Riis and the Rise of Photography in New York City

O'Connell|1 Brendan O'Connell ENG 485 6/8/09

Photography in New York City is something that most people take for granted or disregard consciously. We all need to take a look at how the rise of Photography in New York started with one man. Jacob Riis is the man that, although very influential and highly regarded in the photographers world, will never be a household name like Ansel Adams, or Anne Leibovitz. As an immigrant from Denmark, he probably never expected to to have the recognition that he did when he was alive. We see photographers like Weegee that followed him that focused on the gritty and most heartbreaking parts of the city that were not shown often enough. Contrasting his focus on the small people that people didn't care about, there was Wallace G. Levison showed the large buildings and important people that were controlling the way that New York City worked. These two photographers show both extremes of the photographic world at the time. Together they show the large contrast of New York and their photography is a true representation of what the city was, and to some point, still is. Without Riis, we would certainly still have a large amount of late 19th century photography, but the lower classes would not have been shown and many photographers would be without a good amount of inspiration. Riis was a man that hoped to bring about social change by publicizing the plight of the immigrants. Jacob Riis was a Danish-born police reporter who then became a bestselling author and a well respected photographer. Showing the worse parts of New York City, his photography and writing was almost purely about the conditions of the tenement slums. Coming to New York at the age of 21 he worked five years as an itinerant worker before starting his career in journalism. With the invention of flash powder, he immediately started to take pictures in the low lit slums of the city. A man that had so much influence on modern photography styles, Riis brought the slums to Broadway and really wanted to show that these were people just like everyone else. His book, How the Other Half Lives, which has both his writing and photography included, along with the etchings, was his biggest attempt to get

Riis and the Rise of Photography in New York City people to notice the problem and take action.

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Many of the photographs that were taken in New York in between the late 19th century and the early 20th century show how New York City was just starting to grow. The metropolitan city that we think of today was just beginning, and the photographs that I have collected attempt to show how the city grew and also how photography grew as a tool to capture real life in the city. Jacob Riis was just another immigrant to the city and really had nothing special about him. His photography is good, but “many works attributed to him initially we now know were done by hired professionals”(Orvell 71). Riis had to develop his profession and had to work hard starting as a journalist and then developing his writing. His photography didn't just show up from no where, he had a lot of influences and was lucky to jump into the photography scene when it was just becoming popular. One of the earliest photographs from New York is a daguerreotype taken in 1848. The Manhattan house that is shown obviously captures the old Manhattan, or what is now called upper Manhattan. Like early Manhattan, the daguerreotype is a rough, crude and imperfect. It is a long and Illstr 1: Stately Manhattan home (first arduous process that printed the picture on a sheet of metal. know NY photo) Sadly this was the most advanced process at the time. The reason behind most peoples photography is unknown and yet there seems to be a purpose to this picture. It seems to me that it was meant to show how great the early Manhattan was and spread the word of it's greatness. Taken from a distance away and at a level angle, it is meant to show as much of the property as possible. Photography was the best way for wealthy people to share just how rich they were. Luckily for the photographers, the photography process advanced and became better over time and many of the pictures shown used the modern paper process to print. Finding daguerreotypes of Manhattan during this time period is difficult and very rare considering that this individual photograph

Riis and the Rise of Photography in New York City is being auctioned for $50,000 to $70,000 at Sotheby’s.

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Riis' work is highly regarded and expensive, yet it's hard to say whether he would be proud of having his work sold for so much or disgusted that people would pay that much money for a simply picture that anyone could have taken. This first picture shows exactly what he saw was wrong with the photographers before him. They only focused on the large and expensive. The photographers before Riis, and also during some of his career, use a type of photography that plays with angles and lighting to make large things bigger and small things smaller. Levison is an interesting case because, while he focused on large buildings and famous people he often used low angles, and low shutter speeds to make things look small and almost bring them down to a human scale. He wanted to show that even if America is a great place, it's possible that we put it on a bit of a pedestal and make it out to be more than it really was. As a photographer for Life, he didn't have a lot of freedom to express himself and was always paid for the pictures that he took. Unlike Riis, he had to find more subtle ways to show his artistic side. Riis' was able to incorporate his artistic views into each of his photographs, but he also used his writing to expand on the details in his photographs. Wallace G. Levison found a way to bring the statue down to size, while still having it be a symbol of America. A photograph taken from a boat in 1890, it seems to show the statue in a less than flattering way. Perhaps it's because of the lack of color photography, but in my mind it's the over-development on the left hand side of the picture. This dark section makes it seem less Illstr 2: Statue of Liberty from boat sensational, and the distance it was taken from makes it seem smaller than it really is. The way the picture was taken makes her look so small, but still very important. The darkness of the picture gives an air of unease though and seems to foreshadow difficult things ahead for America. Many times the Statue of Liberty is shown in a way that makes it look very

