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Revisiting New York’s Other Half

The camera was still a relatively recent invention when Jacob Riis began photographing New York City’s slums and their inhabitants. Born in Denmark, Riis moved to the city in 1870 and worked as a police reporter for the New York Tribune before turning his attention to housing reform in 1884. As much a writer as photographer, Riis wrote and illustrated stories about the appalling living and working conditions of the city’s immigrant poor, putting together a popular slide lecture that he gave around the country. His groundbreaking, bestselling book, How the Other Half Lives, was published in 1890, and exposed the problems he championed to a wide audience. A retrospective of his work, “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half,” on view at the Museum of the City of New York until March 20, includes 50 vintage photographic prints, lantern slides, glass negatives and stereographs, as well as objects including his personal papers and books, selections from his newspaper and magazine writing, handwritten manuscripts, photography equipment, and photographs collected by Riis himself. Pulled from the Museum’s own Jacob A. Riis Collection of Photographs—the world’s largest archive of Riis’s images—along with selection from the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, the exhibition presents Riis’s career in full.

“Jacob Riis had a tremendous impact on society, photography and the history of New York City,” says Bonnie Yochelson, art historian and former curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, and curator of the show, in a statement. “His work deserves to be revisited for its combination of historical importance and ongoing relevance today. As our city and our nation continue to struggle with inequality and its effects, this exhibition enables visitors to understand the story of the man who first illustrated life in New York City slums in the 19th century, providing a unique lens for viewing a present day issue.”

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