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Issue 56, May 2001

Grim Metaphors of the New Right

    Jacob August Riis (1849-1914)
    Innovation and invention
    Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940)
    American urban crisis
    Sources referred to:

At the turn of the 20th century, Jacob Riis and Lewis Wickes Hine pioneered documentary photography in the USA. STANLEY MONICK discusses their powerful images, which shocked the nation and helped to push forward important social reform.

A previous article by Stanley Monick on the work of radical '30s photographers in conveying the reality of the Great Depression, a 'prequel' to the current article on the pioneers of documentary photography, appeared in the September 2000 edition of Socialism Today, issue No.50.

AN OUTMODED IDEOLOGY will assume an increasingly defensive posture, reflected in a new terminology. A classic example is the apartheid policies pursued by the former white South African government. Apartheid became redefined as 'separate development', its Bantustans as 'self-governing homelands'. (The non-white majority, of course, were under no illusions regarding the realities of Nationalist Party rule.)

In a similar manner, the heirs to the neo-liberal policies of Thatcherism and Reaganomics have almost simultaneously adopted an apologetic terminology in defence of their ruthless policies of aggressive individualism and social Darwinism. Tory leader, William Hague, has enthusiastically echoed the credo of 'compassionate conservatism' adumbrated by that standard bearer of right-wing conservatism in the USA, George W Bush. A feature of these policies is the concept of delegating welfare provision to charities and religious organisations: the new pretext for the state relinquishing its civilising obligation to protect the weak and vulnerable (the ultimate objective being, of course, to reduce the taxation burden of the affluent).


An astute correspondent in the Economist stated that there are numerous precedents for the application of such policies: eg in the Middle Ages and the Third World. The observation is especially germane to the theme of this article, which focuses on the work of two photographers who operated in the decades immediately preceding the first world war: Jacob Riis and Lewis Wickes Hine. Their images graphically capture the reality of the social policies advocated by the new right. Through the work of these photographers we become vividly aware of the terrible realities implicit in 'flexible labour markets' and 'market forces', especially with regard to housing. Their images shatter the myth of the American Dream so assiduously cultivated by the dominant WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite. They also point to the appalling future of deprivation and oppression, re-enacting the injustices implicit in classical liberalism which the new right has, of course, endeavoured to recreate in the form of neo-liberalism.

top     Jacob August Riis (1849-1914)

JACOB RIIS RECEIVED no training either as an artist or photographer. Born in Denmark, he emigrated to the US and worked as a carpenter. He eventually worked as a police reporter for the Tribune and was soon assigned to cover the Lower East Side of New York City - at that time one of the most overcrowded and dangerous regions of the country. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants had settled there in the quest for new lives. What they in fact encountered was a poverty trap, a 'behavioural sink' to use a term of modern sociology. Three quarters of the population of New York (America's largest city) lived cramped in odorous tenements. On a single acre of land there were no fewer than 522 houses, ravaged by typhoid fever and cholera, while the festering conditions of the slums engendered a steadily increasing death rate.


Riis's deep sense of empathy with its residents was based on his own personal experience. Initially unemployed and itinerant, on several occasions he was on the verge of committing suicide. He spent many nights in a shelter provided for the homeless. Riis was convinced that the main cause of the crime and mortality rates in the area was the inhuman living conditions which afflicted the residents.

When Riis's initial articles describing this squalid region were published, he was accused of exaggerating the indignities and squalor suffered by those who resided there. He then had recourse to the photograph, both as a means of documentation and as vindication of his written reportage. In 1888, the New York Sun published twelve line drawings translated from Riis's photographs, entitled Flashes from the Slums. Riis also converted his photographs to slides which he projected through what he termed his 'magic lantern' (a forerunner of the modern slide projector). The purpose of compiling these slides was to illustrate "as no mere description could, the misery and vice that he had noticed in his ten years of experience... and suggest the direction in which good might be done". (Children of the Poor, p3)

He then used these slides in impassioned lectures which were delivered in churches and schools. Through publication and lecturing, Riis hoped to arouse public support for the alleviation of the appalling social conditions in the Lower East Side. By 1890, a book containing his images had appeared, entitled How the Other Half Lives. The work furnished photographic evidence to the effect that as many as 15 people were forced to live in a single tiny room, that small children had to sleep on bare floors amidst rubbish, that hygiene was, obviously, sadly lacking, a breeding ground for disease.


The reaction to his work was both immediate and forceful. Public sentiment forced Theodore Roosevelt (the future US president, then president of New York's Board of Police Commissioners) to take action. The result was the first New York legislation designed to curb the worst evils of tenement housing. Certain sections of the city were razed and parks took their place whilst tenements were gradually replaced with improved housing. The central sector of the former slum area was rebuilt as the Mulberry Street Park, including the JA Riis Community House. This success did not dampen Riis's efforts. He continued to employ photography as a weapon against social indignity and exploitation, compounded by the lack of social reform.

