Photography changes the world: Part 1

 In my last post I wrote briefly about the photograph and the mass of people who, unlike the wealthy, never saw their family history in paintings and sculpture, whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents were lost to memory. Photography helped people remember the past; it gave them visual images of those had gone before them. It enriched their histories. 

Not only did their personal histories grow longer, richer and deeper, they also acquired wider vision of the whole world with the appearance of photographs in magazines, newspapers and books. 

But the poor not only looked at the world differently, they were looked at more intensely, and sometimes to good effect. 

 The first photographer to photograph poverty and its victims was Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, who was a police reporter in late 19th century New York City. 

Jacob Riis


Riis explored the city’s slums and her people in articles for the New York Tribune, and then, wanting to more deeply impress his subject on his readers, invited photographers to accompany him, until he began to take photographs himself. It wasn’t easy in the 1870s. The settings for his stories were often dangerous: poverty has always bred violence. Cameras were large and unwieldy and most of Riis’s photos were taken in the dark corners of the city, often at night, and had to be taken with a flash. 

Bandit’s Roost by Jacob Riis, 1888, from How the Other Half Lives. This image is Bandit’s Roost at 59½ Mulberry Street, considered the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of New York City.


Riis and the photographers who worked with him were among the first to use flash. The pistol lamps they used were dangerous and looked threatening, and were soon replaced by another process, in which Riis lit magnesium powder on a frying pan. The picture taker had to remove the lens cap, ignite the flash powder, and replace the lens cap. The time taken sometimes made for a blurred image and the equivalent in black and white photography of red-eye. 

Jacob Riis became early 20th century America’s most famous reporter. His exposés helped end the worst tenement housing. They broke down police force corruption and brutality. His photographs and writing brought about the creation and enforcement of housing codes. Fire escapes, windows, toilets and running water were changed. His exposé of the probable transmission of cholera through the city’s water supply led to today’s clean drinking water. It was because of Riis that playgrounds were built on the grounds of public schools. In a book that has become a classic, How the Other Half Lives, he described his work among the city’s immigrants. 

Children of the streets.


An evangelical Christian, his writing and his photography were of a piece: they represented a Christian crusade for social justice. Photography as an art form was never something that interested him, and yet today, many of his pictures can look, to a modern audience, suspiciously like art. Separated by time from the cause that fired them, separated from words that accompanied them, they become art. 

But more on this subject in our next post when we look at the very beautiful photographs of Lewis Hine and later still, at those of the Depression photographers who worked for the government’s New Deal programs.