Jacob Riis was born on May 3, 1849, in Ribe (Denmark) was the third child of a large family composed of 15 children.
At 11 years his younger brother drowned, the image of tragedy and then that of his mother contemplating the empty place of the absent son in the dining room would chase him for the rest of his life.
Although his father promoted his literary career, at age 16, he took an employee as an apprentice of a master builder. In those times he falls in love with Elisabeth Gortz, who belonged to a wealthy family. After trying fervently to obtain his hand, and to be rejected for his lack of patrimony, Jacob Riis decides to emigrate to the United States in 1870 with barely $ 40 in his pocket. A decision that would change his life and would establish the first steps of photojournalism.
He did his first works in the New York Evening Sun and later in the Brooklyn News. The New York Tribune hired him in 1877 as a police photographer. For years he took snapshots at night in illegal taverns and opium dens in New York, for this reason, he was forced to use the flash of magnesium powder.
Today Jacob Riis is known as one of the first photographers in history to use a flash. However, the practical implementation of this basic technology is far from perfect. It would be wrong to compare this device with a modern flash; the device consisted of a frying pan with magnesium powder inside which was activated with a manual spark and coordinated with the camera to pulse. The explosion would generate a dense smoke cloud. Between the excessive expansion and the extreme capitalism in which the city of New York was submerged, Jacob Riis discovered a parallel city coexisting in silence with a world that only had eyes for progress. Among the new skyscrapers in New York, Jacob Riis photographed his masterpiece, seventeen photographs published in 1890 under the title “How the Other Half Lives.” The book discovers the wild social inequalities existing in the city, emaciated families who look at the camera with empty eyes, tattered children sleeping among the garbage accumulated next to the houses, an immigrant sitting on his straw bed, a new American citizen preparing himself for the Sabbath in a coal bunker.
Photographer Jacob Riis pioneered social reform through his photographs of everyday life in the New York City slums.
The entire work of this photographer was far from being a mere scientific evidence work. It was a tool of effective propaganda and therefore achieved its purpose producing a tremendous impact both emotionally and socially. The Jacob Riis photos also touched deeply on the sensitivity of the New York City Police Commissioner, who used to accompany the journalist on his nightly escapades. Thanks to the Jacob Riis work when the police commissioner was elected Governor, he ordered the demolition of several “hovels”, the remodeling of unhealthy housing, the closing of sweatshops’ and the asylums run by the police.
Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.
This governor and former police commissioner was called Theodore Roosevelt and would become the 26th United States president. Although Jacob Riis only dedicated five of his 35 years of journalistic life to photography, he managed to write one of the fundamental pages in the history of social documentarian and contributed effectively to improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable not only in New York but throughout the American Union.