For the 90th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, Historian Keith Greenwood shares the story of muckraker Jacob Riis and his famous photography examining How the Other Half Lives.
Keith Greenwood: At least a function of journalism is holding power accountable, is something that the muckrakers were doing and, and that’s something that has been a function and, for some journalists, a calling since then.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
The stunning photographs capturing the deplorable living conditions of immigrants are as striking today as they were over a century ago. As a trailblazer in flash photography, photojournalist Jacob Riis preserved powerful American history with his work in How the Other Half Lives, a shining example of journalism from the muckraking era of the late 1800s. In this episode, we visit with photojournalism historian Keith Greenwood of the University of Missouri, who tells us more about Riis, an immigrant himself, who provided powerful imagery of the struggle of these new Americans living in the tenements in New York. Keith, welcome to the show. So before we delve into How the Other Half Lives, tell us about the early life of Jacob Riis.
Keith Greenwood: Uh, well, thanks for having me. Um, sure. Early life, Jacob Riis is a Danish immigrant. He was — he was born in Denmark.
We know he came to this country from Denmark in 1870. His father was a teacher, helped out with some newspaper work. But you know, Riis apparently didn’t want that life. His dad hoped he would go have a literary career of some sort, and Riis wanted to be a carpenter. And so he worked as a carpenter some in Denmark but eventually found that there were greener pastures I guess across the waters and came to New York seeking a job as a carpenter. And so he worked actually a lot of different jobs. He was a very good carpenter. Worked some in New York. He worked some in Pennsylvania, but he was also between jobs a lot, and so sometimes he was a salesman. Sometimes he was a carpenter. He worked in, as far west as Chicago. Um –
when he was in New York, sometimes he was homeless, penniless, you know, lived on the streets, lived in their version of what we would think of as homeless shelters, but somewhere along the line something changed and, you know, he went back to New York, was going to be a telegrapher and, when he was in school to learn to do that, saw a job, a listing for a local small Long Island newspaper. And so he went off and thought he would get that job and he did get it but left after a couple of weeks. But this, something had changed, like I said, because this is a time when, when Riis wrote that it seemed to me that a reporter was the highest and noblest of all the callings because no one could sift right from wrong as he, and punish the wrong.
And so somewhere along the line, he saw that this was his way to sort of address some of the issues that he had been subject to, some of the issues that he saw in society and that’s kind of where he went into newspapering.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because we immediately think of photography when we think of Riis and, and then as you’ve talked about he actually worked as a reporter and editor first. So can you tell us a little more about what his early newspaper career was like?
Keith Greenwood: Um, sure. So like I said, he — actually there was a point where carpentry was doing really well for him and it made him financially stable, and he had sort of experimented then as a writer without much success. But he did get this job at the Long Island newspaper when he was studying to be a telegrapher. And he left after two weeks because the editor-in-chief of the newspaper was dishonest.
Um, just, you know, he couldn’t put up with that. So Riis went back to this neighborhood that he had lived in in New York. It’s called Five Points, which was a pretty rotten place to live, and a lot of immigrants lived in that area. And the principal of the telegraphy school that he had left saw him in that neighborhood trying to make a living peddling books and said, “Well, you know, you could possibly do that, but I know of a job at a New York news association. Let me put in a good word for you.” And so he got that job, which was pretty much just kind of a general assignment sort of job. He was supposed to just collect news wherever it happened, so he got a chance to roam around New York a lot. He wrote about street vendors. He wrote about people working in sweatshops. He wrote about homeless kids. Um, and apparently he kinda had a natural gift for storytelling –
that started to come out. That led him to another job offer as an editor of a small local weekly paper, which he shortly found was actually a front for a group of politicians, and it was going under financially because they were in debt. They were bad managers. They were somewhat corrupt. So he used the savings that he had, money that he borrowed, and bought the weekly away from this group of politicians, and pretty much ran it himself. He did everything. So I mean if you, if you think of small community weekly newspapers that are pretty much one-man operations or one-person operations that’s what Riis was doing in New York. And he paid off the debt in like five months, and once he was no longer sort of beholden those, to those politicians, he really started writing about them and –
holding their feet to the fire in print and, you know, starting to cause some trouble. And so they eventually bought the newspaper back from him for five times what he had paid. So, you know, he was successful early in his career as a newspaper writer. Um, the thing that was probably a little more pivotal and the transition to photography was a job that he got later. There was — there was a period again where he was out of work and recently married, and a neighbor of his was the city editor of the New York Tribune, and he recommended Riis for a job there again mostly as a general assignment reporter, which he was very good at, so he got a promotion to be the police reporter. And it was as the police reporter that he really had an inside track on the –
the way the police dealt with immigrants, the way the police dealt with the poor. The police ran somewhat we would think of as homeless shelters, so police lodging houses. He had kind of the inside track to see the conditions in those and write about them, and that was sorta what started him kind of on the track to what we think of when we think of Jacob Riis as a photographer.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, so how did he make that transition from, from writing to photography? How did he get interested in the photo part?
