Jacob A. Riis exhibit at the Park City Museum looks at ‘How the Other Half Lives’
What: “Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives” exhibit
When: Through Jan. 7
Where: Park City Museum, 528 Main St.
While Park City was operating as a booming mining town in the late 1880s, New York City was experiencing a population boom from 1 million people to 3.4 million people.
Many of the people who settled in New York were immigrants who ventured from their roots in eastern and southern Europe to build a better life for themselves and their families. But once they arrived in the United States, they found themselves surviving horrible living conditions in stacked tenements in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
These conditions are the subject of “Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives,” an exhibit that is on display through Jan. 7 at the Park City Museum’s Tozer Gallery.
Visitors can experience the exhibit in a safe and socially distanced way, said Courtney Titus, Park City Museum curator of collections.
Masks are required, and there are hand sanitizer stations set up throughout the museum, she said.
“We clean the exhibit regularly and we are scheduling timed visits,” she said.
For more information, call 435-649-7457 or visit parkcityhistory.org.
The exhibit, which is about photojournalist Jacob A. Riis, is centered on the past, but it addresses many modern-day themes such as social reform and equity, the fight for justice and immigration, Titus said.
“Jacob A. Riis was an immigrant, himself, who came to the United States from Denmark,” Titus said. “When he first moved to the U.S. when he was 20, he struggled and found himself homeless for nearly four years and lived on the streets.”
Riis eventually found a job as a writer for the New York Tribune and the Evening Star, where he was assigned to the night shift.
“He reported on the city’s underbelly that included crime, prostitution and terrible living conditions,” Titus said. “Since New York couldn’t handle the huge influx of people, the living conditions for many of the immigrants were inhumane.”
Extended families found themselves living in tenement buildings that lacked basic amenities such as light, proper plumbing and sanitation, she said.
“Most of them had only three rooms, but families, sometimes numbering more than 12 or more people, lived in them,” Titus said. “Since these buildings were constructed back to back and side to side, there wasn’t a lot of privacy, and Riis, as the reporter, saw these conditions firsthand.”
Riis also empathized, because he was once a homeless immigrant himself.
“So he took it upon himself to report on these living conditions,” Titus said. “And to do that, he began utilizing the most modern techniques of the day.”
One of those newfangled items was flash powder that allowed photographers to take photos at night or in dark conditions.
“Jacob realized the powder could be an important tool that would help people really see the conditions he wrote about,” Titus said.
Unfortunately, Riis didn’t know much about photography, and had to hire a couple of amateur photographers to see how flash powder worked, she said.
“They started out by surprising the tenants after midnight to get candid photos,” Titus said.
He and his team would barge into the living quarters, light the powder and take the photo when the powder exploded, she said.
“He did all this without permission, and while it wasn’t the most considerate way to document these people’s lives, it was very effective,” Titus said. “But as time went on, Jacob changed his approach and would take the time before he took photographs to get his subjects names, stories and permission to take the photos.”
After his photographers quit, he learned how to take the photos himself.
“The photographs were originally published with his articles, but then he started thinking of a more effective way to use the photographs and tell his stories,” Titus said “So he started giving lectures, using lantern slides, that were basically his photos on glass.”
Riis toured the country giving presentations, which are much like modern-day PowerPoints, and used the slides to highlight his lectures. He also wrote a series of books that were compilations of his articles.
“One of his most famous books was ‘How the Other Half Lives,’ which revealed the plight of the impoverished residents of New York,” Titus said.
Through his lectures, many books, and even his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt, Riis was able to raise awareness and help with housing reform, public education and the Playground Movement, which set up areas of play for children who lived in crowded tenement neighborhoods, according to Titus.
The exhibit, which is named after the book, features photographs from the Museum of the City of New York, and documents and archives from the Library of Congress, she said.
“It combines these elements to tell the fuller story of Jacob’s life,” Titus said. “Visitors can see his photographs and photographs of himself, diary entries and reproductions.”
The exhibit also includes a video reproduction of one of Riis’ lectures.
“People can actually get a feel of what it was like to experience one of his presentations,” Titus said.
Speaking of lectures, in conjunction with the exhibit, the Park City Museum will present a virtual lecture called “From Jacob Riis to StoryCorps: The Documentary Impulse in America,” given by Matthew Basso at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 10.
Registration for the lecture is available by visiting parkcityhistory.org/event/jacob-riis-zoom-lecture-given-by-matthew-basso.
Basso, an associate professor of history and gender studies at the University of Utah, will trace the “documentary impulse” concept that is strongly associated in the U.S. with Riis through the modern day, Titus said.
The lecture will ask what the purpose of documenting people’s lives is and how the answer has changed documentary practice.
“I think Jacob A. Riis was an incredible human being,” Titus said. “I love his stories, and I’m excited that we have this exhibit.”
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