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.
‘Minding the Baby,’ 1892 / Jacob Riis / Museum of the City of New York
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 and used his photographs as powerful illustrations for his lectures, articles, and books. 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.
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 lantern slides 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.
Foam is supported by BankGiro Loterij, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Delta Lloyd, City of Amsterdam, Olympus and the VandenEnde Foundation.