Urbanization and the influx of immigrant populations into cities compounded issues of inadequate infrastructure, with poor housing conditions being among one of the biggest problems in the poorest neighborhoods. Substandard conditions for the poor correlated with the Belle Epoque era in Europe, from Panic of 1873 and until the first World War, when industry growth and profit was buoyed by class structure and cheap labor.
In the US, New York mirrored this egregious pattern. Factory owners, in particular, were infamous for perpetuating unsafe working conditions, low wages, brutal shifts and employing children.
Jacob Riis had emigrated from Denmark when he was 21. He was like many other immigrants, working crummy jobs, abysmal living conditions, and working ridiculous hours. Riis eventually succeeded in establishing a career as a journalist.
In 1877, Riis was hired by the New York Tribune to cover the police beat and regularly profiled the illegal rooming houses and decrepit tenements. Initially, Riis got little attention for his exposés. Frustrated and in an attempt to garner attention to this desperate issue, he learned how to take photographs.
The strategy was effective.
Riis shot with a box camera and dry plate negatives. Working mostly at night and in crudely lit basement dwellings, he used a magnesium powder flash to light his subjects. Rarely did he forewarn the renters (or squatters) that he was about to take their picture. As a consequence, the element of surprise and the bright flash of the magnesium made the squalid scenes that much more stark and dramatic. Of his eight publications, his first book, How the other Half Lives, is still his most celebrated. It was also a pivotal work—not only did it reveal a squalid world of rank conditions and over crowding, it was also printed in autotype, an early photographic reproduction process.
President Theodore Roosevelt said that Jacob Riis was “the most useful citizen of New York”. (Illus.—Jacob Riis “Children in “The Ship,” destroyed by B. of Health in 1897, after the visit of Roosevelt & myself there,” 1895, Museum of the City of New York)