Contradictions in Image and Word
Photographer and writer Jacob Riis was a forgotten man from the time of his death in 1914 until Alexander Alland's New York exhibition of his photos in 1947. Since then, interest in and admiration of Riis' stark, gritty representations of immigrant life in the New York City tenements have grown steadily. "Magnificent achievements in the field of humanistic photography"-so Ansel Adams proclaimed (6), and most others who have commented on Riis' pictures concur. Sam Bass Warner finds in them "a simplicity and directness which strongly convey the emotional spirit of the photographer's point of view" (iii); Ralph Bogardus and Ferenc Szasz see Riis' photography as the expression of a "social vision" founded on "indignation and moral fervor" (418-19). Now, at the end of the 20th century, Riis' stature, as a pioneer photojournalist, is almost as high as it was at the beginning when, as an acknowledged authority on tenement life, he embarked on nationwide lecture tours annually. He is the only photographer given an entire chapter in Peter B. Hales' scholarly history of American urban photography, Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanization, 1839-1915 (1984). And his work has come to be regarded as a touchstone for later photographers. Thus, for a 1995 exhibition of photographs of urban poverty, mounted by the Museum of the City of New York, the show's designers set 61 of Riis' pictures alongside 64 by five contemporary photographers. The juxtaposition "validates Riis...as America's first photojournalist," asserted The New York Times; "today [Riis'] legacy resonates in heartrending contemporary images that transform the poor from faceless abstractions into human beings, just as his own did in the 1890's" (Roberts 28).
Not all the comment spawned by this renascence of interest has been so favorable, however. While Riis' skills with a camera garner more and more praise, his skills with a pen have been for the most part dismissed. If his pictures strike many scholars as innovative and powerful, his prose, in its substance and style, seems to them sloppy, shopworn-an unwieldy blend of three assumptions widespread in the later l9th century: romantic optimism, environmental determinism, and Anglo-Saxon superiority. As Riis' biographer James B. Lane sums up the situation, those who have studied Riis as writer and sociological thinker "characterize him...as a well intentioned but backward looking amateur whose techniques were obsolete in the twentieth century" (ix). Roy Lubove, in The Progressives and the Slums, describes Riis' thought as "unsystematic, almost impressionistic" (49). Susan Sontag portrays him as a sentimental naif less concerned with the plights of the slum dwellers he photographs than with his "spectacularly good conscience" (55); thus, the title of his first and most important book, How the Other Half Lives (1890), is in her words, "innocently explicit" in its expression of the author's as well as the reader's distance from the subject (56). Above all, scholars take Riis to task for his opinions regarding ethnicity and race:
...Riis showed himself to be relatively unsophisticated and of limited political perspective; in his attitudes toward national and religious groups he was far from being free of the prejudices of his age....
So claims Charles Madison in his "Preface" to the Dover edition of Other Half (vii). James B. Lane notes regretfully that on occasion "Riis mistook the ignorance of immigrants for stupidity and their endurance of squalid conditions to mean acceptance or condolence of vile habits" (39). Thus, if his pictures are striking documents of human suffering in the tenements, his words are mere cliches reflecting Riis' acceptance of popular assumptions, pejorative ethnic stereotypes, in particular: this would seem to be the scholarly consensus, with few exceptions.
But this assessment posits a glaring contradiction: why would a photographer-writer portray his immigrant subjects in such profound and humane terms in his pictures, and in such superficial, even stereotypical terms in his words? Can the discrepancy be explained as the product of Riis' inferior abilities with the written word? Did Riis the photographer unknowingly transcend the biases of Riis the writer? Was he simply more gifted when working with camera than with pen? Such answers are scarcely satisfactory, since the conflict involves not only the media, but the messages conveyed: these are not merely different, but contradictory. Moreover, this perspective denies outright the possibility that Riis knew something of the potential range of interrelations between photo and text, and employed them to create these oppositions.' On the other hand, reconciling the contradictions between image and word via revisionist analysis of How the Other Half Lives is no easy task-examining the relations between picture and text in Other Half, one is confounded time and again. Is it possible to reconcile Riis' poignant photo of the Italian ragpicker (Other Half 45)-a picture that in its reminiscence of Renaissance paintings of the Virgin and child (Hales 19) is a stark icon of humility and endurancewith his blatantly condescending comment on Italian immigrant character: "the Italian is gay, lighthearted and, if his fur is not stroked the wrong way, inoffensive as a child" (Other Half 44)? The image emphasizes the dignity of human suffering; the words evoke the pejorative Italian stereotype and, with the animal reference, make it more demeaning still. One might argue that Riis sees Italian immigrant women as victims whose plights merit particular sympathy, that to him only Italian immigrant men embody the stereotype. But no such distinction between the sexes emerges consistently in his treatment of Italians or of any other ethnic or racial group.