Keith Greenwood: Well, he saw the potential for photography as evidence. It was not his first kind of foray into photography. He had actually, again, in a period in between jobs he had experimented a little bit with photography and a slide projector, what we would, or what we would –
call a slide projector, but they were known as a magic lantern. And he and a partner were actually set up projecting advertisements for local businesses, so he knew that, you know, visual could attract some attention and attract people. But in the time that he’s writing in the 1880s, for the most part photography was presented in print as illustrations. So you had to take the photograph, turn that into some kind of a drawing that could be reproduced in print because photographs couldn’t be reproduced in print. But as far as evidence went, when there was a dispute over something it was either one person’s word against another’s or you had these drawings, but they would be dismissed because they were based on memory, they were potentially subject to the bias of the artist, they were definitely –
subject to the talent of the artist. But photography was becoming more recognized as a document depicting real life, and so he saw that the photographs of the things that he was writing about would provide the evidence that, you know, would force people to realize that these were the true conditions. I mean he’s trying to — he’s trying to inform people about the conditions in these police lodging houses, the conditions in the tenements, the overcrowding the disease and so on. And without the pictures, people were sort of free to say, well, yeah, that might be a case or two, but that’s not really the way it is. Once they had the pictures, he thought anyway, they wouldn’t be able to dispute it.
Teri Finneman: It’s noted that he was among the first to use flash photography, so talk about why that was such a turning point.
Keith Greenwood: Um, well, because he could go inside.
Photography at that point was using glass plates, dry plates, which were a lot more convenient, but they were still what we in the photo world what we would call slow. In other words, it took a long time to make a correct exposure, and so it was really suited to outdoors and daylight because a lot of light could hit that glass plate in a short time and give you a picture. But inside, you would have to leave that shutter, that lens open for a longer period of time, if you could even make an image. So indoors, nighttime photography really, for what he wanted to do, wasn’t possible until some form of artificial light was developed.
Teri Finneman: So Riis is included in the group of journalists –
known as the muckrakers. The phrase came about from an old book about a man with a muckrake who was so focused on looking down. Teddy Roosevelt compared journalists to this man in a speech by noting that journalists were too focused on the negative in their reporting, something we’re still, [laughs] still accused of today.
Keith Greenwood: [Laughs]
Teri Finneman: Uh, tell us more about what muckrakers were and why you think they have endured in journalism history.
Keith Greenwood: Yeah, sure. Um so yeah, Teddy Roosevelt with that — that character from Pilgrim’s Progress, I believe, you know, as president was getting a little annoyed because he had been trying to enact reform, and he didn’t think he was getting enough credit for it. You know, the, the media was always, “But what about this? But what about this?” So that was, you know, the, “Can’t you look up once in a while and — and recognize what we are doing?” Um, but this period in the late 1800s –
there was a lot more sentiment building about, I guess, reform. It was a time when some corporations were getting quite large. They were gaining a lot of power over the various industries that they operated in. So, for instance, railroads were sort of a monopoly industry. They set the prices for tickets. They set the prices for freight. They set the schedule. They had complete power over how much it was going to cost to ship something and how long it was going to take to get there. So a group of people, you know, largely I think middle class started to question that degree of power and whether it was ultimately a good thing or not, or whether there should be some limitations on it. So this was an era where people started –
promoting or, or pushing their representatives to look into these things and, you know, should there be some regulation? Is this industry too big? Should they be broken up, and etc. And that’s kind of what the different reporters started writing about. The reporters that became known as the muckrakers started addressing those issues. So you know, they were investigating railroads, they were investigating big corporations like Standard Oil, they were investigating city and federal government and, and corruption in government and some of them were even writing about housing and tenement conditions and so on. So, you know, Riis kind of fit in with, with that group. Um, a reason I think they’ve endured, a reason I think they’ve endured, one, it was, it was sort of a pivotal time in society, and so how does the journalism –
that’s going on with the muckrakers fit with that change in society, and why were publications eager to present that material? Um, you know, and, well, they knew that there was a market for it. They knew there was an interest in those sorts of stories and topics, and so it made sense for them to publish it, at least until something else came along to push it out of the way. But I also think they’ve endured because the ideas, the things that were driving some of the muckraking reporters are sort of ideals that we have come to sort of encapsulate in journalism’s function in society and, and there are, you know, a couple of old phrases: the mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable as something that is, uh –
you know, a responsibility of journalism and, and that fits with what the muckrakers were doing. Or, you know, the role of journalism to shine a light in the dark corners, which was kinda literally what Jacob Riis was doing. So, you know, I think just that sense of at least a function of journalism is holding power accountable, is something that the muckrakers were doing and, and that’s something that has been a function and for some journalists a calling since then.