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majestic and the true symbol of what America is all about. While Levison used his photographs to show these symbols of America, Riis made a decision to be the “tour guide to the slums”(Orvell 71). Coming from the slums himself, Riis knew the people he made his subject. Riis' book, How the Other Half Lives is a dark, organic look at the New York that wasn't shown before him. His best known work was taken in 1889 to the mid 1890's. Many of the photographs his work would be fighting against depicted people in horse-pulled buggies, big buildings or were portraits of well known or wealthy people. This Illstr 3: Street Arabs in picture shows three children, homeless living on the streets by Sleeping Quarters themselves. It's sad, shocking, and really showed the rest of the world that not everyone lives the high life. I would hope that his book made people less greedy and helped the people that were living on the street, but it's more likely that his book of photographs only became well known much later, after the problem was at its height. Often times with New York City photography there is a very sharp contrast of rich and poor or big and little. There are only a few photographs that show the average person. At this point in photography, it was used more as a journalistic tool that was used to accompany stories. Much after the time period that we focus on, photography would be seen as an art form and something that can be really beautiful. Riis attempted to use his photos as a form of art, and was quite successful with what he did. The only thing that could have helped him would be more advanced processes of development. To show exactly what Riis' work had to go against, the photograph of the Fuller Building, or Flat Iron building as it is more commonly known, in construction is particularly interesting because it shows the start of the upwards growth in New York. At the time it was one of the tallest buildings, and still remains a well known building in Manhattan. Unlike Wallace's monument photography, you can see that this is taken to accentuate the size of the building and how important it was to the city.

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At the angle the it was taken at, you can see that the people are all very small and everything else in the picture is quite minuscule when compared to the building. This is the contrast that I mentioned earlier, showing the big and the small, but really focusing on the grandiose of the city and how large it is starting to become. In connection with this photograph is the picture taken from Wall Street that has people and horse-drawn carriages on it. Although the church is not really the main Illstr 4: Flat Iron Building focus of the picture, it stands out so much that it is hard to miss. It seems during construction to me that this was done intentionally, because if the photographer moved it would have been obscured, and more of the street would have been shown. Wall street is shown in this picture as a high class area that only the wealthy or religious go to. It could also be used to show that God is still watching even in a free market. The fanciness of people is still way above showing the average and Illstr 5: Wall Street from the ground lower class people. Considering that this was taken before Riis' time, we see that there is a clear focus on wealth, power, and still the size of the city. Taken from this bottom up angle, it looks as if it was taken by someone very small and is meant to blow everything out of proportion, as far as size goes. The people are proud of their growing metropolis and photography was the first infallible form of capturing the city. By that I mean that painting and words just weren't enough. I know this must have made some authors angry, but it's important to recognize that Riis was an author also and understood that there was only so much that a picture could tell. The sharp contrast between the two types of photographs show that there were two major styles of shooting, and they both showed individual parts of the city. The way these photographers work is the