Matters become more complicated when the reader of Other Half considers the ethnic implications embedded in the text itself. If Riis' pictures of the immigrant contradict his words, one discovers, on careful reading, that his words at times contradict themselves. In a brief passage from the chapter entitled "Jewtown," for example, exactly what is Riis' stance regarding the Jewish immigrant? And how does he regard his own audience?
Oppression, persecution have not shorn the Jew of his native combativeness one whit. He is as ready to fight for his rights, or what he considers his rights in a business transaction-synonymous generally with his advantage-as if he had not been robbed of them for eighteen hundred years. (Other Half 90)
Examining the ethnic assumptions implicit in these two sentences, one finds a speaker who is distinctly slippery. As he refers to the Jew's "native combativeness" in seeking the "advantage" in a "business transaction," Riis affirms Anglo-Saxon notions about stereotypical Jewish greed-or seems to. In the same breath, however, he acknowledges the "eighteen hundred years" of Jewish "oppression" and "persecution" by well-meaning Christians like many of his readers. In the span of fifty words, Riis appeals to the antisemitic conception of the grasping Jew-which many Americans in the late 19th century took to be facteven as he criticizes antisemitism.
Such contradictions in the representations of nonAnglo-Saxons crop up consistently throughout the text of Other Half; consider two other passages, describing New York City's Black population:
He [the Black person] loves fine clothes and good living a good deal more than he does a bank account. The proverbial rainy day it would be ingratitude, from his point of view, to look for when the sun shines unclouded in a clear sky. His home surroundings, except when he is utterly depraved, reflect his blithesome temper. The poorest negro house-keeper's room in New York is bright with gaily-colored prints of his beloved "Abe Linkum," General Grant, President Garfield, Mrs. Cleveland, and other national celebrities, and cheery with flowers and singing birds. In the act of putting the best foot foremost, of disguising his poverty by making a little go a long way, our negro has no equal. (118)
Here again, Riis conjures for his readers a familiar, alluringly stereotypical vision of the non-Anglo tenement dweller-in this instance, the docile, carefree, childlike "darkie," an urbanized descendant of the happy slaves inhabiting the plantation fiction of Thomas Nelson Page-though the portrait of Blacks which Riis proffers is even more reassuring. As the pantheon of national celebrities covering the walls of their tenement rooms reveals, Riis' Blacks, unlike Page's, regard Northern whites such as Lincoln, Garfield, Mrs. Cleveland-and, by extension, Riis' readers-as their benefactors. He flatters his white audience further through the patronizing tone in which he smugly summarizes the "blithesome temper" of "our negro": Riis' superior demeanor as he employs the first-person plural pronoun confirms for his audience their own benevolent superiority. In terms of ethnic rhetoric, the passage amounts to an invitation, from white speaker to white reader, to join in giving New York's tenement Black a kindly, paternal, and, above all, self-satisfying pat on his woolly pate. But again, Riis waffles; in the sentences that follow, the happy-go-lucky Black, so grateful to his white benefactors, is the hapless victim of white callousness and greed:
The line [the "color line" defining the social, political, and economic differences between the races] may not be wholly effaced while the name of negro, alone among the world's races, is spelled with a small n. Natural selection will have more or less to do beyond a doubt in every age with dividing the races; only so, it may be, can they work out together their highest destiny. But with the despotism that deliberately assigns to the defenseless Black [sic] the lowest level for the purpose of robbing him there that has nothing to do. Of such slavery, different only in degree from the other kind that held him as a chattel, to be sold or bartered at the will of his master, this century, if signs fail not, will see the end in New York. (115)
