Jacob A. Riis was a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. His then-novel idea of using photographs of the city’s slums to illustrate the plight of impoverished residents established Riis as forerunner of modern photojournalism. Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives features photographs by Riis and his contemporaries, as well as his handwritten journals and personal correspondence. Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives opens June 16 at the Historical Museum.
New York City was the epicenter of America’s thriving economy, but spawned the worst slums on earth. The Danish-born Riis immigrated to America at the age of twenty, and after
four years of living in poverty, he started a successful career as a newspaper journalist for the New York Tribune and the Evening Star. Riis worked at night as a police reporter, often seeing the less polished side of New York City, the new home to many immigrants from throughout Europe.
By taking photographs to accompany his newspaper articles, Riis first began documenting the lives of the impoveri
shed and the places they lived and took refuge. With the development of flash powder, he was able to illuminate nighttime images of those living and working in alleyways, tenements, and sweat shops, among other squalid places in the city. His interests in writing about “how the other half lived” grew, and over his lifetime Riis wrote many books about the urban poor that included his photographs.
Feeling that more could be done, Riis gave his first lantern slide lecture (a precursor to today’s digital presentations) featuring his photographs in 1888. He captivated audiences with stories of his experiences and began to tour the country delivering lectures, often in a crusade to advocate and bring about changes for the marginalized.
Through his lectures, many books, and even his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt (former Police Commissioner of New York), Riis advanced social reform in early twentieth-century America. His efforts led to increased awareness
about the city’s underbelly and improved living conditions for children and adults. Riis considered himself a writer first, and his powerful images were not appreciated fully until a large trove of his glass negatives, lantern slides, and other photographs were pulled from the attic of his former home on Long Island in the 1940s, long after his death in 1914.
Visitors to the exhibition will experience a Riis presentation
–immersive life-size photographs, as well as artifacts and personal documentation. The exhibition is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives is adapted from the exhibition Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, organized by the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition was curated by Bonnie Yochelson and co-presented by the Library of Congress. It was made possible with major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Terra Foundation for American Arts, as well as support from D. Euan and Merete Baird, The Malkin Fund, Ronay and Richard L. Menschel, Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrick’s Foundation, C. Flemming and Judy Heilmann, Kan and Lotte Leschly, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and the John L. Loeb Jr. Foundation. It was adapted and toured for NEH on the Road by Mid-America Arts Alliance.
Special programming for the exhibit includes:
Friday, June 15th, 5-8pm – Members Only Opening Reception
Join us for members-only tours of the exhibit! Short lecture by Jane Rhoads, “Wichita’s Other Half” at 6pm. Refreshments served.
Saturday, June 16th, 1-5pm – Exhibit Opening – Free and open to the public.
Wednesday, June 27th, 10-11am – Senior Wednesday “History of Photojournalism” with Lisa Parcell, PhD. An early photojournalist, Jacob Riis used photography to bring national attention to the impoverished living in New York City. Riis’s stories
of the people living in squalor and poverty in New York, paired with his photographs of the darkest corners of the city, started a social movement that resulted in tenement reform.
Saturday, June 30th, 2-3pm – “History of Photojournalism” with Lisa Parcell, PhD. An early photojournalist, Jacob Riis used photography to bring national attention to the impoverished living in New York City. Riis’s stories of the people living in squalor and poverty in New York, paired with his photographs of the
darkest corners of the city, started a social movement that resulted in tenement reform.
Tuesday, July 17th – Friday June 20th, 1-3pm – The (Hi)STORY in a Photo – Pioneering newspaper reporter Jacob Riis used photography to captivate audiences and spur ch
ange in the late 19th century. Attendees will explore Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives and discover the history of photography, see how photos are made, and learn how to use them to tell a story.
Wednesday, July 25th, 10-11am – Senior Wednesday “Wichita’s Other Half” with Jane Rhoads “Wichita’s Other Half” looks at charitable institutions that existed in Wichita from 1870-1915. During this period the first care for the needy was by neighbors. But as time progressed, numerous charities to aid the less fortunate developed. By the end of the period, 1915, many of the institutions we know today were active in helping fellow Wichitans.
Saturday, August 4th, 2-3 pm – “Child Labor in America: The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children” with Dr. John Fliter. Child labor law strikes most Americans as a fixture of the country’s legal landscape, involving issues settled in the distant past. But these laws were the product of deeply divisive le
gal debates stretching over the past century – and even now are subject to constitutional challenges. Dr. Fliter is the author of the new book, Child Labor in America: The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children and an Associate Professor and University Distinguished Teaching Scholar, Department of Political Science, at Kansas State University.
Wednesday, August 22nd, 10-11am – “Secure the Shadow ere the Substance Fade: Wichita’s Pioneer Photographers 1872 – 1884” with Jami Frazier Tracy, Curator of Collections, Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. The process of photography was just a few decades old and still evolving when Wichita was founded in 1870. Discover the photographic artists who worked in the burgeoning town of Wichita, and see the moments they captured in time.
The Museum is grateful to the
Wichita Eagle, KSN-TV, Radio Kansas, Lawrence Photo Print & Frame, Dean Bradley & Patrick Habkirk, and Lee & Ron Starkel for their support of the exhibit and its programming.