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.
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.
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.”