The Other Half – The Activist Photography of Jacob Riis

The Other Half – The Activist Photography of Jacob Riis
16 February - 15 April 2018

Press release | 19 December 2017

In 1870, the Danish immigrant Jacob Riis (1849-1914) arrived in New York City, aged twenty-one and penniless. This background stimulated his concern for the poor living conditions of inhabitants of the city’s Lower East Side. In time, his concern propelled him to become an important journalist and social reformer. In addition, he is now viewed as one of the founders of documentary photography.

Riis used the camera as a means to help improve the living conditions of the city's destitute. He was eager to apply the latest developments in the still young medium of photography. After reading about the German invention of flash powder, he realised that this would enable him to capture what he saw at night on his way home: decrepit tenement buildings, cheap gambling halls and opium dens in China Town. Thanks to the new technology, he was also able to photograph scenes in the narrow dark alleys and dimly lit rooms.

Initially Riis hired amateur photographers, only taking up the camera personally in 1888. Riis mainly used his photographs as powerful illustrations for his lectures, articles and books, and to raise public awareness of the living conditions of the city's impoverished population. During his lectures - a kind of ‘TEDX-talk’ avant la lettre - Riis would project the images using a magic lantern (a stereopticon). This made his lectures very popular, and by 1900 Riis had become a celebrated writer, journalist and public speaker who knew how to move influential friends such as Theodore Roosevelt (the later president of the United States), Andrew Carnegie and Booker T. Washington to implement reforms.

However successful Riis’s social efforts were, his photographs did not attract much attention for themselves. The technology to reprint them in books was still far from perfect, and the photograph was often used as the basis for drawings. The interest in his photographs started to grow after the Second World War, and it was only in 1946 - many years after his death - that the Museum of the City of New York organised the first major exhibition of his images.

The Other Half – The Activist Photography of Jacob Riis comprises vintage photographs by Riis and his contemporaries, prints from 1946 and more recent prints from 1994. Visitors can also see and listen to a reconstruction of one of his lectures. The exhibition includes a magic lantern as used by Riis during his lectures, and a number of personal belongings such as his notebook. This is the first-ever exhibition of the work by Jacob Riis in the Netherlands.

The Museum of the City of New York houses the original complete compilation of Riis's pioneering works of photojournalism. This collection contains 191 vintage prints, 415 glass-plate negatives and 326 lanternslides by Jacob Riis.

The Other half - The Activist Photography of Jacob Riis was developed in collaboration with the Museum of the City of New York.

The exhibition can be seen from 16 February – 15 April 2018 at Foam. Open daily 10am - 6pm, Thurs/Fri 10am - 9pm.

For information, interviews and visual material, and/or for general enquiries about Foam, including Print Sales (Foam Editions), Bookshop and Collection, please contact the Press Office of Foam at +31 (0)20 5516500 /

Foam is supported by the BankGiro Loterij, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Gemeente Amsterdam, Olympus and the VandenEnde Foundation.

Keizersgracht 609 
1017 DS Amsterdam 
Tel. + 31 (0)20 5516500 

The Other Half – The Activist Photography of Jacob Riis
The Other Half – The Activist Photography of Jacob Riis