Here, Riis' stances toward Black tenement dwellers and toward whites have virtually flip-flopped. He posits an unsavory link between economic exploitation and white attitudes concerning race; however, in deference to the biases of many in his white audience, he is careful to do so in strictly impersonal fashion, representing these assumptions in terms of a grammatical custom, not its underlying notions. But to phrase Riis' assertion directly, white slumlords' familiar practice of segregating Blacks in the city's worst tenements and charging them exorbitant rents is the upshot of mistaken white assumptions regarding Black inferiority, assumptions implicit in the spelling of "negro" with a small "n." Of course, Riis does not go so far as to suggest that Blacks and whites are equal; he may capitalize "Black" in the above passage, but he spells "negro" and "colored" without initial capitals throughout the text. Moreover, the passage's second sentence, with its broad reference to the process of "natural selection" "dividing the world's races," genteelly confirms the Anglo-Saxon belief in a racial and ethnic hierarchy topped by Anglos themselves. Nevertheless, having reassured his audience that he is not fomenting racial anarchy, Riis pricks their collective conscience by suggesting that racial supremacy confers racial responsibility-"the white man's burden." If natural selection has drawn AngloSaxons to the highest rung of the racial and ethnic ladder, it also obliges them to assist those less gifted groups on the lower rungs, so that, as Riis puts it, all may "work out together their highest destiny" (emphasis mine). White landlords who practice extortion on their Black tenants may be the most blatant violators of their racial obligations; but, as Riis discreetly intimates, all whites who consider the "negro" beneath the human dignity reflected in a capital "n" promote such racial "despotism," since all "deliberately assign him to the lowest level"-the slumlord simply does so for profit. Far from being benevolent superiors who freed the Black person from Southern slavery, Northern whites as represented in this excerpt are instigators of a new "slavery, different only in degree from the other kind that held him as a chattel." And in the representation of Blacks, all indication of their happy obliviousness to suffering has been eliminated.
Underlying the shifts in racial representation in these passages is a subtle but distinct change in tone. The complacent air of superiority which white speaker and white audience share so comfortably in the first passage disappears; in Riis' controlled and politely impersonal protest against racial "despotism" and the fiscal practices it spawns, he clearly if quietly affiliates himself with the Black tenement dwellers, whose human worth he proclaims, and distances himself from those whites who demean and exploit them: "our negro" is now "the defenseless Black." Clearly, this speaker has no qualms about shifting his racial and rhetorical grounds.
So how does one account for such discrepancies? Are they merely products of intellectual inconsistency and/or a lack of intellectual and rhetorical control to which Riis was oblivious? Something like this would be the verdict of many scholars. Yet, as we have seen, the character and tone of these portrayals vary so drastically-sometimes, as in the passage on "the Jew," even within a sentence-that the contradictions must be conscious rhetorical contrivance. Assuming then that Riis knowingly created these oppositions, why would he set out to make his images contradict his words, and his words contradict themselves? Could he actually have sought, in composing his photos and text, to play off conflicting attitudes one against another-to generate some sort of dialectic or paradox? So far as most scholars are concerned, such subtle rhetorical strategy was far beyond Riis' capacities. One scholar, however, Peter Hales, has suggested that in the words which accompany his pictures, particularly in How the Other Half Lives, Riis does indeed play rhetorical games with his audience, in order to intensify the power of his photos. Hales believes that in this work, Riis' self-portrayal as the clumsy amateur photographer is a carefully contrived, and highly effective, pose:
A close examination of the photographs and of Riis' text suggests that his assertion of incompetence and failure [as a photographer] were, in fact, fictions on the order of literary disclaimers of novelists and biographers. Riis' bumbling photographer was merely a persona. Its existence was designed to draw the audience's attention away from the manipulations of the creator and the distortions of the medium, to lull viewers into believing themselves witnesses to an unrehearsed and unstaged confrontation with the raw grit of a previously hidden world. Riis' insistence on anonymity of method did seduce his viewers, precisely as far as he succeeded in making himself and his medium unimportant in the face of the compelling, powerful world that appears in his photographs. (193)
