Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half

This show recounts the story of Jacob Riis, from the time of his arrival in the United States to his increasing fame as a social reformer. His method of journalistic photography coupled with lanternslide lectures was tremendously successful, even though the images and the slides themselves are quite small in scale. In order to present Riis foremost as a social reformer, not a photographer, there are no framed photos. We present them as they really are, not works of art, but rather careful documents of the human condition. The poignancy of these small images comes through as they are held forward individually on mounts instead of being rarified in framing.

“The battle with the slum began the day civilization recognized in it her enemy,” Riis wrote. “It was a losing fight until conscience joined forces with fear and self-interest against it.” The show aims to inspire visitors to move beyond passive learning to action.


The architectural vocabulary of the materials depicts simplicity, but the forms are dynamic. Therefore, powerful imagery made from a clear and consistent, though very modest, set of materials creates the overriding message. Visitor engagement is higher due to the use of a dark backdrop to the monochrome photos and books, which make them seem more colorful, bright, and engaging.


By dividing the space available into distinct sections, the visitor is lead through a very large quantity of artifacts (over 400) in a way that can be independently explored, while allowing the curatorial message of the enormities of the problem to come through. The reduced material palette, black backdrop and stained pine throughout, minimized visual clutter, drawing attention to the small-scale images and reducing the antique quality of the objects. Furthermore, the dynamic sculptural form of the cases draws visitors along through the illusions of perspective, especially in the artifact area, which is made of incremental units of wood joists.