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methodical and makes the viewer look at each photograph and wonder if there is a deeper meaning to the picture. Some people think that Riis was just doing a job to get paid and didn't really think about the artistic styling of his pictures (Orvell 72). That is a type of thinking that doesn't really stimulate the deep thought that I think Riis really wanted. This is a highly debatable point though, considering that he has said something that really could be taken as he doesn't care about the people he was photographing. Levison didn't have to worry about that problem since he mostly shot urban landscapes. Photographers constantly have to deal with people and whether or not to incorporate a person in a shot. Levison and Riis are two clearly different photographers that created their own style and have influenced many photographers. Jacob Riis' writing style is almost as descriptive and haunting as his photographs. In The Down Town Back-Alleys, he really paints a picture that allows us to understand how he felt when he was there and gives us a place that is “Sunless and joyless”(Riis 20) . A photograph can only pass on so much meaning. Much of the actual sense of darkness and poverty and the depth of the scene can be lost in a photo, but Riis' comments and stories with the pictures, is unlike what any Illstr 6: Photograph from The photographer had done. As we walk down this alley with him, the Down Town Back-Alleys repetitive use of words like “dark” and “unenviable”, and also the sometimes subtle talk about death really point out that this is not a good place. In general when most people hear the word “alley” they will tend to shy away from it. Riis going into the alleys was his way of showing the rest of the world that this is something that cannot be ignored. Instead of writing with a clear plot, characters, and story, Riis writes likes he sees things and the writing follows a style that might be used if he was just narrating his life. The most interesting line in this whole text, in my opinion, is “What sort of an answer, think

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you, would come from these tenements to the question 'Is life worth living?'”. I would not wish Living in poverty upon anyone, but there must be something worth living for even in the worst situations. There a style of thinking that tells us to be happy with what we have. The people that Riis was often photographing were the type of people that can survive and be happy with what they have, but they would not complain if a little good fortune came their way. The philosophy of the slums is something that Riis wants to bring to the wealthy, and show them how good their lives are. Few people that were actually paying attention to Riis' work would ever practice this philosophy of street life and always seem to want more. There are so many good and bad parts of this story that it really is an emotional roller coaster. For instance, when there is a fire, the firefighters have trouble finding a way in but they still manage to save the day. In the same story we also hear about a mother of six who had “thrown herself out of the window” because she was “discouraged.” Life as Riis is showing it has the best and worst of times, but more bad times than good ones. I find the fact that it's called “Blind Man's Alley” amusing simply because of the elaborate language that Riis uses when describing things. The word blinding shows up when he talks about setting fire to a house. Blind is an word that is often associated with disability. But is can also be used in the sense that the poor are blind to the world of high class around them, and the rich are unaware of the poor. The policeman that is called is blind to the problem and throws it off as a joke. How society can be so socially unaware of what is constantly around us is appalling to Riis and I think that this section really shows he was trying to help the slums and wanted all people to have a good life. This is what constantly makes me think that people saying Riis only did this project for money have no idea what they are talking about. Riis brought a near sub-culture in New York to the front pages of the news, and made it so that poverty became and issue that people started to care about instead of one that most people just shrugged off. Where most of New York was simply blind to the issue, Riis made this a topic that was constantly forced upon the people so that they could no longer be blind and ignore the giant

Riis and the Rise of Photography in New York City issue that was, and still is, plaguing New York City and major cities around the world.

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One thing that Riis fails to realize is that they might enjoy the life they have. Multiple times in history there have been points when less is more and ownership was not really important. The 1960's is an obvious time, but in the late 19th Century, it's possible that the people may have been comfortable with what they had and didn't need any more. This is not to say that they were comfortable or happy with what they had, but simply that they didn't need any more than what they had. After looking at it that way, it may now seem that Riis is just another capitalist American that wants everyone to have more and be able to buy more. Or maybe he was just clueless. It can be difficult to point out how he really feels about the poor, though it is known that he said something like 'men who lived like pigs were unable to vote intelligently'. His writing has a very street traffic like flow that makes his ideas start and stop and sometimes he is all over the place. The alleys took him all over the city and gave him a lot to work with. He really has seen the most of New York and knows the extremes of both the rich and the poor. Riis' writing style follows the chaos of the city and the emotional baggage of the alleys. Each story and photograph is filled with so much tragedy that in the end each reader/viewer will feel some sympathy for those people. Even now, almost 120 years since it was written, it's difficult to not feel anything when you read it. Although Riis' style may not have been very professional or upper class, he made it so his work is timeless. There is still so much poverty in the world that it is difficult to ignore and Riis made a point of saying that we need to value our lives and be grateful for what we have. I'm not sure if Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives to help the poverty stricken or to insult the higher class and show how they value themselves higher than everyone else. The purpose of Riis' work wasn't to praise or slander either the rich or the poor, but was meant to show that there are people that need help and there are people that refuse to help also. The history of photography is obviously very important in seeing how Riis got to where he was.

