to his photography club. The title of the lecture was "The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York." Riis later lectured at churches, civic improvement organizations, reform groups, and middle-class social and camera clubs throughout New York.

Nibsy's Alley
Nibsy's Alley
Like many late-nineteenth-century photographers, Riis created lantern slides of his photographs to accompany the lectures. He used music to dramatize the slides and make the lectures a form of entertainment as well as instruction. He also adopted the persona of a tour guide leading his audience through the slums. [17]

The audiences' positive response to the lantern-slide lectures demonstrated to Riis the possibility of reaching a wider audience through the publication of a book. The opportunity came in 1889, when an editor from Scribner's magazine contacted Riis after attending one of his lantern-slide lectures.

The editor hired Riis to write an article for Scribner's, which appeared in the December 1889 issue. Riis expanded the article into a book, How the Other Half Lives, which was published in November 1890.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2000-2003