Jacob Riis: Three Urchins Huddling for Warmth in Window Well on NY's Lower East Side, 1889

History of NY Photography: Documenting the Social Scene

 

Jacob Riis: Three Urchins Huddling for Warmth in Window Well on NY’s Lower East Side, 1889

History of NY Photography: Documenting the Social Scene

Beginning in the late 19th century, with the emergence of organized social reform movements and the creation of inexpensive means of creating reproducing photographs, a form of social photography began that had not been prevalent earlier.

These changes sent huge waves through the photography of New York, and gave many photographers the tools to be able to go out and create a visual record of the multitude of social problems in the city.

Social Photography and Immigrants

Jacob Riis:

Jacob Riis: 5 Cent Lodging, 1889, History of New York Photography.Jacob Riis: 5 Cent Lodging, 1889

One of the first major consistent bodies of work of social photography in New York was in Jacob Riis‘How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York‘ in 1890.

Riis, an immigrant himself, began as a police reporter for the New York Herald, and started using cameras to add depth to and prove the truth of his articles.

Riis wanted to expose the terrible living conditions on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Using the recent invention of flash photography, he was able to document the dark and seedy areas of the city that had not able to be photographed previously. And with this, he set off to show the public a view of the tenements that had not been seen or much talked about before.

His book, which featured 17 halftone images, was widely successful in exposing the squalid tenement conditions to the eyes of the general public.  Because of this it helped to push the issue of tenement reform to the forefront of city issues, and was a catalyst for major reforms.

Jacob Riis Jacob Riis: Bandits' Roost (Five Points). Feb. 1888. History of New York PhotographyJacob Riis: Bandits’ Roost (Five Points). Feb. 1888

Jacob Riis: Mulberry Bend. History of New York Photography.Jacob Riis: Mulberry Bend

Jacob Riis: An English Coal-Heaver's HomeJacob Riis: An English Coal-Heaver’s Home

 
Jacob Riis: It Cost a Dollar a Month to Sleep in These Sheds
Jacob Riis: It Cost a Dollar a Month to Sleep in These Sheds
 
“Long ago it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.’ That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate, of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat.”
Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 5
 
Jacob Riis: In Sleeping Quarters, Rivington Street Dump
Jacob Riis: In Sleeping Quarters, Rivington Street Dump

Where are the tenements of to-day? Say rather: where are they not? In fifty years they have crept up from the Fourth Ward slums and the Five Points the whole length of the island, and have polluted the Annexed District to the Westchester line. Crowding all the lower wards, wherever business leaves a foot of ground unclaimed; strung along both rivers, like ball and chain tied to the foot of every street, and filling up Harlem with their restless, pent-up multitudes, they hold within their clutch the wealth and business of New York, hold them at their mercy in the day of mob-rule and wrath.

Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 12

Jacob Riis: Dens of DeathJacob Riis: Dens of Death

Lewis W. Hine:

Italian Family on Ferry Boat, Leaving Ellis IslandItalian Family on Ferry Boat, Leaving Ellis Island

Because social images were meant to persuade, photographers felt it necessary to communicate a belief that slum dwellers were capable of human emotions and that they were being kept from fully realizing their human qualities by their surroundings.  As a result, photographs used in campaigns for social reform not only provided truthful evidence but embodied a commitment to humanistic ideals.  By selecting sympathetic types and contrasting the individual’s expression and gesture with the shabbiness of the physical surroundings, the photographer frequently was able to transform a mundane record of what exists into a fervent plea for what might be.  This idealism became a basic tenet of the social documentary concept

A World History of Photography, Third Edition, 361

Another prominent social photographer in New York was Lewis W. Hine, a teacher and sociology major who dedicated himself to photographing the immigrants of Ellis Island at the turn of the century.

Hine did not look down on his subjects, as many people might have done at the time, but instead photographed them as proud and dignified, and created a wonderful record of the people that were passing into the city at the turn of the century.

Lewis Hine: Joys and Sorrows of Ellis Island, 1905

 Lewis Hine: Joys and Sorrows of Ellis Island, 1905

Lewis Hine: Italian Family Looking for Lost Baggage, Ellis Island, 1905

Lewis Hine: Italian Family Looking for Lost Baggage, Ellis Island, 1905

Lewis Hine: Italian Madonna

Lewis Hine: Italian Madonna

 
Lewis Hine: A Finnish Stowaway Detained at Ellis Island

Lewis Hine: A Finnish Stowaway Detained at Ellis Island

Lewis Hine: Ellis Island, 1905Lewis Hine: Ellis Island, 1905

Hine also dedicated much of his life to photographing child labor and general working conditions in New York and elsewhere in the country.  His photos played a large role in exposing the horrible child labor practices throughout the country, and was a catalyst for major reforms.

I’m not going to show many of these child labor photos since it is out of the scope of this article, but they are very powerful and you can easy find them through google.

