I’ve been fascinated with the photography of Jacob A. Riis since I was first introduced to it as a college student. When I heard that the Museum of the City of New York was hosting an exhibition of his photographs, papers, and other items, I had to visit immediately. I’ve since been back several times, and each time I discover something different than what I’ve noticed before.
Riis was a journalist, photographer, and social reformer who lived and worked in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His black and white photography was published in contemporary newspapers and magazines, as well as in best-selling books such as How the Other Half Lives (1890). Through his photography, writing, and public speaking, Riis brought public attention to the plight of New York City’s urban poor. A visit to the exhibition is a must for those who would like to learn more about the history of the city, including immigrants and others who lived in poverty at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s also a draw for fans of vintage photography, as the exhibition contains incredible photographs.
Here are a few examples of the photographs that you will see in the exhibition. (All of Riis’s original photographs are protected by glass, of course, making it difficult to photograph the exhibit, but they will still give you a glimpse of the exhibition’s power.) This first one is titled “Five Cents a Spot,” 1889-1890. As the exhibition explains, Riis took this photograph during the raid of an illegal lodging house, where workers could pay five cents a night to sleep on the floor.
This second one, titled “Little Susie,” 1892, documented the life of a working child. Susie completed piecework at home to help support her family. (In piecework, a worker is paid a very small amount for each completed item rather than being paid an hourly wage.) Susie and her family lived in a tenement building called Gotham Court, which lacked plumbing, ventilation, or natural light.
This final photograph is titled “Italian Mother and Her Baby in Jersey Street,” 1888-1889. This single windowless room was the family’s entire apartment, and all of their possessions are visible as well.
One of the things I really enjoyed was this map of Manhattan that was placed in the middle of the exhibition. The map shows where some of the photographs had been taken, allowing the visitor to compare conditions during Riis’s time with what those areas of the city look like today.
The final part of the exhibition was also really interesting. One thing that Riis did to focus attention on the conditions of people living in poverty was public speaking engagements, where he showed lantern slide versions of his photographs. You can experience what it was like to attend one of those presentations by watching a narrated lantern slide show of the photographs yourself. I found the overall experience powerful and moving. This particular slide shows some of the nefarious “Dock Rats,” who were known for their illegal activity, including violent robberies.
The exhibition ends on March 20, 2016, so there is only about a month to see it here in New York City before it’s over. After the exhibition leaves the Museum of the City of New York, it will be traveling to Washington, DC, and Denmark, so keep your eyes open for it if you live in or will be traveling to those locations. (Riis was an immigrant from Denmark, explaining why his work will be exhibited there.)
How can you get to the Museum of the City of New York by public transportation? To travel by subway, take the 6 train to the 103rd Street Station. You can also get there by bus – just take the M1, M3, or M4 to Madison Avenue and 104th Street, and then walk one block west to Fifth Avenue. The museum is across Fifth Avenue from the northern end of Central Park, so if you have the time after your visit to the museum, take the opportunity to explore the park as well.