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I'll make this brief though, or at least I'll try to. In 1827, the first photograph was taken by Joseph Nicephore Niepce. Although taken in Paris, it only took around thirty five years for the process to make it big in America. By that time the world had seen the Daguerreotype and a few other processes. The daguerreotype, created by Louis Daguerre, soon followed by the Calotype which was inferior in quality and more expensive. In Manhattan, the first photographic history that we have is a daguerreotype of a house in upper Manhattan(illstr 1). As an early photography process, it was difficult to do and took a master to take a truly good picture. During the Civil War in America, photographers started making a name for themselves. Slowly the work would find its way to New York and small, underground galleries started showing up. Photographers like Timothy O'Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, and Mathew B. Brady started proving that photography didn't have to be defined as art or journalism; it could be both. Until George Eastman introduced flexible film in 1884, there were only a few major photographers, like Brady and O'Sullivan, even though there were a few million photographs in the world at that point. After flexible film was introduced, photography exploded as an art form and began it's start as an everyday hobby. People liked it because it was one of the most interesting and real forms of art. By real I mean that it shows reality, truth, and fact. Up to the point where Jacob Riis starts his photography, most of the pictures taken were portraits of upper class people and photos of the growing skyline. Few people cared about the lower classes, so Riis decided to take it upon himself to adapt the style of the Civil War photographers and show the rough, gritty side of New York. The photo movement in New York was growing but compared to Europe it was still pretty slow. Riis' book How the Other Half Lives was monumental in showing the entire world a whole group of people that had nothing. Even at this point in history, some people saw photography as the machine that was destroying “real” art. In Coming, Aphrodite, Willa Cather has her character say “You see I'm trying to learn to paint what people think and feel; to get way from all that photographic stuff. When I look at you, I

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don't see what a camera would see, do I?”(Cather 444) There was a group of traditional artist that felt photography didn't have any artistic merit, but then there were also the artists that used photography to make their own painting better. Photography was still relatively new and at the time most people didn't really think of it as an art form. Riis started to change that in New York and proved that photography could be both art and journalism. Today, many of the most famous photographs are those of tragedy, death, near death, injury or trauma. These types of photos were never really seen as art because they are so gritty. Riis say a niche that he could fill and simply got to work. He was lucky, but also had skill as a photographer. Without some key points and people in photography history, Riis' photography might have just been left in the dust. Riis' and Levison both had photography that they put on display, and it's possible that without some key players in the New York City photo scene, they would not be known names at all. Photography started to really be seen as an art in 1902 when a group known as the Linked Ring attempted to break away from the traditional approach to photography. Successfully leading the PhotoSecession movement was Alfred Stieglitz. He was a contributor for Camera Notes and Camera Work, and started at least three major galleries in New York. He is an important name not only in New York, but throughout the world he is known as one of the fathers of modern American photography. He gave America a simplistic style that it needed and professed that a piece of art is made up of more than just colors and subject. He helped create the rules of composition for photography that many photographers follow today. In the years 1917-1925, he worked to bring the modernist painters and photographers together by opening multiple galleries and displaying painting and photographs next to one another. In America we often think of New York as being the biggest city in the country, later on we remember that it is also the city with a high amount of poverty and crime. Riis attempted to change this and make us look at the worse parts of the city before we look at the great buildings. Stieglitz was helpful in starting his galleries, because apart from his book, Riis had no other way to show his work.

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Riis might say that Levison had it easy, published and paid every week. In New York we constantly see this contrast between grand and small, and sometimes there is a man like Stieglitz who is a well known photographer himself, yet he wants to help other photographers and was creating galleries for other people and not himself. Stieglitz wanted to give all of New York a voice, with photography, not just the rich or the poor, While Riis and Stieglitz were focusing their work on the small and lesser noticed parts of New York, Wallace G. Levison made a name for himself by taking pictures of the growing skyline of New York City. As a photographer for Life Magazine, he made sure to show the rest of the world what a great place New York was. Photography gave people a way to reminisce about things that may only happen once in a lifetime, and gave them a way to look at things they might never get to see in real life. Levison gave people a chance to experience the world from their houses, and his photographs were considered art much earlier than Riis and Stieglitz. People want to see the beautiful parts of America and at the time, New York was an ideal beauty. Riis was able to point out the class distinctions and really focused on interclass tension that would split people. Susan Ryan argues that Riis gave upper class people a way to look at the lower class without having to interact with them. An interesting point that was I was unaware of makes it seem as though part of Riis made this book for himself and really enjoyed seeing the downtrodden and lower classes. That's not to say he didn't notice the problem, its more like he exploited the the thing that he was once part of. I always admired Riis for his attempts at bringing the lower class struggle to the mainstream society, but when "Riis admits his enjoyment of violence-and, by extension, of violent language--and asks readers to imagine both the urgency and the pleasure of his project", it seems like he did all his work for the wrong reason. Riis was a revolutionary photographer because he realized that it is possible to capture emotion in a photograph. Photography is an odd art and the best pictures can come from trauma, and destruction, homelessness, the unfortunate and the malformed. Riis' odd

