In 1870, penniless and alone, Jacob Riis immigrated to the United States from Denmark. Unable to find a steady source of income, Riis took on various low-paying jobs such as bricklaying, carpentry, and sales. During this time, he experienced firsthand the utter poverty in America’s cities. Astounded by the high levels of crime and disease—which he attributed largely to low socioeconomic status—Riis felt that the unsanitary and dangerous living conditions of the poor were a terrible injustice. After several years, Riis managed to establish a steady income and found work as a journalist for the New York Tribune. As a police reporter, Riis frequently journeyed to the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City. It was during this time that Riis met and befriended police commissioner and future president Theodore Roosevelt. Using journalism as a platform, Riis employed sensationalist prose to try to show his readers what life was like in dangerous and poverty-stricken urban areas.
At the time, popular opinion among middle- and upper-class New Yorkers was that poverty was the fault of the poor. Theories such as social Darwinism and Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth” helped promote the belief that the poor were only poor because they were too lazy, weak, or immoral to rise up in society. In contrast, Jacob Riis saw the slums as a cause of poverty rather than a symptom. Certain that most New Yorkers were simply unaware of the struggles of those living in poverty, Riis was determined to show his readers that the vast majority of the poor were normal, hardworking people facing enormously adverse circumstances. As he visited the slums of New York, Riis made an effort to learn more about the various issues the poor faced, from the spread of disease to crime to overcrowding. After publishing numerous articles describing his findings, Riis realized that sensationalist prose had a limited effect on his otherwise oblivious audience; indeed, some of Riis’s readers felt that he must be exaggerating the conditions in the tenements. It was then that Riis started to experiment with photography, hypothesizing that the misery of the poor might be better conveyed through images.
After getting a job with the New York Sun, Riis began to photograph life in the slums using innovative flash technology to better capture the dim tenements and the nighttime streets. Rather than having his subjects pose, Riis often ran up to them and quickly took a photo before running away. This unorthodox technique—designed to capture subjects at their most raw—was one of the first instances of casual photography. Due to the limitations of print technology, line drawings of Riis’s photographs were published next to his articles rather than the photographs themselves. Meanwhile, Riis began presenting his photographs at churches and schools, often provoking shocked reactions from his audiences. In 1889, Riis published an article in Scribner’s Magazine called “How the Other Half Lives,” a phrase taken from François Rabelais’s famous quote: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” After seeing the success of the article, Riis decided to adapt it into a book. By 1890, Riis had completed his book How the Other Half Lives. Echoing the style of Charles Dickens, Riis used both sentimental and critical prose to describe the plight of the urban poor. Accompanying Riis’s words were detailed line drawings and halftones of his most compelling photographs (one of the first extensive uses of halftone photography in a book).
How the Other Half Lives was an immediate success, and Riis was applauded for his bold assertion that addressing urban poverty was both a social and moral imperative. While Riis’s work was well received at the time, it is worth noting that he often succumbed to prejudice and stereotype when writing about his subjects, particularly foreigners. Despite these shortcomings, Riis’s obvious sympathy for his subjects resonated with his readers. Many middle- and upper-class New Yorkers were utterly shocked by the abhorrent conditions in the city’s slums, and their outrage was quickly channeled into reform. A few years after the book’s publication, the Tenement House Committee was created. The very next year, the committee passed new tenement requirements to prevent the construction of dark and poorly ventilated buildings. Riis’s work also inspired the New York Tenement House Act of 1901, which implemented new safety regulations and provided for improved living conditions in tenement housing. Working with his longtime friend Theodore Roosevelt, Riis went on to champion various social causes, particularly housing and labor reform.
How the Other Half Lives is now regarded as one of the most influential pieces of photojournalism in United States history. Often credited with laying the foundation for the “muckraker” journalists of the Progressive Era, Riis was undoubtedly a pioneer of investigative journalism and modern photography. After the success of How the Other Half Lives, Riis published several follow-up books, including the well-received Children of the Poor. Published during the convergence of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, How the Other Half Lives marks an important turning point in the history of American social reform.