Teri Finneman: Riis’ now famous work, How the Other Half Lives, originally appeared in part in Scribner’s Magazine in 1889, before he turned it into a book. I want to go over some of the interesting passages within the book. In the introduction, he notes, “Long ago it was said that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles and –
less for the fate of those who were underneath.” At the time, tenements were described as a house occupied by three or more families, officially anyway, yet Riis exposes that these places were packed with people. In one situation, two small rooms housed a father, a mother, 12 children, and six boarders, or 20 people living in two small rooms. Describe some of the photos that he took to illustrate how the other half, or in reality more than three-fourths, was living.
Keith Greenwood: Yeah, there, there were a lot of photographs that Riis made that you know, kind of fit into that description, the overcrowded tenements, the 20 people packed into two rooms. In addition to those kinds of photographs, he took photographs of these police lodging houses.
You know, places where they were often in basements. A nickel basically bought you a place on a small pallet or, or board to sleep, and it wasn’t terribly safe. I mean Riis had stuff stolen from him when he was living in those. People that were sleeping and living in cellars, kids sleeping on the streets, a few people, you know, trying to make a living selling things on the streets. Riis took a lot of photographs of families that were doing work in their homes, piecework, so sewing clothing, making cigars, things like that. He took a lot of photographs in sweatshops trying to illustrate that part of immigrant life, which wasn’t directly –
in the tenements necessarily but it was the condition that kind of kept people living in those tenements. They didn’t have a better — better way to get out of that. They didn’t have enough income to basically move up and out of the tenements. Lots of overcrowded conditions, like I said. You know, kids that worked. What’s kind of interesting is that the journalism industry has been one of the industries that benefited from child labor. You think about, you know, the newsboys carrying the newspapers out on the streets. Riis took quite a few pictures of, you know, kids just sleeping in the press room or, or waiting, hanging around in the alley behind the newspaper waiting for that edition to come out so they could go off and do their thing with it. So you kinda I think got a pretty big picture of –
different aspects of this area that he was working in, largely around this neighborhood known as Five Points.
Teri Finneman: What do we know about how his work, this Other Half Lives series, you know, how was this perceived by people at the time? Did he get any backlash? Did it go over well? You know, how did it go over?
Keith Greenwood: It went over pretty well. There was pretty good critical response to the book How the Other Half Lives. It was praised by lots of different segments of society. Magazine critics praised it, preachers incorporated it into their sermons, praised it from the pulpit, so it did get quite a bit of critical acclaim. It did get some resistance. Some critics thought that it was, you know, perhaps the photographs were too simplistic, um –
not really I don’t want to say creative necessarily but, but just they weren’t photographs that kind of showed a lot of quality in terms of their composition, in terms of the photographic aspects of it. And it’s probably unfair to characterize Riis in that way, you know, he was — he didn’t set out to be an accomplished photographer. He set out to make documentary evidence of the things that he was trying to tell people about. So some people did criticize the quality of the photographs, and some people criticized the book based on the idea that Riis was making it out to be worse than it was. Like sure, everything looks bad if you only pick the worst instances and put those in the book, but you can find lots of better instances of that, too. So you know, again, some of the criticisms –
that probably sound very familiar now. It’s like yeah, if you only pick those things, everything sounds pretty bad, but what about – and that was kinda some of the backlash that Riis got.
Teri Finneman: I think that he became close to Teddy Roosevelt after this, so did any reforms come from his photo work?
Keith Greenwood: Actually it did. You know, we talk a lot in journalism about the ability or, or lack of the ability to connect reporting to an actual outcome without really considering all the other elements of society. Riis is one of those cases where I think it’s pretty easy to say he made this work and it had this impact. So Roosevelt was becoming more popular politically in the New York area when How the Other Half Lives came out in 1890 –
and Riis came back to his office one day and found a card on his desk with, you know, Teddy Roosevelt’s name on it, and a note on the other side that said, “I’m here. How can I help?” And so they started to strike up a friendship, and a few years later Roosevelt became the president of the police commissioner’s board, so he was actually in a position to change stuff. And he dragged Riis out on nighttime tours of the different precincts, the police lodging houses, and so on, and, you know, Riis showed him where the trouble spots were, and they found some other trouble spots on their own as well. So you know, I think one of the things I read was that nine out of the ten police officers that were supposed to be at a certain patrol station weren’t there. Riis recounted to him –
the issues that he had had having things stolen from him and the police not doing anything about it, and so Roosevelt cleaned that up. He enacted reforms in that position to say no, this is not going to stand. As Roosevelt climbed the political ladder all the way up to the presidency, he and Riis remained close. They wrote quite often. Riis was at his inaugurations. They talked a lot when Roosevelt was president and, and Roosevelt had great things to say about Riis.