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format of telling the public about this problem made him an influential figure. He honestly thought he was doing good for the poor and this author makes a point to not argue that Jacob Riis as a historical actor was insufficiently enlightened and did harm as well as good, because most people realize this already. I'm not sure what Riis' motivation was or exactly what he was fighting for, but since he did call himself a war correspondent he must have thought that he was doing some good. Which brings up the question of if he was taking pictures to help these people or to help himself. Part of me thinks that that is unimportant though, and the most important thing is that his work is out there. I think that Riis was really trying to find a cause of poverty and then a cure, the author makes a point that trying to analyze or interpret what Riis meant is really pointless and not what Riis wanted us to do with his work. Some people feel that Riis was an intruder and did not belong taking pictures of these people (Ryan 193). But that can't be the case when he was an immigrant who came up from nothing himself. Riis hit a lot of luck and it seems that his work was meant to give something to the people that hadn't been as lucky as him. Perhaps the people that enjoyed photographing didn't really need him and his whole "war on poverty" was just something that he created. Some people have said that Riis was a forgotten name until his work was displayed in 1947. At that time, Ansel Adams, quite possibly the biggest name in photography, said that Riis' work was "a magnificent achievements in the field of humanistic photography."(Hug 43) Others saw his work as extremely emotional and, of course, there were the few people that saw it as offensive. Many people would rather put Riis in a good light and shows him to be inspiration to hundreds of photographers. In his essay on ethnicity and dialect in Riis' work, Bill Hug brings up the question of Riis the writer versus Riis the photographer, which is a question that I have thought about and I'm still not sure if one wins over the other. In Riis' writing it can be difficult to pick out how he feels on each topic, like immigration, race, the entire lower class, and how the two fringe classes interact. In much of Riis' writing he seems to do the comparing and contrasting classes the his photographs did without words.

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How the Other Half Lives, Riis says "He [the Black person] loves fine clothes and good living a good deal more than he does a bank account. "(Riis 83) The racial tensions that are brought up in The Other Half gives the story a lot of meaning about how all people are living, not just the poor. The many dichotomies that Riis included in his writings makes the reader wonders how many of them are purposeful as opposed to just there unwittingly. Instead of showing Riis as an invader, People showing Riis as a part of what he was capturing and wanted to show all sides of life and not just the rich or poor. Riis was fighting for an equality throughout New York, and wanted to show the higher society that although they were able to live like royalty, maybe they should think about the people under them. The idea of class and interaction between the classes is a constant theme through all of Riis' photography and writing and no critic that I have read tries to deny that. The narrative voice that Riis uses is very concerned for humanity and would like something to change. There are obviously two ways of looking at how Riis was part of New York, and neither one is completely correct. He really did both good and bad for the entirety of the city, but mostly more good, than bad. James Dougherty looks at the more artistic side of Riis in his article about citizenship and art pertaining to Riis. He also looks at how Riis' work really is an art form instead of a journalistic piece. Like I said earlier, there are artists that like photography and others that don't, Oliver Wendell Holmes said "The first effect of looking at a good photograph..is a surprise such as no painting ever produced....There is such a frightful amount of detail, that we have the same sense of infinite complexity which Nature gives us"(Dougherty 560). Dougherty also give impressions from traditional artists and throughout the paper shows that most artists are in favor of this new form and see it just as a new medium, not competition. This is more of an historical paper and shows that people in London and France had tried to document the streets, but they were unsuccessful because of inferior camera equipment and the development process. Dougherty argues that Riis' photography and his writing aren't always directly related and the worlds that Riis exposes as he explores can sometimes only be

