A danish emigrant, settled in New York in 1870, Jacob Riis (1849-1914) becomes a reporter for the New York Tribune in 1888 and covers the police investigations of the Lower East Side. His pictures of the squalid lives of New York’s immigrants made him the most famous photographer of his day – and were credited with bringing reforms which offered some hope to the booming city’s poorest residents.
Riis documented the overflowing tenements of New York’s Lower East Side more than 100 years ago, shining a spotlight on how the wave of immigrants from Europe were living in a city which at the same time was the world’s economic powerhouse.
Although he records the sensational stories of the miserable slums of New York, he difficultly interests his readers. When he pioneers the use of flash photography to highlight the darkest parts of the city and reveal gloomy existences, he has finally found a powerful tool, not only to attract the attention but also to lead a social reform.
Revealing how dramatic the lives of the city’s immigrants are and mostly depicts wretched children, Riis shocks most New Yorkers and produces an immediate success that inspires Theodore Roosevelt to reform the city’s housing policies.
Take a look at these heartbreaking pictures of New York’s slums in the late 19th century that prompted social reform and earned immigrant photographer praise as the city’s ‘most useful citizen’.