Sunday, October 25, 2009

A New Look At The Other Half

Riis New Book

Daniel Czitrom co-authored a recent book which re-examines the work of Jacob Riis.
An excerpt from the nytimes review
Today one of the last Bowery flophouses leans up against the futuristic steel facade of the New Museum, and a bed at the Bowery Hotel can run $750 a night. After such gentrification, it can be difficult to conjure up the squalid New York that Jacob Riis documented in his groundbreaking 1889 work of photojournalism, “How the Other Half Lives.” Riis was well aware that the “other half” in New York City had become the other three-quarters, with 1.2 million impoverished New Yorkers living in slums, 19th-century tenements that were a public health catastrophe, rife with typhus, diarrhea, cholera and tuberculosis. Employing unsentimental storytelling, reportage, social statistics and the latest advances in flash photography, Riis shed a stark light on the horrific living conditions of New York’s vast population of poor immigrants.
In “Rediscovering Jacob Riis,” Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom have undertaken a rigorous, scholarly re-examination of Riis’s life and work. While Czitrom, a historian at Mount Holyoke College, places Riis in the context of other 19th-century social crusaders, Yochelson, a former photo curator at the Museum of the City of New York, offers a more critical assessment; she re-evaluates Riis’s photography and questions the mythos that surrounds him.
Riis was beloved in his time. Teddy Roosevelt called him “the best American I ever knew,” and even coined the term “muckraking” to describe the fierce advocacy journalism practiced by Riis and others. But Riis was far from an infallible social reformer. In Czitrom’s estimation, he refused to acknowledge his debt to predecessors like the activist-journalist Charles Wingate and too often indulged in ethnic stereotyping. An industrious Danish immigrant, he seemed to find moral failings in nearly every other group: Polish Jews, Italians, Chinese, the Irish. Riis was also critical of interracial socializing; he said of so-called black-and-tan saloons that “there can be no greater abomination.” But Riis’s real anger was saved for the tenements themselves, whose dire conditions he called the “murder of the home.” He pursued his campaign with evangelical zeal. Riis believed that defective character led to poverty and that conscience-driven capitalism was the best solution. Although he pitied them, his reform crusade “ascribed little or no role at all to tenement dwellers themselves,” Czitrom writes. This brand of noblesse oblige perhaps anticipated the public housing failures of Riis’s 20th-century admirer Robert Moses.
But regardless of his philosophy, Riis’s photographs remain indelible. Making use of newly invented magnesium flash powder, he brought the brilliant light of a new medium to bear on a netherworld that had never been photographically recorded. He shot the down-and-out occupants of darkened Bowery basements and Chinatown opium dens, his subjects caught unawares. The dingy and cluttered rooms, lighted bright as day for a split-second exposure, are immediate and revelatory, and remain extraordinarily persuasive as evidence of the squalor Riis sought to combat.

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