Unlike most scholars, Hales sees Riis as a relatively sophisticated writer in terms of rhetorical approach, if not of sociological thought. In Hales' reading of Other Half, Riis creates a "persona" to conceal from the audience the artifice of his pictures, knowing that readers' awareness of it might weaken the photos' power. Like subsequent photographers and journalists who recorded the lives of the poor or victimized, he must have understood the paradoxical nature of photos and texts that in the nineteen twenties and thirties came to be called "documentary." For, as William Stott has noted, "documentary" has two contradictory but oft-mixed meanings: "The first we use when we speak of `documentary proof' and `legal documents,' of `documentary history' and `historical documents"': a document of this sort Stott terms "official." There is, on the other hand, the sort he describes as "human""the opposite of the official kind; it is not objective, but thoroughly personal," in that a human document "carries and communicates human feeling, the raw material of drama" (7). The Riis persona, in dismissing the "art" of the photographs, "lull[s]" and "seduce[s]" his audience into accepting them as documents of the "official" sort so that in terms of their evocative power, they become in fact more "human."
If Riis could create a persona who quietly orchestrates reader response to his images, he was certainly attuned to nuances of the interrelations of text and photo; he knew that "if the pictures in a documentary book stimulated most emotion..., the emotion was guided by the text" (Stott 215). Given the awareness that his words influenced his audience's reaction to his pictures, is it possible that Riis employs his persona to manipulate his readers in various ways? Could his simplicity as thinker and writer and his acceptance of Anglo-Saxon superiority, like his clumsiness as photographer of the immigrant hordes, be poses, too? Riis was, after all, an immigrant himself.
If he were attempting to create some sort of dialectical or dialogical relationship between his persona and his readers, this may have been because Riis felt that his own ideas about the nation's newcomers could not be overtly stated to his audience, that they would have to be expressed in some roundabout fashion involving his overt acceptance of and covert opposition to the ethnic assumptions of his readers. In other words, Riis knew that he could most effectively convey his own attitudes regarding immigrants, the attitudes implicit in his photos, by employing his text to undermine the attitudes of his audience. This he would do through the persona, who, as we have seen, often sounds as ethnocentric as, by all indications, many of them were; yet he questions the assumptions he mouths. But if all this is true, how did the photojournalist come to realize these discrepancies, and why? And how did he develop this strategy for addressing them?
The Evolution of Riis ' Ethnic Rhetoric Answers to these queries lie in Riis' own experiences as immigrant, as reporter, and as budding social activist. One finds in examining Riis' descriptions of his own life-in his autobiography, The Making of an American (1904), and A Ten Years' War (1900), his account of his efforts to improve living conditions in the slums-that the consciousness of the attitudinal chasm separating him from his readers, and the ideas for closing it almost certainly came to him via these avenues. As one of the nation's newcomers, Riis had experienced firsthand the conflict between the immigrant's sense of self as human being struggling to survive amidst strange and often hostile surroundings and the assumption of many genteel Americans that the immigrant was some breed of lesser creature. As reporter and social activist, he learned what could and could not be said-at least overtly-regarding this opposition.
Jacob Riis, photojournalist, had been-and was still-Jacob Riis, immigrant: when the twenty-one year old Danish carpenter boarded a steamer from Glasgow to New York in the spring of 1870, he immersed himself in the immigrant life he would later photograph and write about. Riis' account, in The Making of an American, of his own often-desperate efforts to survive in America, confirms just how intimately he knew the immigrant's plight. The book describes in considerable detail his voyage to the New World in the crowded steerage of the steamship Iowa, his struggles to find food, shelter, and work-how he slept in doorways, in parked milk wagons, in police station lodging houses, even in a cemetery. Though Riis discreetly sidesteps explicit reference to the hostility with which many Americans regarded immigrants, he describes episode after episode in which he and fellow immigrants were demeaned by the nation's established inhabitants-from the rotten meat served to those in the Iowa's steerage to the ridicule and pranks he would later suffer from rival reporters because he was, as he politely put it, a "stranger" (35208). These events constituted Riis' education not only in the immigrant experience, but in the discrepancies between the desperation of his struggles and the smugness, complacency, and ethnic bias of middle- and upper-class Americans he encountered in its course. Put simply, Riis discovered the radical disjunction between his idea of himself as immigrant and what immigrants were assumed to be by many respectable Americans.
