In the late nineteenth century, many immigrants in New York City lived in crowded tenement apartments that lacked the modern conveniences of the bourgeois home, such as artificial lighting. For this reason, when social reformer and police reporter Jacob Riis set out to photograph these working-class inhabitants, he brought his own flash apparatus: a frying pan filled with flammable magnesium. Although his intention—to stir the conscience of the upper classes with his documents of urban poverty—was progressive, his methods were intrusive. Riis often entered homes without permission, opening his camera shutter and blinding unsuspecting sitters with an explosion of light. His illustrated book How the Other Half Lives (1890), which includes this photograph and many others, led to laws making tenements safer and more habitable.
Gallery label from 2021