Rediscovering Jacob Riis: The Reformer, His Journalism, and His Photographs
Art historian Yochelson and history professor Czitrom examine the life and legacy of Jacob Riis. Riis started out as a carpenter with some literary training who emigrated from Denmark to New York City in 1870, where the day-to-day lives of the impoverished fascinated him. His path to renown began in 1889 when his tenement housing reports appeared in Christian Union magazine. Riis then expanded his reportage to How the Other Half Lives, a bestseller, still considered a journalistic classic. Czitrom chronicles Riis’s life from his birth in 1849 to 1890; from there Yochelson carries the story to his death in 1914, studding her half of the book with Riis’s photographs. Riis did not consider himself a skilled photographer (and with good reason), but his images portray unforgettable people and settings. His reportage and photoswhile somewhat flawed by personal and political biasesresonate today. Must so many new immigrants, he asked, begin their lives in the U.S. housed in slums? What should government, churches and private philanthropies do to help? Are some immigrant groups less likely to escape tenement life? These questions that guided Riis’s life will remind the reader that history is a useful instructor in the here and now.
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