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Photography as Witness

Photographs of news stories and major events can often shape collective memory and how history is written and understood.

Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot

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

1889. Gelatin silver print, printed 1957, 6 3/16 x 4 3/4" (15.7 x 12 cm)

Journalist, photographer, and social activist Jacob Riis produced photographs and writings documenting poverty in New York City in the late 19th century, making the lives and living conditions of the working poor as widely visible as possible. In 1878, he became a police reporter for the New York Tribune and was assigned to the area known as Mulberry Bend in Lower Manhattan, where the city’s worst slums and tenements were concentrated. He began documenting the deplorable living conditions there, producing photographs like Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot. In this image, he captures tenement dwellers in a candid moment, highlighting their overcrowded, dirty, and dangerously dilapidated surroundings. Riis would visit the tenements at night, whose darkness was compounded by the fact that many of the rooms in these buildings lacked windows. He compensated for this by using the newly invented magnesium flash, which produced a ball of blinding light that both illuminated these spaces and surprised his subjects.

Riis presented his images in magic lantern slide lectures and published them alongside essays and eventually in his successful 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Though his methods and motivations were not free of controversy, his photographs are widely credited with helping to bring attention and improvements to the degrading conditions in the tenements. His candid, raw style influenced later generations of documentary photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

An urban dwelling made up of several apartments, often overcrowded and located in economically depressed sections of a city.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.

Apparatus used to project an image, usually onto a screen. In use from the 17th to the early 20th century, it is a precursor of the modern slide projector. A transparent slide containing the image was placed between a source of illumination and a set of lenses to focus and direct the image.

A genre of photography that aims to objectively chronicle a subject or event.