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Jacob August Riis (American, born Denmark. 1849–1914)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American photographer of Danish birth. The son of a school-teacher and editor, he was well-educated when he came to the USA in 1870. He was a self-taught photographer and worked at a variety of jobs before becoming a journalist, and he understood the power of the written and illustrated word. Riis’s work in journalism began in 1873 when he was employed by the New York News Association. By 1874 he was editor and then owner of the South Brooklyn News. In 1878 he won a coveted job as a police-reporter at the Tribune and found the basis of his life’s work in his assigned territory, Mulberry Bend, where the worst slums and tenements were (e.g. Mulberry Bend as It Was, see Riis, 1901, p. 265).

Using flash photographs to document articles and lectures, Riis emphasized the dehumanizing conditions of New York’s slums with works such as Tenement House Air-shaft and Gotham Court (see Riis, 1901, pp. 351, 355). He photographed only from 1888 to 1898. The photographs, printed as half-tones or used as a basis for engravings, illustrated his newspaper articles and books, chiefly How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements and The Battle with the Slum. Satisfied that he had sufficient glass plates for illustrations, he gave up photography.

The German invention of magnesium flash was the catalyst in causing Riis to use photography as a reporter’s tool. The flash made possible the camera’s penetration into tenement interiors, and the grim determination and unfailing vision with which Riis made these exposures is the great source of their continuing vitality and their status as icons of the American reform era. He was the first to realize the power of photographic documentation in the campaign for social reform. The force of Riis’s gripping subject-matter and the strength of his composition have drawn 20th-century photographers, such as Ansel Adams and Rolf Petersen, to print from his glass plate negatives, which are in the Museum of the City of New York.

Anne Ehrenkranz
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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