Skip to main content

Feature

The Masked Image

Recapturing the Work of Reformer Jacob Riis

By Bonnie Yochelson | HUMANITIES, May/June 1998 | Volume 19, Number 3

Jacob Augustus Riis arrived in New York City from Ribe, Denmark in 1870 at the age of twenty-one and endured seven years of erratic employment before finding steady work as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. His exposés on crime evolved into a campaign for reform of the squalid living conditions that bred criminal behavior. Two of his books have become American classics: His 1890 How the Other Half Lives, which graphically describes the destitute lives of New York's slum dwellers, was a national sensation, and his 1901 autobiography The Making of an American, plots his ascent through hard work and Christian faith from impoverished immigrant to prominent citizen.

Riis’s fame, however, rests most securely on his photographs of New York's Lower East Side, which are now icons of urban poverty. Riis was the first journalist to use photographs as evidence of overcrowding, filth, and degradation in order to shock a complacent middle-class audience. For recognizing and exploiting this power of photography Riis is justifiably seen as a revolutionary of the medium. Surprisingly, Riis's photographs were largely forgotten from 1914, when he died, to 1948, when a selection of fifty were exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York. Since that exhibition, the Jacob A. Riis Collection has become the Museum's single best-known collection, in constant demand by scholars, educators, filmmakers, and picture researchers.

The long obscurity of Riis’s photographs can be explained in part by the use he made of them. Riis’s articles and books were illustrated with engravings taken from his photographs and with small, smudgy halftone reproductions -- the best that a still primitive technology could provide. Indeed, to the modern eye, it is hard to imagine why Riis’s photographs as originally printed were so powerful. The photographs were most dramatically experienced in Riis’s own day as lantern slides -- sometimes hand-colored -- which he used to illustrate his nationwide lectures addressed to religious and civic organizations.

Riis did not consider himself a photographer nor did he value his photographs as other than a means to an end. He was drawn to photography because the 1887 invention of flash powder allowed him to document the slums, where light levels were low. At first, he relied on others to operate the camera; only after he found their cooperation lacking did he learn the rudiments of the craft himself. Riis’s collection contains photographs of conventional subjects -- schools, settlement houses, and playgrounds -- taken by professionals. He took only those photographs that he could not obtain otherwise. "I am downright sorry,” he wrote, “to confess here that I am no good at all as a photographer . . . I am clumsy, and impatient of details.” Although his photographs are not yet definitively dated, Riis appears to have stopped photographing sometime in the 1890s when he had collected the subjects he needed for his lectures. After his death, Riis’s family gave his papers to the Library of Congress but did not think to preserve his photographs.

The rescue of Riis’s photographs in the 1940s was due to the dogged detective work of photographer Alexander Alland, who like Riis was an immigrant interested in social reform, and to the diplomatic skills of Grace Mayer, the museum's curator of prints. Alland and Mayer convinced Riis’s family to search for, find, and then donate to the museum a box containing 415 4 x 5-inch glass plate negatives, 326 lantern slides (positives on glass), and 191 vintage prints, many by photographers other than Riis. Selecting fifty of the best negatives, Alland used all the skills of the modern photographer -- enlarging, cropping, burning and dodging - - to transform Riis’s hastily exposed and poorly preserved negatives into beautiful exhibition prints. It was on the basis of these prints, shown at the museum in 1948 with captions selected by Mayer from Riis’s books, that Riis came to the attention of the photography world.