Teri Finneman: You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned earlier that Riis had some criticism from his contemporaries about his photo skills, yet a century later he’s now one of the most famous photographers in U.S. history. So why do you think that his work is still so well known in journalism history?
Keith Greenwood: Because it was groundbreaking, partly. Um –
Riis, I mean, these — these conditions didn’t occur just — just spring up in the late 1800s. There had been horrible housing conditions. Riis is at the point where the technology had developed to the point where it could actually be shown. So I mean Riis had, had been trying to show people pictures with these magic lantern slides and giving lectures, but when it became possible to actually publish the real photographs, not the drawings but actual photographs, in a book and present those to a broad public, that was something of a first. I mean it, it was — it’s kinda considered to be the first publication extensively using half tones. Not the very first one but to kind of extensively reproduce the photographs.
So when you’re in that position of being groundbreaking that certainly, you know, puts you on the ladder of, yes, this is where things start from. But I also think that he’s endured because of what I was saying earlier, this idea of reform and using photographs to document conditions that something should be done about. And there are reporters, there are photographers whose passion it is to do exactly that. I want to show people the things that have to be changed. I want to show people things that will outrage them and make them do something about it. And so Riis is the beginning of the ability, at least photographically, to do that in a mass media scale.
Teri Finneman: What happened to Riis after How the Other Half Lives came out? You know, what else did he do after that?
Keith Greenwood: Um, pretty much the lecture circuit. He stopped working in journalism in about 1901 but he had previously, while he was still a editor and, and reporter and photographer, he had been giving public lectures about the conditions that he was talking about in How the Other Half Lives, and he kept doing that. So he had been making photographs to accompany what he was telling people to, to do these magic lantern shows, and that’s what he continued to do up until about 1913, 1914. Um, he was on the lecture circuit. He gave multiple lectures weekly. Traveled all over the place. Never really made a whole lot of money at it and I think it had some impacts on his health. He — toward the end of his life –
uh, or the end of his career on the lecture circuit, he was in failing health. He was hospitalized. His family came to retrieve him and bring him back to New York, which is a trip that almost killed him, and he really only lived a couple of years after that. I believe he died in 1914.
Teri Finneman: Mm. You know, you see his work capturing the plight of immigrants trying to make it in this country in the late 1800s, and you just have to think of the immigrants today who are also enduring hardships. So I know that you’ve done other work studying how photography more recently has portrayed migration and conflict. What have you found in your other research?
Keith Greenwood: That it’s really easy to do the broad picture to try to give somebody the idea of the scope.
It’s difficult to give somebody the depth. Riis had the advantage, sort of, of doing this independently. He could photograph what he wanted to photograph, what he thought was the evidence that he needed and, you know, interestingly enough once he — once he got the pictures that he needed and after he stopped working at the newspaper, he really didn’t take more photographs. He, you know, those, those extra, you know, 10, 12 years that he was just on the lecture circuit, he wasn’t adding to the photographs. He had what he needed, but he had a project that there could be depth to. Um, that’s much harder to do in the media environment we have now. You know, the organizations might send a photographer –
someplace to capture what’s going on. So for instance you know, with the U.S. and, and the southern border right now you might send a photographer there and say, okay, there’s this issue and we want — we want to illustrate it. We want to tell people this is what’s happening. And after a couple of days you’re on to something next. It’s hard to find an outlet that can hit a lot of people that can really show the breadth and the depth of what the issue is. And so I think there are outlets for making people aware that this is an issue. There are not so many outlets for really getting people deeply into that issue to the degree that Riis was able to do.
Teri Finneman: Our final question of the show is why does photojournalism history matter?
Keith Greenwood: Well, it matters partly for the same reasons that journalism history matters. It’s, you know, within the industry, if you will, it’s important to understand the evolution, where you came from. The past informs the present, so why do we do things this way? Well, let’s, let’s look at how this evolved, and so we know, you know, how it happened. Um, we know that by looking at the past we can understand the practices that gives us a sense of context for understanding what’s in front of us now, and much like, you know, Jacob Riis and his thoughts, I think photojournalism history matters because it’s visual evidence. It’s not the perfect documentary evidence that we’ve often thought of it as.
You know, it’s the product of this is what the photographer saw and what the photographer thought was important. But it is visual evidence, and so it’s something that can show us when you describe 20 people living in two rooms, okay, how do I imagine that in my head? The picture can actually show you what that looks like. It gives us something much more tangible. So I think in a sense of having that tangible evidence it matters. I think in a sense of understanding the role of photography in journalism and in reform with Jacob Riis, it’s just part of understanding that evolution of how we got to where we are now.
Teri Finneman: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Keith Greenwood: Well, thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. If you like our podcast –
leave us a rating and a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.