Image Above: © Jacob A Riis, Children’s Playground, Poverty Gap / Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis
The Museum of the City of New York presented Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, a one-of-a-kind retrospective of this social reformer and pioneer of photojournalism. Riis was the first to use flash photography, a nascent technology, for a social purpose – to reveal to New York’s middle and upper classes the squalid living conditions of the poor and to galvanize action on their behalf. His 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, his articles as a reporter, and his illustrated lectures of the slums here and throughout the country prompted fellow reformer Theodore Roosevelt to call Riis “New York’s most useful citizen.”
Image Above: © Jacob A Riis, Chicago Albumen Works, Police Station Lodgers 19. The Single typhus lodger in Eldridge Street, he lay by the stove in the policemen's room no one dreaming what ailed him. / Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger
Born in Denmark in 1849, Riis came to New York City in 1870 and for several years experienced poverty firsthand. Hired as a police reporter in 1877 for the New York Tribune, he wrote about crime, disaster, and misfortune in the tenements, until 1884, when he turned his attention to housing reform. With the publication of the bestselling How the Other Half Lives, Riis became a national spokesman for the immigrant poor of American cities. He deftly entertained and educated his audience with stories and images advocating for advances in housing, education, immigration policy and public health until his death in 1914.
Revealing New York’s Other Half is the first major retrospective of Riis’ photography in the United States in well over 50 years. Visitors to the exhibition will experience a recreation of Riis’ famous and innovative lantern slide lecture “How the Other Half Lives,” which will provide the potent experience of viewing the photographs as contemporary audiences once did. It unites for the first time the City Museum’s Jacob A. Riis Collection of Photographs – the world’s largest archive of Riis’ images – with the Jacob A. Riis Papers from the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. With photographs and letters, scrapbooks, manuscripts, and printed materials, the exhibition presents Riis’ career in full.
Image Above: © Jacob A Riis, Bandit’s Roost (half stereo, left) / Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger
“With this exhibition we seek to define Jacob Riis and illustrate why his life and work resonated so deeply across the five boroughs and the entire country,” said Susan Henshaw Jones, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “One hundred years after his death, inequality remains an essential aspect of American life, and the story of Jacob Riis needs to be remembered. The City Museum is proud to illuminate his works and the man behind them once more.”
Curated by Bonnie Yochelson, art historian and former Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, Revealing New York’s Other Half is divided into six sections that focus on various aspects of Riis’ life, work and legacy.
Image Above: © Jacob A Riis, Five Cents a Spot / Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger
“Jacob Riis had a tremendous impact on society, photography and the history of New York City,” said Yochelson. “His work deserves to be revisited for its combination of historical importance and ongoing relevance today. As our city and our nation continue to struggle with inequality and its effects, this exhibition enables visitors to understand the story of the man who first illustrated life in New York City slums in the 19th century, providing a unique lens for viewing a present day issue.”
Riis’ photos made such an impact because they never failed to deeply shock his audience and demand their attention; the exhibition seeks to offer a similar experience, as his photos have lost none of their dramatic effect.
Revealing New York’s Other Half features over 125 objects including Riis’ personal papers, his many books, selections from his newspaper and magazine writing, handwritten manuscripts, and photography equipment, along with photographs taken and collected by Riis himself. In addition, 50 Riis photographic images will be on display, including vintage photographic prints, lantern slides, glass negatives, stereographs and more. Significant items on display include correspondence with Riis’ close friend Theodore Roosevelt on White House stationery, fundraising correspondence with Louise and Andrew Carnegie, and a Riis letter to humanitarian and author Lillian Wald.
Image Above: © Jacob A Riis, Scene on the Mott Street Barracks / Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger
The exhibition will be accompanied by a complete catalog of Riis’ photographs, the first of its kind, also entitled Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half. Written by Yochelson and co-published by Yale University Press, the City Museum, and the Library of Congress, this major research endeavor complements the contents of the exhibition, with detailed entries on every photograph Riis produced or commissioned.
Revealing New York’s Other Half will travel to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and Denmark, where it will be featured at museums in Copenhagen and Ribe.
The exhibition co-chairs are C. Flemming Heilmann, Chairman Emeritus of the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement, and Ronay Menschel, Vice Chairman of the Museum of the City of New York.
Image Above: © Jacob A Riis, Police Station Lodgers 18. Eldridge Street Station, Women lodgers (only women lodgers in Eldridge St.) DATE: ca. 1890. Women sleeping on plank beds and the floor. / Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger
The exhibition is supported by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Terra Foundation for American Art. The book that accompanies the exhibition is supported by the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation. Support for the exhibition’s related Education and Public Programs is provided by the Consulate General of Denmark.