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Down and dirty

Rediscovering Jacob Riis Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York; Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom; New Press: 288 pp., $35

February 24, 2008|Phillip Lopate | Phillip Lopate is the author of "Rudy Burckhardt: Photographer" and the editor of the anthology "Writing New York."

HOVERING on the margins between high-school history-textbook glory and the ever-expanding empire of American amnesia, Jacob Riis still tantalizes us with his evocative do-gooder example. The Danish-born Riis (1849-1914) immigrated in 1870 to America, leading a hand-to-mouth existence in the first few years and sometimes sleeping on the streets, before finding himself as a journalist.

As a police reporter for the New York Tribune, he learned the seedy side of urban life, exposing the pollution of the city's water supply and championing small parks and playgrounds. He wrote a campaign biography of Theodore Roosevelt, who called him "the best American I ever knew." Indeed, Riis' 1901 autobiography, "The Making of an American," was a bestseller, an exemplar of immigrants entering the melting pot and becoming useful citizens. But he is best known today as a pioneering muckraker for his hair-raising account of tenement poverty, "How the Other Half Lives"(1890), and the stunning photographs he took to illustrate those overcrowded conditions. He is also credited with inspiring the passage of legislation banning the suffocating "dumbbell" air-shaft design and promoting livable housing for the poor.

There are several admiring biographies and an exquisite volume, "Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen," by Alexander Alland Sr., who helped find Riis' negatives in the 1940s, reprinting them in magnificent style so later generations could appreciate them. Now we have a new study, by historian Daniel Czitrom and photography scholar Bonnie Yochelson, whose aim is to "rediscover Jacob Riis" and rescue him from detractors and admirers alike; in essence, they want to take him down a peg -- in keeping with the tendency of the revisionist historical school to downgrade Establishment-recognized heroes and celebrate forgotten progressive activists and the laboring masses as our unsung protagonists. They set out their shared viewpoint in the introduction: "A deeply contradictory figure, Riis was a conservative activist and a skillful entertainer who presented controversial ideas in a compelling but ultimately comforting manner." In other words, he was insufficiently radical for their taste. He shied away from rowdy working-class entertainments, his politics were Republican, he was a devout Methodist and his muckraking sought to enlist Christian conscience rather than government intervention. And he used ethnic humor and dialect jokes in his lectures -- then a common practice, but one that presumably tarnishes his humanitarian credentials in retrospect.

Czitrom, a distinguished historian of old New York and a fine writer, does an excellent job of situating Riis in the larger context of tenement housing reform, a movement that had begun long before Riis arrived and had frustrated many noble reformers. He may be right in upbraiding Riis for not crediting his predecessors, but the reasons he assigns seem excessively ideological. Thus, he claims: "Riis went to great pains to erase the more radical forces in city politics from the story." But "How the Other Half Lives" was meant as a vividly personal, high-journalistic account of slum life, not as a historical account of prior reform efforts.

Likewise, writing of an earlier reformer, Charles F. Wingate, Czitrom notes: "If Wingate's journalism provided a template for Riis, why did his influence remain unacknowledged? The answer may lie in Wingate's turn toward political activism, specifically his . . . affiliation with the organized labor movement, from which Riis always kept his distance." Again, this seems too conspiratorial; Riis made his experience into a personal myth of loneliness and redemption. As for the historical neglect of Wingate, most good deeds are forgotten regardless of whether or not the doer has pledged allegiance to organized labor. Overall, though, he is scrupulous in balancing Riis' idealistic and opportunistic tendencies. He links Riis' tours of the downtrodden with the "sunshine and shadow" guidebooks of late 19th century New York and the sermon tradition of the day, concluding judiciously: "The contradictions inherent in Riis's work -- its simultaneously reactionary and forward-looking stances, its derivative and synthetic qualities, its mixture of urban entertainment and social inquiry -- are certainly more evident today. . . . None of this ought to detract from his breakthroughs. Riis was the first muckraker and the first American social documentary photographer. Art historians will continue debating the quality, intentionality, and meaning of his pictures. But a century later they remain a powerful and unique record. . . ."

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