Riis's photographs are direct and penetrating, revealing the sordid scenes that they depict with intense realism and immediacy. The environment in which Riis worked obviously presented great personal danger, the photographer's subjects being, understandably, latently suspicious. His second book, Children of the Poor, provides the reader with glimpses of his experiences: "Yet even from Hell's Kitchen had I not long before been driven forth with my camera by a band of angry women, who pelted me with brickbats and stones on my retreat, shouting at me never to come back?"

Riis operated in extremely dangerous environments, such as basements and alleys. The furtive, covert character of his modus operandi is vividly captured in the following passage: "A mysterious party has lately been startling the town o' nights. Somnolent policemen on the streets, tramps and bummers (beggars) in their so-called lodgings, and all the people of the wild and wonderful variety of New York night life have in their turn marvelled and been frightened by the phenomenon. What they saw was three or four figures in the gloom, a ghostly tripod, some weird and uncanny movement, a blinding flash, and they heard the patter of the retreating footsteps and the mysterious visitors were gone before they could collect their scattered thoughts and try to find out what it was all about" (Flashes from the Slums). The 'three or four figures' referred to were Riis, Henry G Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence (members of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York) and Dr John T Nagle of the Health Board.


top     Innovation and invention

IT IS IMPORTANT to bear in mind that Riis's photographic work was effected with equipment which was extremely primitive by modern standards. He did not have access to the accurate viewfinder facilitated by the single lens reflex camera, which was introduced during the first decade of the 20th century. A highly mobile 35mm camera was introduced only in 1924, in the form of the Leica. Moreover, roll film only appeared in the 1920s and Riis's images were recorded on large, cumbersome glass plates.

The 'blinding flash' quoted above alerts us to the primitive artificial light to which Riis had access. In the dark interiors in which he worked, the available light was often so poor that some form of illumination was essential, and his need was answered by Blitzlichtpulver (flashlight powder), invented in Germany in 1887 by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedelicke. The formula had been modified by Piffard as he found the German version to be extremely dangerous. The mixture was ignited in a metal tray. Because it burned instantaneously - in a flash - it was an improvement over the magnesium flare with its several seconds' duration. Nevertheless, the highly inflammable magnesium was extremely unstable and twice Riis almost caused major fires, once nearly blinding himself. The flash reveals with pitiless detail the sordid interiors but portrays almost tenderly the faces of those destined to live in them - hence the title, Flashes from the Slums.


Riis's work emphasises an important aspect of documentary photography: its unmanipulated, spontaneous character. The authenticity of his photographs - be they of urchins stealing in the street from a handcart or the inhabitants of an alley known as Bandit's Roost peering unselfconsciously at the camera from doorways and balconies - is their most powerful quality. The significance of these photographs lies not only in their power to inform but also to move us. In this respect, they project their creator's humanitarian impulse and sympathy with his subjects.

Ironically, Riis's abilities as a photographer were largely neglected during his working life. His reputation was founded, rather, upon his role as an educator and propagandist. The fact that the New York Sun's article, Flashes from the Slums, reproduced line drawings - as opposed to the original photographs - is symptomatic of the fact that, in the 1880s, facsimile reproductive techniques had not yet reached the point at which photographs could be printed in newspapers. (The first photograph reproduced by the halftone process - which enabled the contours and tones of a photograph to be accurately replicated in a newspaper - did, in fact, appear in 1880.) The column-wide drawings lacked conviction.

When How the Other Half Lives was published in 1890, 17 of the illustrations were halftones, but of poor quality, lacking sharpness and detail. The remaining 19 photographs were converted into drawings, some being signed 'Kenyon Fox, after the photograph'. As a result, Riis's great prowess as a photographer was not recognised until 1947 when Alexander Alland (himself a photographer) produced excellent enlargements from the original glass negatives which the Museum of the City of New York had acquired through his efforts. The exhibition held by the museum, and the subsequent republication of the finest prints in US Camera in 1948, recognised Riis's consummate skill as a photographer.


He was one of the first photographers to reveal how photography could perform the role of critic, public prosecutor and judge of social evils - a critic more powerful than the conscience of society. His photography activated that conscience. As is characteristic of politically motivated documentary photography, the key to their power is rooted in their subjective interpretation, reflecting the emotional involvement of their creator.

top     Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940)

IN THE FIRST two decades of the 20th century, Lewis Wickes Hine was producing a series of remarkable photographs, recording the arrival of immigrants in the US. Specialising in sociology at Columbia University, New York city, he found the camera a most useful tool for research and communication. He was greatly concerned with the plight of the underprivileged. In this respect, his work exemplifies a common motivation in the creators of documentary photographs in relation to social culture: a humanitarian impulse founded on sensitivity towards their subjects.

During the years preceding the outbreak of the first world war, Hine photographed the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island, New York, the entry point of hundreds of thousands. He then followed their path to the overcrowded, noisome and insanitary tenements which housed them and penetrated the miserable workplaces of sweated labour in which they were so ruthlessly exploited. This subjective approach focuses the unifying theme of the photographs, approximating to a photographic essay, underpinned and linked by a dramatically powerful criticism of the impact of an exploitative economic system on the lives of the underprivileged.


