Jacob Riis was born in 1849 in Denmark and immigrated to the United States in 1870 at 21 years old. He could not find steady work and had to live at a police lodging house, a hotbed for crime and typhus fever. After several months of unemployment and homelessness, Riis contemplated suicide. Soon after this, in 1873, Riis found work with a news bureau, and later was recruited by South Brooklyn News in 1874. He became a police reporter in 1877 for the New York Tribune and the Associated Press where he worked for 23 years.
Riis was one of the first photographers to use flash powder to capture the conditions of the same lodging houses in which he once was forced to live, as well as the tenements in the Lower East Side where Tateh and Little Girl lived. He became a photojournalist for the Evening Sun in 1888 where he advocated for the poor through his photography. His Danish accent and his radical commitment to revealing the truth of the poor in New York made him an outsider even among reporters. Riis earned the nickname "the Emancipator of the Slums", in part through the impact of his book How the Other Half Lives which illuminated the sordid conditions of the tenements. How the Other Half Lives was one of the first books to successfully employ halftone reproduction of his photographs.
How the Other Half Lives was one of many of Riis's books, but this book in particular gained popularity with the New York Police Commissioner and future 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt accompanied Riis into the into the tenements of the city and even called Riis "the most useful citizen of New York."
His photographs were largely forgotten after his death until the negatives were found and donated to the city of New York. Head over to Images for examples of his photography.
Dramaturgy for the Ragtime musical and novel.
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