This chasm must have widened considerably in 1877, when Riis landed a job as police reporter for the New York Tribune and the Associated Press. Now his situation took on ironic implications: Riis, the target of middle- and upper-class assumptions regarding immigrants found himself depicting immigrants for the middle- and upper-classes. More importantly, he learned that, whatever his own ideas, his representations would have to affirm the notions of his audience-or seem to. If the Dane hoped to say anything unconventional about the plight of the immigrants, it would have to be couched in terms that his paper would print and its readers would buy. One sees just how clear this principle became to Riis and how angry it made him in an anecdote of Lincoln Steffens, recounted in his own Autobiography. Steffens recalls how, when he was a cub reporter in New York City, Riis had given him a guided tour of one of the East Side police stations, shown him the brutal treatment of immigrants by officers under Inspector "Clubber" Williams, and initiated him in the distinctions between what was and was not "news" for genteel readers:
...at the front end of the hall, we saw two policemen half forcing, half carrying, a poor, broken, bandaged East Side Jew into the office opposite that of the Superintendendent of Police. There were officers and citizens all about us, but Riis grasped my arm, and pointing to the prisoner as he stumbled in through the open door, he shouted-not, I think, for me alone to hear: "There you have a daily scene in Inspector Williams' office! That's a prisoner. Maybe he's done something wrong, that miserable Russian Jew; anyway he's done something the police don't like. But they haven't only arrested him, as you see; they've beaten him up. And look-"
The door opened, showed a row of bandaged Jews sitting against the wall in the inspector's office, and at his desk, Clubber Williams.
"See the others. There's a strike on the East Side, and there are always clubbed strikers here in this office. I'll tell you what to do while you are learning our ways up here; you hang around this office every morning, watch the broken heads brought in, and as the prisoners are discharged, ask them for their stories. No paper will print them, but you yourself might as well see and hear how strikes are broken by the police."
Inspector Williams had heard. He rose from his desk, pointed at the door, shouted something, and the doorman closed the door with a bang. And Jake Riis laughed. But there was no merriment in that loud laugh of Jake Riis; there was bold rage in his face, as he left me, banging out of the building. (Steffens 206-07; emphasis mine)
The representation here of Riis is significant in several ways. Steffens' emphases on Riis' "bold rage" at police violence, and on his sympathy for the Jewish strikers clash with various scholars' complaints about Riis' lack of understanding of or concern for immigrants. This contradiction supports the likelihood that Riis consciously disguises or at least downplays his own ideas and feelings in order to address those of his polite readers. At the very least, the passage emphasizes Riis' awareness of the differences between his responses and those of his publishers and audience. As he warns Steffens, "no paper will print" a story about New York police striking workers who are Russian Jews; any that did so would immediately be accused of the socialist tendencies the respectable classes considered so dangerous. Obviously, the Danish reporter knew that he could not express overtly his own ideas regarding immigrants to American readers.
