Few people realize that flash photography was responsible for one of the most important social reforms of the 19th century.
It happened in New York City when a Danish immigrant named Jacob Riis settled in New York with only $40 in his pocket. When he became a reporter for the New York Tribune in 1888, Riis was assigned to investigate and report on the police investigations taking place on the Lower East Side of the city.
But tucked away in the tenement buildings was a heartbreaking reality no one in the city knew about. Riis witnessed the inhumane living conditions experienced by the immigrants living in New York’s slums. The scene that horrified him so much compelled him to pioneer one of the most important inventions of his time, just to solve it.
Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar. A Cobbler in Ludlow Street
Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement.
Lower East Side, New York.
Manhattan’s Lower East Side, circa 1880s.
Men sleep on the floor of a New York City homeless shelter.
Mulberry Bend, circa 1888.
The Mongomery Guards (A Growler Gang).
Tentment Yard. In 1890, Riis compiled his photographs into a book.
Slum District, New York, circa 1890.
Jacob Riis invented the first version of what we know today as “flash photography.”
‘How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York’ (1890) by Jacob Riis is considered on the first photojournalistic book published in the United States.
Girl sitting on doorstep with baby on her lap, New York, circa 1890.
A twelve year old boy works as a thread puller in a New York clothing factory sweatshop, 1889.
Dens of Death, circa 1888.
A peddler sits on his bedroll, atop two barrels, in the filthy cellar he lives in. New York, 1886.
Children’s Playground, Poverty Gap.
At first, he had tried to document the living conditions of the tenement dwellers in writing. But he was unsatisfied with his inability to deliver a story that captured the dirt and the grit of the life lived by those in New York’s slums.
While photography was available, the tenement buildings were so dark. Riis knew none of his pictures would come out. So, he decided to bring a light into a dark place by inventing the first version of what we know today as “flash photography.”
Unlike today’s flash photography which is clean, quiet and digitally delivered, Riis had to use a combination of combustible chemicals to create a miniature explosion which would light up the room long enough for him to take his pictures.
Children sleeping in Mulberry Street.
Baxter Street in Mulberry Bend.
Bandit’s Roost (1888) by Jacob Riis, from How the Other Half Lives. This image is Bandit’s Roost at 59½ Mulberry Street, considered the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of New York City.
An elderly woman sits in her dilapidated home and sews.
A Growler Gang in session by Jacob Riis, Preus Museum.
Two boys asleep at 2 am in the press room of the Sun newspaper.
Poor family in one room tenement apartment, New York, circa 1880s
Ragpickers Row alleyway at 59 Baxter St., Five Points, NYC.
Riis brought the fullness of the tenement dwellers’ lives out into the world where everyone could see.
Saluting the flag in the Mott Street Industrial School.
Shelter for immigrants in a Bayard Street tenement, where a group of men share one room, Lower East Side, 1885.
Shoemaker working in a house in the yard of 219 Broome Street, which the landlord built when the Sanitary Police put him out of the basement.
A blind man stands alone on a street corner, offering pencils for sale in New York City, 1890.
Under the pier at the foot of Jackson Street. (Now Corlears Hook Park)
Workers in a sweatshop in Ludlow Street tenement, New York City.
Women’s Lodging Room in the West 47th Street Station.
While he must have alarmed the tenement dwellers with his unexpected display of early pyrotechnics, Riis got his pictures and brought the fullness of the tenement dwellers’ lives out into the world where everyone could see it. His plan worked.
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People in New York were shocked, creating a public outcry that eventually inspired Theodore Roosevelt to begin a sweeping reform of the city’s housing policies. Jacob Riis was credited with bringing humanity to one of the darkest places in New England, and went on to become the most famous photographer of his day, earning the honorable title “most useful citizen.”