4: Photographs, Jacob Riis's "How the Other Half Lives," 1890.
In 1890, Jacob Riis, a police reporter and photographer for the New York Tribune, published a collection of his photographs of the slums, streets, and saloons populated by New York’s poor. He titled it How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. These images, supplemented by succinct, unsettling descriptions, served as a catalyst for social reform. With his photographs, Riis, who was himself an immigrant to the United States from Denmark, shines a light on the same harsh realities that Cahan describes in the gritty passages of his realistic fiction. The images in this resource have been selected to align with the following passage from Yekl:
"He had to pick and nudge his way through dense swarms of bedraggled half-naked humanity; past garbage barrels rearing their overflowing contents in sickening piles, and lining the streets in malicious suggestion of rows of trees; underneath tiers and tiers of fire escapes, barricaded and festooned with mattresses, pillows, and featherbeds not yet gathered in for the night. The pent-in sultry atmosphere was laden with nausea and pierced with a discordant and, as it were, plaintive buzz. Supper had been despatched in a hurry, and the teeming populations of the cyclopic tenement houses were out in full force 'for fresh air,' as even these people will say in mental quotation marks" (1896 edition of Yekl, 27).
Suggested Activities: Have your students compare the photographs to the passage. Ask them: how is the experience of observing the same scene through fiction and through photography different? What do you think are the political and social aims of these works, and what do you see as the artistic aims?
Source: Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890).