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described in words, this shows an odd point where photographs are unable to show what is really there. A photograph is able to capture emotion of people, but it is much harder to make a picture capture emotion of a place. There is a stark juxtaposition that Riis has in his writing and photographs, and they really show what type of artist Riis is. He makes sure to point out that the lower classes had very little interest in what Riis was doing and Riis was really only doing it for people like him. The pictures are going to hit today's culture more heavily, because we realize that there is a large homeless population that needs help and there is also a large wealthy population that doesn't help out nearly often enough. The grittiness that we now call the picture would have probably been an odd way to describe the pictures then because it was just part of everyday life and the lower classes were just ignored. Riis' photographs demand that each viewer rethinks their socio-political standing and reassess how they live their life. As a whole the photographs can be seen as how New York and, to a lesser extent, America are changing. We see the good and the bad of the world and New York shows us the big and the small. These pictures show pride by the photographers and really are an example of what is to come. We have seen more building, more poverty, more patriotism, and more photography. I see photography as an art form, and I want to show just how it became that. It didn't start as a great thing that anybody could do. I consider these photographers the real artists. This iconography of the city is just a sample of what New York really holds. Photography in New York has evolved from a modest art form that was really only used to take portraits to a fast paced, portable and artistic style that is able to show the best and worst aspects of our society. The main themes throughout the photographs are big and small, rich and poor, and the have and have-nots. There are a lot of dichotomies in photograph history, and Riis and Levison seem to capture all of these things. Without these men, we would probably miss out on some great art, and large sections of America would be clueless to the poverty problem. We also would miss out on the part of New York that is wonderful and fascinating. Riis showed the rest of the world, that life is something to

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be cherished, and explain to most people that their situation could be much worse. I wanted to show that Riis was a pioneer of photography in New York City, and that many people have been inspired by him. Riis found the perfect combination of being artist and journalist, while also being considerate of the people he was taking pictures of and accompanying his photographs with writing. How the Other Half Lives, is an early multimedia experience of sorts and gives the reader more involvement than if the book had been just photographs or just writing. Riis and Levison are two men that focused on showing what the city of New York really held. They contrast each other brilliantly and show that in New York City, life really is about whether you are big or small. Riis had an obvious concern for the wellbeing of the impoverished, and for some people to say that he was only working for money is insulting to his character and doesn't explain why he focused on the poor instead of getting a job at a magazine like Wallace. While Levison was constantly capturing the outsides of buildings, Riis “captured what was usually hidden from public view--squalid rooms, back alleys, flophouses, "dives," and cellars--occasionally catching his subjects asleep, with their shoes off, even with their pants unbuttoned”(Ryan 191) . With these two men showing what the true New York was, it was impossible to ignore the city. They really turned photography into the art that is today and were pioneers of making it an art form in New York. Riis showed that New York was not always the great city that Levison made it out to be. Unlike paintings, photography showed what was really going on and although it could be altered or stages, there is the general thought that if it doesn't exist in life, it can't be a photograph. The only things left to question are Riis' motivation for taking these pictures, and the reason why he didn't become a commercial photographer like Levison. Together, these photographer prove that America is a unique place and that New York is the ultimate melting pot. Every culture can live in this city, but it is never easy, and for many, the “American Dream” is unobtainable. But...if you can make there...you can make it anywhere.

Riis and the Rise of Photography in New York City Sources Used

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• • • • • •

Images (in order of appearance) Stately Manhattan home New York City 1848 daguerreotype Sotheby's Levison, Wallace G. Boat's-eye view of the Statue Of Liberty in NY Harbor New York, NY, US 1890 Life Magazine Archives Riis, Jacob Three urchins How the Other Half Lives. New York, NY, US 1889 Jacob Riis Collection View of the Flatiron Building (The Fuller Building) under construction. New York, NY, US 1902 Brainerd, George B. People and horse-drawn carriages on Wall St., where American flags are flying from several bldgs. New York, NY, US 1886 Riis, Jacob Upstairs in Blind Alley How the Other Half Lives. New York, NY, US 1889 Jacob Riis Collection

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