The Riis discovery hit a resonant chord. The most original and artistically ambitious photography of the 1940s was documentary photography and its offspring photojournalism. Art photographers, historians, and curators were actively searching for historical precedents. Just as Berenice Abbott had preserved the work of Eugene Atget and Ansel Adams had exhumed the American geological survey photographers, so Alland had rescued another master of the medium. Beaumont Newhall included Riis in his 1948 revised History of Photography as "the first photojournalist." That same year, eight of Alland's Riis prints were prominently featured in U.S. Camera Annual. And in 1949, Edward Steichen included six of Alland's Riis prints in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “The Exact Moment.” Riis became a precursor not only of 1930s documentary photographers, but of 35mm stop-action photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The resulting situation was paradoxical. Riis was seen as a great artist, even though he never considered himself a photographer and even though there was no body of his work to assess as art. To a great extent, Alland and the Museum of the City of New York had created Riis’s photographs and were therefore faced with an immediate curatorial dilemma. What Alland had recovered was Riis’s raw material -- fragile, in poor condition, and unexhibitable -- which did not meet the public's demand for prints for exhibition and reproduction. Alland offered to sell the museum a complete set of prints from the 415 negatives, but the museum failed to raise the necessary funds. (The set was subsequently purchased by The New-York Historical Society.) By 1957, however, the need for prints was clearer, and money was found for museum staff photographer John Harvey Heffren to make a set of copy negatives and copy prints from the original negatives. In 1974, Aperture published Alland's Jacob A. Riis, Photographer and Citizen, a biography illustrated with eighty-two of Alland's Riis prints.

The Heffren prints have protected the original materials from handling, breakage, and loss. And Alland's beautifully produced Aperture book, reprinted in 1993, has broadened the public's awareness of Riis’s achievement. But analysis of Riis through these prints has only helped nurture many misguided ideas about Riis the photographer, and has hindered scholars who have tried to reassess Riis’s reputation.

Heffren's set of prints is incomplete, for it represents only Riis’s negatives, not the lantern slides and prints. Images not available in negative form are simply not known to the public. Both Heffren and Alland cropped Riis’s negatives -- to mask the damaged edges of many negatives, to enhance the impact of the subject, and (in the case of many Heffren prints) to mask the fact that many negatives were copied from prints, not taken from life. Riis's copy negatives were a necessary step in the production of lantern slides. One can only assume that Heffren innocently cropped off the thumbtacks or photographers' signatures showing at the edges in his effort to "clean up" the negatives. This practice has wreaked havoc with attribution. For example, a well known image often attributed to Riis is Jessie Tarbox Beals's photograph of a tenement family making artificial flowers. Riis owned a print and produced a copy negative for a lantern slide. Beals's signature, clearly visible at the lower left of the vintage print, was cropped off the Heffren copy negative which has been used for reproduction since the 1950s. And the museum's credit line, "Jacob A. Riis Collection," is often truncated by publishers, without museum permission, to "Jacob A. Riis."

More subtle are the problems posed by the appearance of the modern prints -- 8 x 10-inch black and white glossies. Alland's prints (and the beautiful Aperture reproductions) exhibit the rich velvety blacks characteristic of the high-quality printing of his day. Heffren's are more quotidien, resembling serviceable press prints. Neither look anything like Riis’s 4 x 5-inch yellowed contact prints on cardboard mounts, not to mention the printed engravings or halftones made from them. The modern appearance of the Alland and Heffren prints help us forget that Riis was a Victorian illustrator, not a Dorothea Lange or W. Eugene Smith.

A brilliant, albeit mistaken, example of such interpretation can be found in Peter Bacon Hales's 1984 book on urban photography, Silver Cities. Basing his remarks upon an Alland or Heffren version of Riis's Minding the Baby, Hales is convinced of Riis's self-conscious art-making:

The folded mattress, chest of drawers, and covered washtub so casually edging into the frame are symbols which serve to flesh out the hidden lives of these children. . . The frame must be tilted not only to include what it does, but to destabilize the solid presence of tub and dresser, thus making the mattress seem about to fall off its tenuous perch. All these elements depend for their effectiveness upon that slight tilt of the camera.

Hales bestows upon Riis a modern artistic sensibility that Riis did not have. When Riis published Minding the Baby in his 1892 Children of the Poor, he excluded everything but the children from the picture and straightened the titled angle. The frame that for Hales "must be tilted," was, for Riis, an error that needed correction.

The vintage prints offer a potent antidote to the proto- modern reading of Riis. Compare, for example, a Heffren print and vintage print of Two Bowery Lodgers -- Practicing a Hold- up. The feeling of intimacy and captured motion conveyed by the closely cropped and blurred Heffren print is lost in the heavily overpainted vintage print, which includes Riis's instructions for reproduction in the margin: "Artist! Please restore the pistol which has almost faded out of the picture."

