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Photography as Witness

Photographs of major historic events often help define collective memory or provide indisputable evidence of moments in history.

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)

Jacob Riis was a journalist, social activist, and photographer in New York City. In 1878 Riis 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. Riis began to take photographs documenting the terrible living conditions. Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot shows tenement dwellers caught in a candid moment, highlighting their overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous surroundings. Riis traveled around the tenements at night using the newly invented magnesium flash, which enabled him to surprise his subjects with a ball of blinding light.

Riis presented these images in magic lantern lectures and published them in essays and eventually in his successful 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements. Despite controversy over his techniques and agenda, Riis’s photographs are widely credited as helping to bring attention and improvements to the degrading conditions in the tenements. His candid, raw style influenced subsequent generations of documentary photographers like 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.

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

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

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.