Rediscovering Jacob Riis: The Reformer, His Journalism, and His Photographs

Overview

A provocative new illustrated history of the famed early chronicler of New York's immigrant poor, seen here as an opportunistic, camera-toting social reformer whose legacy lives on.

"I don't remember my mother or my aunts and uncles talking of their father as a photographer....In his letters—I have read most of them—he never mentions a camera."—J. Riis Owre (grandson of ...
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Overview

A provocative new illustrated history of the famed early chronicler of New York's immigrant poor, seen here as an opportunistic, camera-toting social reformer whose legacy lives on.

"I don't remember my mother or my aunts and uncles talking of their father as a photographer....In his letters—I have read most of them—he never mentions a camera."—J. Riis Owre (grandson of Jacob Riis)

More than ninety years after his death, Jacob Riis maintains a stubbornly persistent hold on the American imagination. Remembered as a pioneering photographer, he was the first to document the state of New York's slums, publicizing in haunting photographs the plight of the urban poor at the height of European immigration to the city. But Riis confessed to being "no good at all as a photographer" and in recent years has been disparaged for racist views and political opportunism.

In Rediscovering Jacob Riis, Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom address the complex legacy of the pioneering social reformer. In a work of highly original scholarship, they reclaim Riis from the art camp, relocating him in the field of social and cultural history. Their provocative new book reveals Riis to be an inspired self-promoter who, although neither an original thinker nor a serious photographer, nevertheless framed the discussion of urban poverty in terms still relevant today.

Extensively illustrated with Riis's images, Rediscovering Jacob Riis is revisionist history at its best, as appealing to photographers, journalists, and social historians as it is to the general reader.
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Editorial Reviews

Matthew Power
In Rediscovering Jacob Riis, Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom have undertaken a rigorous, scholarly re-examination of Riis's life and work. While Czitrom, a historian at Mount Holyoke College, places Riis in the context of other 19th-century social crusaders, Yochelson, a former photo curator at the Museum of the City of New York, offers a more critical assessment; she re-evaluates Riis's photography and questions the mythos that surrounds him…Reassessments aside, Riis's lightning-flash images of social catastrophe still have the power to shock, even after 120 years.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Art historian Yochelson and history professor Czitrom examine the life and legacy of Jacob Riis. Riis started out as a carpenter with some literary training who emigrated from Denmark to New York City in 1870, where the day-to-day lives of the impoverished fascinated him. His path to renown began in 1889 when his tenement housing reports appeared in Christian Unionmagazine. Riis then expanded his reportage to How the Other Half Lives, a bestseller, still considered a journalistic classic. Czitrom chronicles Riis's life from his birth in 1849 to 1890; from there Yochelson carries the story to his death in 1914, studding her half of the book with Riis's photographs. Riis did not consider himself a skilled photographer (and with good reason), but his images portray unforgettable people and settings. His reportage and photos-while somewhat flawed by personal and political biases-resonate today. Must so many new immigrants, he asked, begin their lives in the U.S. housed in slums? What should government, churches and private philanthropies do to help? Are some immigrant groups less likely to escape tenement life? These questions that guided Riis's life will remind the reader that history is a useful instructor in the here and now. 95 b&w photos. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595581990
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 2/1/2008
  • Pages: 268
  • Product dimensions: 8.34 (w) x 6.46 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Bonnie Yochelson, formerly curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, teaches at the School of Visual Arts, New York. The author of Berenice Abbott: Changing New York (The New Press), she lives in New York City. Daniel Czitrom is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Media and the American Mind and co-author of Out of Many. He lives in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
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