Riis' discoveries, as immigrant and reporter, regarding what could and could not be said must have been painful, though he nowhere admits this in so many words. However, perhaps his most unsettling discovery-it is, at any rate, one which he does address directly in his writings-involved his first efforts as social activist, lecturing during 1888 and 1889 in various New York City churches on conditions in the tenements. The issue had been slowly gathering prominence throughout the 70s and 80s. Numerous articles on slum life in the City's papers and in such fashionable magazines as Harper's, Century, and the Atlantic had brought the tenements into middle- and upper-class parlors; while these representations of the slums were often highly romanticized, they did rouse their fashionable readers' curiosity, if not their concern. Two influential books of the times portrayed the slums in more disturbing terms: The Dangerous Classes of New York (1872) by the founder of the Children's Aid Society, Charles Loring Brace, and Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Decay (1885) by the prominent Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong. Both decried the terrible conditions in the slums, though they depicted the inhabitants largely in terms of the pejorative stereotypes. Perhaps the event which did most to generate sustained public interest was the establishment in 1884 of the New York City Tenement-House Commission to monitor and regulate living conditions in the slums. Its initial report drew praise from Riis for "first [bringing] home to us the fact that the people living in the tenements were `better than the houses"' (The Making of an American 245-46).
In light of the growing public awareness of the tenements generated by these occurrences, Riis must have been confident that he might now find an interested and perhaps sympathetic audience, particularly among the City's churchgoers. So, during the late 80s, he gathered photographic evidence with which to prove his points, and set out to spread his message. Unfortunately, reaction to these early lectures was at best lukewarm: many in Riis' audience were skeptical of information from a mere newspaperman (Lane 50). Numerous churches even declined his offer to speak, explaining that his subject did not suit their purposes. To one such refusal, in December, 1888, an exasperated Riis answered that such churches were no holier than newspaper offices (Lane 80). The fact that this reporter was an immigrant lecturing Americans on immigrants made things worse; one review of Riis' presentations describes the speaker as a "German," whose "peculiar, rasping voice" was grating to his listeners (quoted in Lane 50). This writer's genteel American ears-and, very likely, the genteel ears of many others in Riis' audiences-were offended at least as much by Riis' foreignness as by anything in his presentation. Here again, the Danish immigrant found himself stonewalled by American assumptions about the immigrant's inferiority. When even his own church, in Brooklyn, refused to let him speak, Riis resigned its diaconate.
Apparently, many in the City's religious community were as uninterested as other Americans in the plight of the immigrants-this must have been a bitter realization for Riis. Perhaps more than his experiences as immigrant and police reporter, it brought home to him the necessity of disguising his message: to publicize the predicament of the nation's newcomers, he would first have to appeal to his audience's assumptions about them, or appear to-then he might subvert those assumptions. Such a strategy would amount to an ironic reversal of the hypocrisy of those professed Christians who preached compassion but practiced complacency, especially in regard to poverty and suffering in the tenements of their own city. However, if Riis now knew that he must be circumspect in defending the immigrants, he knew that he could at least be frank about the churches' failure to help them. Thus, in this description, from Other Half, of three street children, he treats their ethnicity in ambivalent fashion, but lets his anger at New York's religious community blaze:
Into the Children's Aid Society were led two little girls whose father had "busted up the house" and put them on the street after their mother died. Another, who was turned out by her step-mother "because she had five of her own and could not afford to keep her," could not remember ever having been in church or Sunday School, and only knew the name of Jesus through hearing people swear by it. She had no idea what they meant. These are specimens of the overflow from the tenements of our home-heathens that are growing up in New York's streets today, while tender hearted men and women are busying themselves with the socks and the hereafter of well-fed little Hottentots thousands of miles away. According to Canon Taylor, of York, one hundred and nine missionaries in the four fields of Persia, Palestine, Arabia, and Egypt spent one year and sixty thousand dollars in converting one little heathen girl. If there is nothing the matter with these missionaries, they might come to New York with a good deal better prospect of success. ( 140)
Riis' frustration with the City's churches emerges vividly through strong sarcasm, but his rhetorical touch is deft-his wit not only modulates his anger; through it, he articulates the sources of his discontent. In describing City missionaries who work abroad as "tender hearted men and women...busying themselves with...well-fed little Hottentots" (emphasis mine), Riis suggests that these people and their churches are concerned above all with self. To them, Christian ministry to the unfortunates who need it most is less important than their pleasing self-images as devout Christians spreading the word of God among pagans. From this perspective, a ministry in South Africa or the Middle East is far more alluring than one in a slum across town. So far as Riis is concerned, such egotism and the flimsy sense of missionary purpose it engenders produce dilettante disciples, so self-satisfied that they can equate the petty gratifications of distributing socks among the catechumens with the hard-won joy of teaching them the Christian conception of "the hereafter."
