Walking the Ethnic Tightwire: Ethnicity and Dialectic in Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives

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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? …