In commemoration of Jacob Riis’s birthday on May 3rd, we’re re-posting an earlier piece by Ted Mineau about Riis’ life and work. Interested in reading more about the famous photojournalist? Check out all our past posts on Riis and his legacy.
On May 3, 1849, Jacob August Riis was born in Denmark. At age 21, he immigrated to New York, arriving June 5, 1870. He immediately felt the need to protect himself, and purchased a gun.
You may know his name from Jacob Riis Park on the Rockaway Peninsula, or from the Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, between East 8th and East 13th Streets, Avenue D and F.D.R. Drive. But he is widely known as a photojournalist and social reformer whose concern for the living conditions of New York’s poor led to changes in city government health and building codes.
After working several odd jobs in different locations upstate and in Pennsylvania, Riis returned to New York City and worked as a police reporter at The New York Tribune. This work brought him to some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in New York, and he felt the need to expose these conditions to the public. He worked with several photographers to record the squalor of the slums and published an article in The Sun in 1888. He learned more about photography, especially flash photography to record night images, and lectured about the subject of living conditions of the poor.
In 1889, Scribner’s Magazine published an eighteen-page article by Riis entitled, How the Other Half Lives, featuring photo images that he had taken. The following year he published a book with the same title and images. This caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who would soon be New York’s Police Commissioner. He befriended Riis, and the two men patrolled the troubled neighborhoods by night, rooting out police corruption and inefficiency in the process.
Riis’s exposure of the seamy side of New York City life created an awareness that had previously been overlooked. He (and other social reformers such as Dr. Simon Baruch) linked the dire living conditions of the poor to public health, which led the city to ensure a safer water supply system and stricter building codes, such as the New York State Tenement House Act of 1901 (known informally as the “New Law”.)
We all are indebted to Jacob Riis for making New York City a better place. You can read more about him and see some other photos here , and read more about his collaboration with Teddy Roosevelt here.