Jacob Riis was a American-Danish journalist, social reformer as well as a documentary photographer. He was born on 3rd May 1849 in Ribe, Denmark. He had a large family with fourteen children other than him. Only three kids survived up to the twentieth century and one of them was Jacob. In general he had a great childhood apart from the time his younger brother drowned and the sight of his mother’s emotions was embedded into his mind. His father visualized Jacob as having a literary professional life but the son was open to carpentry. Riis eventually decided to move to the United States since his marriage proposal for a girl was refused by his father and there were no jobs available for him in the region.
Riis was eminent for his journalistic and photographic aptitude to help the impecunious in New York. The indigent New York people were his subject of photography and writing. Due to the early use of flash in photography, he is considered one of the vicars of photography. While living in this city, he wrote on the quality of life in the low lying areas. He exposed the hardships and poor conditions of life of the deprived people, to the upper and middle classes of the society in an attempt to assuage these problems.
Jacob Riis wanted to represent things as they were. He tried writing and sketching but nothing gave him perfect results. Then he moved towards photography. At first, it was not possible to take pictures in the dark since the technology of flash came a little later. This gave Riis hope that he can photograph even the most darkest angle using this invention.
He informed Dr. John Nagle, his friend about the possibilities of flash who further found two more photographer acquaintances, Richard Hoe Lawrence and Henry Piffard. These four men formed a casual group and began photographing slum areas. In 1888, The Sun published their first account.
Riis and the three men mentioned above were the first in America to use flash in photography. Jacob Riis felt that pistol lamps were unsafe so he created flash on a frying pan by lighting magnesium powder. The process was to ignite the powder using a lens cap.
This team of Riis became exhausted due to the long working hours, hence he had to create another group for help. His assistants were also corrupt and indolent. Hence, Nagle gave Riis the advice to work independently. So Riis bought some photography and printing equipment. He took the tools to Hart Island’s cemetery and took pictures.
For a few years, Riis collected images by him and by others to make a foundation for his archive of photographs. At this time, he researched photos from professionals and amateurs.
A lot of work by Jacob Riis was done through the night and this enabled him to capture the worst aspects of the slums in New York. The hardships faced by people could be represented in a much better way – the eerie streets and somewhat perished apartments.
Critics of Riis’s work were not touched by his sincerity toward social development of people in the less fortunate areas, instead they accused him of meddling in others choices and lives. His portrayals were harsh at times and this is why he was often questioned about his work.