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Background Essay on Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine

This short essay describes Jacob Riis and Lewis Hines, two important documentary photographers of the turn of the twentieth century.

Jacob. A. Riis began his career as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. In the course of his work he observed the tenement neighborhoods of the Lower Eastside and became outraged at the living conditions endured by New York’s immigrant poor. He began photographing these neighborhoods and their inhabitants, with the conviction that wealthy could no longer look the other way when faced by the concrete visual evidence of the poverty of their fellow human beings. In 1890, he wrote How the Other Half Lives, an exposé of the disease- and crime-ridden conditions found in the immigrant “slums.” Although Riis’ writing reflected quite a bit of ethnic prejudice and contempt for “foreign” cultures, his primary focus was on environmental conditions, not the inborn characteristics of a race or class of people. His purpose was to show how overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, fostered by the greed of landlords and building speculators, created a class of people that were degraded, ignorant, and dangerous. Through his journalism and photography he inspired shock, horror, and certainly fear among middle-class men and women. Photos like “Bandits’ Roost” and “Street Arabs in sleeping quarters” particularly inspired this shock and fear. Philanthropic organizations and special commissions investigated the abuses revealed by Riis’ photographs. Many of the housing reform measures he suggested were enacted over the next ten years, including the clearance of some of the worst “slums and the building of parks.

The volunteer philanthropy of the 1890s was replaced after the turn of the century by the practice of “social work,” which grew up as a new profession based on the scientific study of social problems and the implementation of systematic, if gradual, social reforms. Lewis Hine, who began his career as an educator, practiced his photography within this framework. He taught botany and nature studies to children at the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan and began using his photography in his teaching. He taught a photography class in which he hoped to train children how to see the “beautiful and picturesque in the commonplace.” He went to Ellis Island to capture images of newly arrived immigrants. In 1908, he became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and also for the magazine Charities and Commons, later called Surveys. His photos of child laborers throughout the country and of working-class families in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York were meant to reveal, but also to educate. His pictures told a complex story about struggling families evading the child labor laws in order to stay one step ahead of a system that kept honest people hungry. Photos like “Climbing into the Land of Promise, Ellis Island, 1905” and “Glass works boy, night shift, Indiana, 1908” evoked sympathy, respect, and outrage all at once. The subjects of Hine’s photos were strong and dignified, though they needed sociologists and reformers to help them improve their lives in a difficult new urban environment.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 29, 2023,

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