On Photography: Jacob Riis, 1849-1914

“We used to go in the small hours of the morning to the worst tenements… and the sights I saw there gripped my heart until I felt that I must tell of them, or burst, or turn anarchist, or something… I wrote, but it seemed to make no impression. One morning, scanning my newspaper at the breakfast table, I put it down with an outcry that startled my wife, sitting opposite. There it was, the thing I had been looking for all these years. A four-line dispatch from somewhere in Germany, if I remember right, had it all. A way had been discovered, it ran, to take pictures by flashlight. The darkest corner might be photographed that way.” -Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was one of the first photographers to use flash powder to illuminate his images of slums and their conditions in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1880s. His work brought into light the horrific conditions workers suffered surviving there. He immigrated to America from Denmark to find a better life. Instead, he wound up living in tenements.


On Photography: Jacob Riis, 1849-1914
Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis had turned 21 when he came to New York City. He was surprised to find himself living in squalor in a cramped and disease-ridden tenement. Other immigrants suffered the same way.

He took on many different jobs from farmhand to ironworker. He finally got a position at the New York News Association as an apprentice journalist. HIs job was to document the living conditions he knew very well. He reported for various newspapers.

Police reporter

The New York Tribune hired him as a police reporter. He wrote stories that described how people lived in poor sections of the city. He wanted to tell those stories with more force. Jacob Riis decided to teach himself to be a photographer.

He was very good at describing the plight of impoverished immigrants. He began photographing in New York’s streets, slums, saloons and tenements. His work was often done at night. It was very hard for Jacob Riis to shoot in the dark, dimly-lit places that were home to so many.


Jacob Riis embraced the innovation of flash powder to illuminate dismal, unlit scenes the public had never seen. He accompanied his photos with graphic written descriptions of the poverty he witnessed and recorded with his camera. Newspaper editors clamored for more and more of his pictures.

A book

Jacob Riis gathered his photos into a book named How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. His photographs along with his blunt writing revealed a part of the city few had seen. New Yorkers became aware of the conditions in the slums of their city. The book became a catalyst for social reform.

Social reformer

Jacob Riis became a social reformer thanks to his writing and his pictures. He lectured, showing lantern slides of his photos to his audiences. His work led to reforms in the city. “that every man’s experience ought to be worth something to the community from which he drew it” Jacob Riis believed, “no matter what that experience may be, so long as it was gleaned along the line of some decent, honest work”

Lost images

Jacob Riis’s work was well-regarded during his lifetime. After he died, it was mostly forgotten. At the end of World War II, his negatives were rediscovered and sent to the Museum of the City of New York. A retrospective of his work was held in 1947.

Sources: My Modern Met, International Center for Photography.

Read inspirational stories of other photographers in On Photography.