But if his anger regarding the churches' neglect of the City's poor is clear here, Riis' portrayal of nonAnglos is just as ambiguous as it is in the passages examined earlier. Though the author makes no explicit reference to the ethnicity of these tenement children, telling details make it apparent to his audience. For the polite classes, domestic violence in the slums was a typical ethnic behavior associated particularly with the Irish, a connection reiterated time and again in nation's newspapers and in the naturalist fiction then emerging-Crane's Maggie and Frank Norris' McTeague, for examples. That the children are nonAnglo is also revealed by the comparisons of these "home-heathen[s]" to the non-white "heathens" of other countries, the Hottentots of South Africa and the peoples of the Middle East. New York City's own ethnic inferiors are in dire need of moral improvement-hurches need not look elsewhere: this is the gist of Riis' message-or seems to be.
Yet here again, Riis employs an ethnic stereotype in order to undermine it; in this instance, he does so by establishing a generational contrast. The parents of these children are stereotypical "shanty Irish"-as coarse and brutal in their behavior as Mary Johnson, the mother of Crane's Maggie, or Norris' McTeague; on the other hand, the little girls are hapless victims, not inheritors, of their parents' character-their condition is the product of their elders' stereotypical traits, not their own. As individuals, they remain fundamentally unformed, and thus capable of absorbing the benevolent influence of agencies such as the Children's Aid Society or the churches, if these institutions will make the effort.
Environment, Not Heredity
This distinction, though obvious, has crucial implications with regard to Riis' ideas about the origins of individual character, and his rhetorical strategy in handling ethnicity. Unlike many in his audience, Riis believed character to be the product not of heredity, but of environment. "All life...accommodates itself to its environment, and human life is no exception"-so he asserts in Other Half (124); in comparison, one's genetic inheritance is secondary. Thus, Riis proclaims in an 1895 article in the New York Mail and Express that, "the theory of heredity...is not a working theory" (quoted in Lane 90). Yet nowhere in his writings does Riis articulate the ethnic implications of these beliefs; the Danish immigrant knew from experience how they would be received by the many ethnocentrists in his audience. Nevertheless, in his comments on the relative importance of environment and heredity, Riis consistently employed terms broad enough to allow the ethnic implications to lurk about, just beneath the surface, for those perceptive enough to see them. Thus, as he outlines the formation of human character for readers of Other Half Riis proclaims that, "...the young are naturally neither vicious nor hardened, simply weak and undeveloped..." (143): no distinctions are drawn-these "young" may be Anglo-Saxons, Irish, Jews, or Blacks. One finds Riis engaging in the same open-ended rhetoric throughout his career. Fourteen years later, in The Making of an American, he describes youthful offenders in New York's state reformatory as products of environment, not heredity:
Of the thousands who land there, barely one per cent kept good company before coming. All the rest were victims of evil association or corrupt environment. They were not thieves by heredity; they were made. And the manufacture goes on every day. The street and the jail are the factories. (366-67)
Here again, heredity and, by extension, ethnicity have been dismissed; criminality is not characteristic of any particular ethnic group. When in 1910, Riis helped to found the Boy Scouts of America and was asked to address their first organizational meeting, he tackled these issues in the same fashion. As James B. Lane notes, Riis was convinced that young males in the tenements were just as susceptible to the positive influences of the Scouts as boys from other backgrounds (187). In his speech, he stressed the idea that all boys share the same fundamental qualities: "the sixty-oneyear-old Riis told his sympathetic audience that each child was in part a savage, in part an altruist, but most of all an opportunist who takes things as he finds them in his environment" (187). Obviously, "each child" means "every child" or "all children," regardless of ethnicity or race. To convince Americans of the power of environment-and the relative unimportance of heredity-was Riis' mission in all his works. He offers this brief retrospective in The Making of American: "all my days I have been preaching against heredity as the arch-enemy of hope and effort" (413). "Arch-enemy" indeed, because hereditary determinism confirmed the ethnic assumptions widespread among Riis' middle- and upper-class readers, assumptions that the Danish immigrant had confronted ever since his arrival in American in 1870. In How the Other Half Lives, he developed the strategy for quietly attacking them which he would employ for the rest of his life.
