Wie die andere Hälfte lebt
Technical update (daguerrotype goes flash photography!)
to Work in Congress:
And the sign said the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.
Simon & Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence, 1966
In the 1880s, Danish-American immigrant Jacob Riis crawled the slums of Lower East Side Manhattan to portray by means of just emerging flash photography How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, 1890. Up to then, the “first” half of New York population did not show themselves aware of poverty, crime, squalor and arising sub-cultures in the middle of their prospering boomtown.
Riis did not experience any gratitude from the underprivileged he was trying to help — first of all because he inflammated some of the depicted slums with his primitive flashlights; secondly because his methods of illegally invading residences and picturing people withour their permission, were regarded as impure. However, his aims were finally acknowledged as laudable, not least under the impression of Charles Dickens‘ success who spread a similar message in a great output of partly humorous, partly melodramatic prose: “From first to last he was a novelist with a purpose” — and who likewise visited New York to have a glimpse.
Recent criticism stresses Riis’s distinction between “deserved” vs. “undeserved” poverty, and the passages where he portrays ethnic groups such as Jews, Chinese and Irish in way which nowadays cannot be called other but racist. Measured in terms of his own time, Riis still wrote and photographed with all available sympathy.
Like Dickens’ novels (and to stay on topic, the sociocritical diptychons by Herman Melville, Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs, The two Temples, and The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids), How the Other Half Lives is still readable and of more than mere historic fascination.
Theodore Roosevelt would be prompted to close down the police-run poorhouses of The Five Points and Little Italy in Lower Manhattan. The legend has it that in the wake of the book’s impact, Roosevelt, New York City Police Commissioner, sent a note to Riis:
Please, come to me.
Übersetzung (dies ist ein teutsches Weblog): How the Other Half Lives gilt als erster Bildband der Welt. Damals noch etwas textlastig, aber immer noch interessant und gar nicht mal so teuer. Können Sie getrost kaufen.
Images: Jacob A. Riis: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., photographer unidentified; Minding the Baby;
Licence: Public Domain.