As scholars have begun to scrutinize Riis's enterprise more closely, reliance on the Heffren prints has proved an ever greater obstacle. In her 1989 book Symbols of Ideal Life, Maren Stange wrestles with the problem of attribution. Stange found thirty-one prints made from lantern slides in the Richard Hoe Lawrence Collection of The New-York Historical Society which are "exact duplicates -- sometimes cropped differently -- of images in the Riis collection." A highly skilled amateur photographer, Lawrence was one of Riis's collaborators before he learned to use the camera himself. Stange concludes that Lawrence's possession of the thirty-one slides requires us to credit the images to him, not to Riis. And she attempts to distinguish the photographic vision of the two men. Comparing a modern print from a destroyed Lawrence lantern slide of Bandit's Roost with a Heffren print, Stange finds that the horizontal cropping of the Lawrence version "retains the two female figures on the left who slightly soften the menace of the scene."

Stange's discovery of the Lawrence slides is important, but her conclusions rest upon a shaky foundation. The exact nature of the Lawrence-Riis collaboration will never be known; whether the two men looked in the ground glass together before the shutter was released will remain a matter of conjecture. To remove Riis’s name altogether, however, is to misconceive his work. Whether or not Lawrence composed the thirty-one images, Riis was their raison d'etre. His role was like that of a film director, with Lawrence as cameraman, a joint effort which requires joint attribution.

Even more problematic is Stange's comparison of the New-York Historical Society’s modern print of Bandit's Roost with a Museum of the City of New York’s Heffren print. If Stange had access to the original glass in the Riis Collection, she would have found far more evidence upon which to base her compositional analysis. Bandit’s Roost is one of several negatives in the Riis Collection made with a stereoscopic camera, which simultaneously exposes two negatives, one next to the other. These negatives yield a stereograph — two prints mounted on cardboard which, when viewed through a stereoscope, create the illusion of a three- dimensional image. The stereo-negative of Bandit’s Roost is vertical, the top half filled with lines of laundry. The information contained in each half differs slightly, corresponding to the position of the camera’s two lenses: the left half of the negative shows two women on the left edge; the right half excludes this group but includes one more man on the right

At some point, the two halves of the negative were broken apart, most likely to produce lantern slides -- Lawrence’s slide and the four Bandit’s Roost slides that are in the Riis Collection. All the lantern slides are horizontal with the laundry cropped off, a result of the lantern slide format, not aesthetic choice. Lawrence’s slide was made from the left half- negative and Riis’s slides from the right half-negative. In the published version in How the Other Half Lives, Riis used the left negative, in which the poor legibility of the two women and their children could be corrected by an artist. It is therefore hard to say that Riis preferred the more “menacing” since he used both. Indeed, one of his lantern slides is hand- colored, making the scene positively picturesque.

In 1990, when the museum decided to replace the Heffren prints, the question was, with what? The basic dilemma -- that the original objects are too fragile to handle or too deteriorated to exhibit -- required the curatorial staff once again to recreate Riis's photographs.

The museum chose the following course: (1) to contact-print all the negatives on printing-out paper, a paper not unlike that Riis himself used; (2) to make color transparencies from the lantern slides; (3) to enter in a database complete descriptions of each object; and (4) to record the entire collection -- new prints, new color transparencies, and vintage prints -- on continuous-tone microfiche, a technology of much greater tonal fidelity than traditional microfiche. Grants from the Hasselblad Foundation in Sweden for part of the printing, and from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete the printing and to catalog and microfiche the collection, were obtained to support the project. The printing, which is under contract to Chicago Albumen Works in Housatonic, Massachusetts, is now in progress.

