HW Pick: ‘Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half’ Book

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Jacob Riis (1849-1914), a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the 20th century, is the focus of a new book and exhibitions at four venues in the U.S. and Denmark.

His photographs of the city’s slums illustrated the plight of impoverished residents and established Riis as forerunner of modern photojournalism. Published in his 1890 book, “How the Other Half Lives: The Tenements of New York,” those images, along with his articles and lectures throughout the country, prompted fellow reformer Theodore Roosevelt to call Riis “New York’s most useful citizen.”

how the other half lives by jacob reese


“Jacob Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half”— the first comprehensive study and complete catalogue of Riis’s world-famous images—has been published by Yale University Press in association with the Library of Congress and the Museum of the City of New York. Author Bonnie Yochelson presents Riis as a radical publicist who used photographs to enhance his arguments but had no ambition as a photographer. The book is the culmination of more than two decades of her research, assembling materials from five repositories (the Riis Collection at the Museum of the City of New York, the Library of Congress, the New-York Historical Society, the New York Public Library and Denmark’s Museum of South West Jutland) along with previously unpublished photographs and notes.

Yochelson, an art historian with a specialty in photography, has served on the faculty of New York’s School of Visual Arts since 1988. The former curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, Yochelson has worked as an independent curator since 1991.

The book is the companion volume to the exhibitions— in the U.S. at the Museum of the City of New York and the Library of Congress—that will merge selected items from major Riis collections for the first time. The Library’s Riis collection, comprising 3,000 items, includes correspondence, drafts and printed copies of articles, outlines of lectures, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, appointment books, financial records and family photographs. Riis’ documentary photographs were rediscovered in the 1940s and prints were made from his negatives and lantern slides, all of which were donated to the Museum of the City of New York.

“Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half,” a co-presentation of the Museum of the City of New York and the Library of Congress, is on view in New York from Oct. 14 through March 20, 2016. The New York exhibition—the first major retrospective of Riis’s photographic work in the United States in more than 50 years—will follow Riis’s journey from destitute immigrant to confidant of President Theodore Roosevelt and delve into Riis’s use of photography in books, articles and on the lecture circuit.

“Jacob Riis: ‘Revealing How the Other Half Lives’” will be on view at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., April 14 through Sept. 5, 2016. Presented in collaboration with the City Museum, the exhibit will emphasize Riis’s call to action on issues of housing, homelessness, public space, immigration, education, public health, and labor (issues that are still at the forefront of many public debates today) and how—as a writer, photographer, lecturer, advocate, and ally—Riis used whatever means were necessary to effect social change (source).

Many of the Library’s resources can be accessed through its website at loc.gov.

Visit mcny.org to learn more.

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