Jacob Riis (essay date 1888)

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SOURCE: "Flashes from the Slums: Pictures in Dark Places by the Lighting Process," in Photography: Essays & Images, edited by Beaumont Newhall, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980, pp. 154-57.

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[In the following essay, which originally appeared in the New York Sun, Riis comments on some of his photographs.]

With their way illuminated by spasmodic flashes, as bright and sharp and brief as those of the lightning itself, a mysterious party has lately been startling the town o' nights. Somnolent policemen on the street, denizens of the dives in their dens, tramps and bummers in their socalled lodgings, and all the people of the wild and wonderful variety of New York night life have in their turn marvelled at and been frightened by the phenomenon. What they saw was three or four figures in the gloom, a ghostly tripod, some weird and uncanny movements, the blinding flash, and then they heard the patter of retreating footsteps, and the mysterious visitors were gone before they could collect their scattered thoughts and try to find out what it was all about. Of course all this fuss speedily became known to THE SUN reporters, and equally as a matter of course they speedily found out the meaning of the seeming mystery. But at the request of the parties interested the publication of the facts was delayed until the purpose of the expedition was accomplished. That has now been done, and its history may now be written.

The party consisted of members of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York experimenting with the process of taking instantaneous pictures by an artifical flash light, and their guide and conductor, an energetic gentleman, who combines in his person, though not in practice, the two dignities of deacon in a Long Island church and a police reporter in New York. His object in the matter, besides the interest in the taking of the pictures, was the collection of a series of views for magic lantern slides, showing, as no mere description could, the misery and vice that he had noticed in his ten years of experience. Aside from its strong human interest, he thought that this treatment of the topic would call attention to the needs of the situation, and suggest the direction in which much good might be done. The nature of this feature of the deacon-reporter's idea is indicated by the way he has succeeded in interesting the children in his Sunday school on Long Island in the work of helping the destitute children of the metropolis. The ground about the little church edifice is turned into a garden, in which the Sunday school children work at spading, hoeing, planting, and weeding, and the potatoes and other vegetables thus raised are contributed to a children's home in this city. In furtherance of just such aims the deaconreporter threw himself with tireless energy into the pursuit of pictures of Gotham's crime and misery by night and day to make a foundation for a lecture called "The Other Half; How it Lives and Dies in New York," to give at church and Sunday school exhibitions, and the like.

The entire composition of the night rousing party was: Dr. Henry G. Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, two accomplished and progressive amateur photographers; Dr. John T. Nagle of the Health Board, who is strongly interested in the same direction, and Jacob A. Riis, the deacon-reporter.

The first picture in this report gives a view of life among the white slaves, as the needle-women of New York are truthfully and pathetically designated since THE SUN has disclosed so much of the misery and oppression they suffer. The women are mother and daughter, both widows. As they are both able to work, and have no children or any one depending on them, they are exceptionally well off among the class to which they belong. But it is only by unremitting work, early and late, that they are able to keep over themselves the poor shelter of a tenement house roof...

(The entire section contains 36739 words.)

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