His training enabled him to comprehend instantly and effortlessly the background and social implications of the lives which he was documenting. This motivation engenders a unity or harmony in the diverse images which he projects. Thus, when he produced his 5x7 inch photographs of children working in factories, their diminutive size in relation to the machines (emphasising their being children) imports an unmistakable suggestion of ruthless, impersonal control, shaping the squalid lives of the underprivileged and defenceless recorded in his other images. The shaping subjective element in his work is underscored by the description of his work as 'photo-interpretation'. They were published in terms of the images being 'human documents': the photographs were not illustrations but rather interpretations.

In Hine's pictures the subjects usually stare directly at the lens. These frontal shots present a remarkable eye-to-eye communicative quality, enhanced by the environments and subjects: immigrants, child workers, newspaper vendors and numerous others are presented in their dingy lodgings, streets and workshops. The power of the photographs is rooted in their reality. Hine thus created the new pictorial aesthetic of documentary photography subsequently adopted by the famous documentarists of the Depression, exemplified in the work of Dorethea Lange, Walker Evans and others (see Socialism Today No.50, September 2000).

The reformist motive underpinning Hine's work resulted in his narrowing the focus of his subject matter to immigrant children in the workplace. During the early decades of the 20th century, US public consciousness was dominated by the child and, indeed, it remains the central feature in that consciousness to the present. For example, prohibitionists directed their anti-alcohol propaganda at its potential for destroying American family life, at the centre of which was the care of the child. Hine's exposure of the ruthless, inhuman exploitation of the immigrant child labour (the children being precluded from access to elementary education as the result of their parents' economic circumstances) powerfully captured the public imagination. Hine came into direct conflict with the industrialists who ingenuously defended their use of cheap labour by arguing that it was more beneficial for a small child to toil in the workplace than to be engaged in fruitless play.


Hine was appointed to work as an investigative reporter for the National Child Labour Committee (NCLC). In the ensuing years, he travelled the country, photographing children in mines, mills and in their homes. Hine adopted various ruses in order to gain access to these workplaces, where he would obviously be unwelcome if his true intentions were known. He was often thrown out or the youngest children ordered to remain hidden while he toured the premises. Occasionally, he reported to the site disguised as a labourer, his camera concealed in a lunch pail.

In 1916, a portfolio of Hine's work was published using the halftone process. It exerted a tremendous impact upon the public consciousness which was shocked by the conditions projected by Hine's images. New federal legislation soon followed, which encompassed rules relating to restrictions on child labour and improved facilities for public education. As a result of the work of the NCLC, in whose success the work of Lewis Hine was a key factor, far-reaching improvements in the lives of millions of Americans had been effected. The documentary photographs of Hine, in common with the work of Riis, embody an outstanding example of the successful exploitation of photography as a political weapon.

top     American urban crisis

BOTH HINE AND Riis highlighted the blight which later generations were to term the 'urban crisis', which persists to the present day throughout the world. The problem manifests itself in the development of slums, the source of the 'behavioural sink' which characterises the cultures of such areas. In the US, the problem dated back to the late 1840s when, to accommodate the immigrant influx into the eastern seaboard ports, landlords began to convert old mansions and warehouses into tenements and to crowd makeshift buildings together in the most congested regions. The problem was gravely aggravated during the last quarter of the 19th century. The immigrant influx had been hugely magnified as the result of railway development in Russia and Central Europe, facilitating a vast diaspora of oppressed peoples who now had access to exit ports in their own countries, a process greatly intensified by the advent of the steamship.


Conditions in US urban centres deteriorated still further with the invention in 1879 of the 'dumbbell tenement', a term which derives from the shape of the floor plan. These grim, insanitary barracks, five or six stories high, sheltering scores of families, were honeycombed with dark, tiny rooms, without daylight, air or drainage.

The pioneering work of Riis and Hine in the decades preceding the first world war has a multifaceted interest. In terms of photograph history, their images are of seminal importance, representing landmarks in the development of the photograph as a social document. In a broader, political sense they embody a terrible warning. They point to the awesome reality of the ideology of the new right: its credos of 'flexible labour policies', 'liberalisation' (ie non-regulation) of economic enterprises, and 'market forces' are concretised in the images captured by Riis and Hine.

The society which is reflected in their photographs realises the ideals of neo-liberalism. The sweated labour which features in Riis's visual documents have been transformed in form - the computer operated by part-time, poorly paid and preponderantly female labour replacing the steam iron and cigar-making machine - but the principle remains intact. The concept of child labour is anathema to modern society but the role of education as servant of the economy - with its implicit refutation of education's humanistic purpose - lies at the heart of Thatcherite and now Blairite education policy. The slum housing, the product of 'market forces', is surely returning as the result of successive governments' drive to privatise council housing.


The new right embodies policies which are fundamentally regressive and atavistic - seeking a return to the past. The espousal of 'Victorian values' so ardently advanced by Thatcher and her proteges since can only lead to a society which is reflected in the images of Riis and Hine.

top     Sources referred to:

Children of the Poor, Jacob A Riis, New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1892.

Flashes from the Slums, New York Sun, 17 February 1888.

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