Lewis Hine: Boy Carrying Homework from New York SweatshopLewis Hine: Boy Carrying Homework from New York Sweatshop

Lewis Hine: Old-Time Steel Worker on Empire State BuildingLewis Hine: Old-Time Steel Worker on Empire State Building

Lewis Hine: Icarus Atop Empire State BuildingLewis Hine: Icarus Atop Empire State Building

Social Photography and The Great Depression

Documentary photography exploded in the United States during the 1930s with the onset of the Great Depression.  The city was primarily photographed during this period under the Federal Arts Project and the Works Progress Administration, and by the Photo League, which emerged in 1936 and was committed to photographing social issues.

Berenice Abbott:

Berenice Abbott: Tempo of the City: I; Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. May 1938Berenice Abbott: Tempo of the City: I; Fifth Avenue and 44th Street.  May 1938


Right: Berenice Abbott, Cliff and Ferry Street. Nov. 1935

Berenice Abbott, Cliff and Ferry Street. Nov. 1935

One of the major New York photographic projects created during this period was Changing New York by Berenice Abbott.

Abbot was hired in 1935 by the Federal Art project to document the city.  She set off to create photographs showed the power of the city, but also kept the buildings in the perspective of the people that had created them.

Her photographs during this project seemed to focus on both the grand architecture and street life of the modern New York as well as on the day to day commercial aspect of the small shops that lined the streets.

She seemed to photograph the New York skyscrapers in a way that created the feeling of the stability of the core of the city.  However, she often showed these buildings in contrast to the older residential neighborhoods in the city, seeming to show where the sweat that created these buildings came from.

Her photographs of the businesses that lined the streets of New York, similarly seemed to try to press the issue of commercial stability.  Abbott often focused on the myriad of products offered in these shops as a way to show that commerce and daily life would not go away.

Berenice Abbott: Newstand; 32nd Street and Third Avenue. Nov. 1935Berenice Abbott: Newstand; 32nd Street and Third Avenue. Nov. 1935

Berenice Abbott: Herald Square; 34th and Broadway. July 1936Berenice Abbott: Herald Square; 34th and Broadway. July 1936

Berenice Abbott: Triborough Bridge; East 125th Street approach. July 1937Berenice Abbott: Triborough Bridge; East 125th Street approach. July 1937

Berenice Abbott: Steam + Felt = Hats; 65 West 39th Street. Mar. 1938Berenice Abbott: Steam + Felt = Hats; 65 West 39th Street. Mar. 1938

Berenice Abbott: Blossom Restaurant; 103 Bowery. Oct. 1935Berenice Abbott: Blossom Restaurant; 103 Bowery. Oct. 1935

Berenice Abbott: Pike and Henry Street. Mar. 1936Berenice Abbott: Pike and Henry Street. Mar. 1936

The Photo League

The Photo League was a left-leaning politically conscious organization started in the early 1930s with the goal of using photography to document the social struggles in the United States.

The League created an advisory board that included Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand, a school directed by Sid Grossman, and created Feature Groups to document life in the poorer neighborhoods.

The most notable of these Feature Groups was headed by Aaron Siskind and included Morris Engel and Jack Manning and created a group of photographs known as the “Harlem Document,” which set out to document life in New York’s most significant black neighborhood.

Aaron Siskind

Aaron Siskind: Church Singer, 1937Aaron Siskind: Church Singer, 1937

m196803330089Aaron Siskind, Untitled, Most Crowded Block in the World

m196803330097Aaron Siskind: Untitled, Most Crowded Block in the World

Aaron Siskind: Untitled, Most Crowded Block in the WorldAaron Siskind: Untitled, Most Crowded Block in the World

Siskind: Untitled, The Most Crowded Block in the WorldAaron Siskind: Untitled, The Most Crowded Block in the World

Right: Siskind: BrothersAaron Siskind: Brothers

Siskind: Pawnbroker Signs

m196803330134Aaron Siskind: Peace Pies

Aaron Siskind: PicketsAaron Siskind: Pickets

Aaron Siskind: Checkers GameAaron Siskind: Checkers Game

Siskind: Skylight Through The WindowAaron Siskind: Skylight Through The Window

Siskind: Skylight FireAaron Siskind: Skylight Fire

Aaron Siskind: Untitled, Most Crowded Block in the WorldAaron Siskind: Untitled, Most Crowded Block in the World

Siskind: Untitled, Most Crowded Block in the WorldAaron Siskind: Untitled, Most Crowded Block in the World

m196803330350Aaron Siskind: Untitled, Harlem Document

Siskind, Sims, Harlem DocumentAaron Siskind, Sims, Harlem Document

Woman Leader, Unemployment CouncilAaron Siskind: Woman Leader, Unemployment Council

Morris Engel

Morris Engel, HarlemMorris Engel, Harlem

Morris Engel: RebeccaMorris Engel: Rebecca

Sid Grossman

Sid Grossman: Coney IslandSid Grossman: Coney Island

Walter Rosenblum

Walter Rosenblum: Pitt Street DocumentWalter Rosenblum: Pitt Street Document

Walter Rosenblum: Pitt Street DocumentWalter Rosenblum: Pitt Street Document

Walter Rosenblum: Pitt Street DocumentWalter Rosenblum: Pitt Street Document

3 thoughts on “History of NY Photography: Documenting the Social Scene”

  1. Thank you for posting this collection of Jacob Riis photographs. First time I’ve seen any of them. Compelling images. Kind regards, John Lantero

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