In terms of ethnic rhetoric, in Other Half and much of Riis' subsequent writing, one might say that he walks a tightwire: Riis knew that if he hoped to publicize the plight of the tenement dwellers effectively, he would have to do so by first fulfilling his genteel Anglo-Saxon audience's needs for affirmation of their own ethnic beliefs-only then could he begin to chip away at them. Such subversion certainly involves a rhetorical stance far more subtle and intricate than mere plain speaking. It requires instead the creation of a persona-to return to Peter Hales' ideabut one who is multi-dimensional, who manipulates his readers not only through his comic self-depiction as photographic bungler, but in other ways as wellmost importantly, through his shifting, dialectical perspective, the frame of mind which W. E. B. DuBois would later term "double-consciousness" (8-9) and Ralph Ellison characterized as "invisibility" (3 ). It is the ethnic or racial outsider's sensation of his "twoness," as DuBois describes it, "of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." Under such circumstances, the individual is reft, becoming "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one...body" (8-9). Such conflict must inevitably give rise to "double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism" (160). Riis did not accept these oppositions, however; in addressing the genteel white readers of How the Other Half Lives, he yokes the contraries. Like Elllison's invisible man and his grandfather, the immigrant photojournalist seeks to "overcome 'em with yeses" and "undermine 'em with grins" (16); he, too, learned to mimic the ruling classes in order to combat them.
Examining the text of Other Half with this possibility in mind, the reader may discover a narrative voice far more supple and far more complex than many scholars have realized. If Riis-or his persona-seems at first glance to be simple, straightforward, even ingenuous, his stance becomes, upon closer investigation, ambiguous, contradictory, ultimately dialectical. If Riis is a cool, street-savvy tour guide, he is also a social activist; if he seems to affirm the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon at one moment, he defends the humanity of the immigrant at another. If his words contradict not only his pictures but themselves as well, perhaps this reveals flaws in his audience's thinking, not in his own.
1The relationship between images and words within a given text, an issue which may once have seemed perfectly simple, has, in the twentieth century, become scarily complicated. Traditionally, an image "illustrated" the words it accompanied; however, as Roland Barthes has noted, the
explosion of images in modern media brought about "an important historical reversal" of this relationship: "today, the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination. Formerly there was reduction from text to image; today, there is amplification from one to the other" (Image-Music-Text 26). With this transition, questions about "objectivity" or "truth" in representation have become far more complex as well. Modern readers may understand just how subjective the messages of verbal codes can be, yet they often assume that a photo, because it is produced mechanically, constitutes purely objective representation; in the words of W. J. T. Mitchell, "the photograph, like its parent notion, the mental impression, enjoys a certain mystique in our culture that can be described as `absolutely analogical' and `message without code"'" (Iconology 64). So strong is the photo's aura of objectivity that, for many readers, it extends beyond the picture itself to encompass the words around it. Barthes describes this effect: "The closer the text to the image, the less it seems to connote it; caught as it were in the iconographic message [of the photo], the verbal message seems to share in its objectivity, the connotation of language is 'innocented' through the photograph's [presumed] denotation" (ImageMusic-Text 26). Thus, in examining a mixture of photos and words, readers encounter two media subject to authorial manipulation-but which, in combination, create a particularly powerful impression of objective authority. The dynamics of photo and image in such texts are subtle and potentially wide-ranging; Bill Nichols articulates the breadth of possibilities: "the play between word and image remains a site for disintegration as well as integration, of non-cooperation as well as incorporation. The interplay of codes constituting the image, like those constituting self-assubject forms an ideological arena and an arena for idelogical contestation" (Nichols 63). If my reading of Riis' blend of photos and words is accurate, he was a wily pioneer in exploiting all of these ambiguities skillfully and ethically.
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