These decisions were inevitably laden with interpretative biases. Perhaps the least controversial aspects are those concerning cataloging and easy access. Through a previous NEH grant for the Byron Collection, which contains blank prints and negatives from the commercial studio of Joseph and Percy Byron, the museum has begun to enter its photography collections on an Research Library Information Network-compatible database to which most major library collections belong. The microfiche plan, also used for the Byron Collection, will make the Riis Collection readily available to researchers without taking staff time or endangering original materials. Although a relatively low-tech choice compared to laser disk and digital imaging, continuous- tone microfiche is archivally sound and of sufficiently high resolution to serve as the matrix for future digital scanning, if desired. Indeed, continuous-tone microfiche is of such high quality that an intentionally inferior grade fiche will be made available to the public to avoid possible copyright infringements.

More debatable is the decision to make "vintage material" prints from Riis's negatives and color transparencies from the lantern slides. Making these facsimiles reflects a respect for the original objects, an approach consistent with museum practice. The "new" Riis will look like a turn-of-the-century photographer, not a modern photojournalist, and the arbitrary croppings of the past will be eliminated. From the first batch of printed negatives, the results are most encouraging. In addition to recovering the telltale signs of copy-printing, such as thumbtack marks and photographer signatures, much new information has been captured. In Baby In a Slum Tenement On a Dark Stairs -- Its Playground, for example, the blurred figure of an adult watching the child at the far right edge of the scene can be seen for the first time. Heffren no doubt cropped out the figure because of the blur, but the adult presence softens the feeling of desolation which this image has always provoked. In Five Cents Spot, a sleeping man whose feet protrude in the right foreground has emerged, strengthening the drama of this famous image of an overcrowded flophouse.

Heffren often closed in on the figures in the negative, making them loom larger than they do in the full-negative prints, eliminating details of the environment, and flattening the stage- like space. These adjustments are readily seen in another famous image, Italian Mother and Her Baby in Jersey Street. It is tempting to speculate that Riis's smaller figures embedded in their environment are an expression of Riis's belief that environment determines social behavior. For Riis, however, the negatives were only a point of departure, and a contextual analysis -- comparing the negative with the lantern slide, published images, and accompanying text -- must precede an attempt to determine his intentions.

Despite these exciting discoveries, the printing of Riis's negatives has only underscored the discretionary nature of the project. The photographers handling Riis's negatives are far more skilled than Riis and have technical options that were not available to him. Should the photographers manipulate light exposure to enhance the negative? We answered yes. Should they make inter-negatives which would permit further enhancement of the negatives? We answered no, except in those few instances where the negative yielded an almost illegible image.

These technical questions give rise to a larger issue. Does our enterprise inevitably archaize and aestheticize Riis's work? Does it create a Riis oeuvre that is not only inconsistent with his working methods but with his goals? Do the modern requirements of a museum ineluctably distort a sensitive historical reading of Riis's work?

In the three years since completion of the NEH preservation grant, users of the Riis Collection have begun to struggle with these interpretative problems. The Museum’s 1995 exhibition, “A Century Apart: Images of Struggle & Spirit, Jacob Riis & Five Contemporary Photographers,” afforded the first opportunity for the public display of the vintage material prints and color transparencies. Response was diverse and lively, including some complaints that the new prints were aesthetically disappointing compared to the reproductions in Alland’s 1974 Riis monograph. The editors of two reprints of How the Other Half Lives immersed themselves in the subtleties of Riis reproduction before deciding how to illustrate their volumes. And numerous users of the museum’s Riis microfiche have encountered multiple versions of Riis images (as negatives, lantern slides, and prints) and were alerted to the problems of authorship.

Through a 1997 NEH research grant, a thorough study of the Riis Collection is now underway. Based upon a systematic analysis of authorship, dating, and Riis’s use of his photographs, as well as a reconsideration of Riis’s journalism, this study should lay a sounder foundation for future use of these renowned but barely understood photographs.

About the Author

Bonnie Yochelson is consulting curator at the Museum of the City of New York, which has received Endowment funds to preserve the Riis collection. Yochelson is working on an interpretative study of the Riis Collection with Daniel Czitrom, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, and Kevin Murphy, history doctoral candidate at New York University.

Funding Information

An earlier version of this article appeared in Culturefront (Fall 1994), published by the New York Council for the Humanities, and was based on a talk delivered at the 1991 College Art Association meeting in Washington, D.C. by Bonnie Yochelson.