Header Image: "Scene on the Mott Street Barracks," photo by Jacob A. Riis, ca. 1890, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis.
by Siobhan Donnelly
In the treasure trove of culture that is Museum Mile (5th Ave from 82nd to 105th), it can be tough to see it all. So if you haven’t had a chance, we strongly suggest that you make some time this weekend to stop by the Museum of the City of New York, whose wide range of exhibitions are as well-curated as they are comprehensive. We were especially excited to check out “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half”, up through March 20th.
Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914), Museum of the City of New York, Chicago Albumen Works. “One of four pedlars who slept in cellar of 11 Ludlow Street rear. A man atop a make-shift bed that consists of a plank across two barrels.” ca. 1890
Today, the “picture is worth a thousand words” trope could not ring truer in the news. The gravity of an event or conflict doesn’t quite hit home until someone captures that iconic image. Think Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl or Nick Ut’s photograph of a young girl during a napalm attack in Vietnam. And in many ways, we live in a society that has become desensitized to the power of these images.
But when Jacob A. Riis began to use photography—as early as 1888—to expose the horrible living conditions of impoverished New Yorkers, audiences were shocked out of their ignorance as their eyes were opened to the trials and tribulations of the proverbial "other half". Ahead of his time, Riis understood the unique ability of a photograph to mobilize change, documenting the conditions in the slums of the Lower East Side and sharing them widely.
"Children’s Playground, Poverty Gap," photo by Jacob A. Riis, 1892, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis.
Left: "Bandit’s Roost" (half stereo, left), photo by Jacob A. Riis, ca. 1890, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis; Right: [Jacob Riis], Pach Brothers, 1903. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Joseph Werner Reed, F2012.58.1059.
Featuring letters, books, and notes from his life, "Revealing New York's Other Half" gives viewers a comprehensive look into Riis's career as a photographer, journalist, and social organizer. It transports visitors back to the turn of the 20th century, when the overcrowding and unhealthy conditions of New York’s slums were unimaginable by today’s standards. Through a reconstruction of his lantern slide lecture, “How the Other Half Lives”—the namesake of the show—we are able to understand the original context of these historical photographs as Riis intended to present them.
Rather than a traditional photography show, this exhibition is a lesson on the power of a photograph. About journalism as much as it is about photography, you won't want to miss this journey to the past. It will certainly make you thankful for the living conditions we enjoy in the Big Apple today.
"Scene on the Mott Street Barracks," photo by Jacob A. Riis, ca. 1890, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis.
"Sweatshop in Hester Street," Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis.
“Newsboys Sleeping in the Offices of the New York Sun, 1891-1892,” photo by Jacob A. Riis. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis.
"Little Susie in Gotham Court," photo by Jacob A. Riis. 1892. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis.
"Bohemian Cigar Makers at Work," photo by Jacob A. Riis. ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis.
Chicago Albumen Works. Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). Police Station Lodgers 18. Eldridge Street Station, Women lodgers (only women lodgers in Eldridge St.). ca. 1890. Women sleeping on plank beds and the floor.
Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914), Chicago Albumen Works. “Police Station Lodgers 19. The Single typhus lodger in Eldridge Street, he lay by the stove in the policemen's room no one dreaming what ailed him.”
WHAT TO DO AFTER //
First off, don't stop with Riis. You might want to budget a few hours to take in all of the amazing shows at MCNY. Then, if you haven't tried the Upper East Side's Guthrie Inn, now is your chance. Tucked away on Park Avenue between 97th and 98th, the Guthrie Inn is one part speakeasy, one part dive, all parts delicious. Pick from their amazing menu of specialty cocktails and enjoy a quiet drink in the big booth by the window. This lesser-known gem has style, charm, and the bartending savvy to back it all up.