Once Upon A Time In Manhattan: Photographer's Stark Images Instill Change
As NY1 wraps up its spotlight on Manhattan, the station takes a look at the work of journalist, social reformer, and documentary photographer Jacob Riis. Borough reporter Rebecca Spitz filed the following report.
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Bandits' Roost is arguably one of Jacob Riis's most famous photographs.
"It shows some tough guys hanging out, sort of framing the picture and looking down this alley that's got laundry in the back and actually has a mother and child on one side and so it's kind of an entryway picture that's a little ominous," explains author and art historian Bonnie Yochelson.
Showing the underbelly of the city, specifically the slums on the Lower East Side, framed the work of Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who came to the United States in 1870. A police reporter by trade, he wrote extensively on squalid conditions using photographs to underscore his advocacy. But Riis was more interested in showing than telling. Historians believe Riis was more interested in galvanizing public opinion than lobbying legislators.
"I would describe him as one of the pioneering photo journalists, really someone who began to use photography to illustrate conditions here on the Lower East Side, particularly in the tenement neighborhoods that immigrants were living in around the turn of the 20th century and really trying to document and expose what were deplorable living conditions," says Dave Favaloro of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Riis was also one of the first photojournalists to use flash powder which let him get images inside the slums at night.
"The success of the picture is really partly caused by the harshness of the flash which makes it look so grim and sort of scary and also the sense of chaos," explains Yochelson.
Yochelson says Riis used his photographs to effect housing reform and to create open space for children.
The equipment in Seward Park has obviously changed over the years, but it wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for Jacob Riis who fought for construction of the playground.
"Riis really felt this was an important part of offering particularly children in the neighborhood an alternative to crime that was rampant in areas like this and gangs as well. He has this terrific quote, 'The parks will sort of fight with the gang for control of the boy,'" says Favaloro.
View the complete gallery of antique photographs of Manhattan from the archives of the Museum of the City of New York.