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From Riis to Lange

Jacob Riis a Danish immigrant born 1849, arrived in America aged twenty-one. He and his father August had nothing but the clothes on their backs and forty borrowed dollars. Jacob tried his hand a various jobs including metal worker, farm hand, bricklayer, carpenter and salesman. During this time, he had to endure hardships and witness injustices all around him.

Hard work and luck landed him a job as a journalist, eventually leading to a police reporter job for the New York tribune. Riis taught himself photography and used this new tool to shine a visual light on the desperate situation that many people were in.

New York at that time was undergoing a population explosion, people were being crammed into tenements that were barely fit for human habitation. Rooms were poorly lit with no plumbing and poor ventilation.

The density of the population was very high, two hundred and forty-six thousand per square mile. To put that into context, Belfast has a population of two hundred and eighty thousand. If Belfast had the same population density, it would translate to a population of Ten and a half million.

Urban poverty was rife, crime and mortality rates were extremely high, Homeless children where living on the streets like rats and sometimes even sleeping with them. Riis had a sense of social justice and used his position to highlight all these horrors with his 1890 book, How the other half lives.

The book was a shock to many New Yorkers and was an instrumental influence on the future president Roosevelt. Some of the worst tenements where closed and regulations where enforced. This was known as the progressive era and Riis was part of a movement of journalists and photographers known as muckrakers. His book is still highly influential today as a record of social documentary.

Street Arabs, How the other half lives, 1890, Jacob Riis

The photo looks to have been taken during a cloudy day, the light is very diffused, and the exposure is very even. His camera is low and parallel, this puts the viewer at the same level as the subjects creating a greater sense of empathy.

The image shows homeless children using a basement steam grate for warmth. This is a heart-breaking image that shows the kids resting on a stone-cold wall, behind bins in an alley and below the gutter along with the rats of the city. They are barefoot, so that they can feel the heat from the grate quicker. Two of the kids are asleep and the third one scratches his leg, to soothe the itch from the parasites that are living on him, his shorts are so badly ripped that his knee is exposed with a slither of a hem holding the cloth together. Their clothes are ripped and torn all over. The children are almost invisible blending in with the tones and textures of the bricks.

They were not invisible to Jacob Riis; this shows his humanity. He highlighted the type of life being lived by societies most vulnerable. The image was successful and stands the test of time. The viewer can still get the message today.

Bandits roost

This is 59 ½ Mulberry Street said to be the most crime ridden and dangerous areas of all of New York. It does look more of an alleyway than a street, maybe that’s where the ½ comes into it. The title of this image adds context, the word bandit associates the image with outlaws and crime. Jacob was very successful at pushing the narrative with this image.

There is a total of thirteen people, the focal point falls on the two main characters in the foreground and to the right of the image. The closest subject has the look of a poker player, he is better dressed than the rest with a three-piece suit and his hard Derby hat. A young-looking man who seems to be very familiar with his surroundings. The next gent is more dangerous looking with his shotgun’s mussel resting on the pavement. A more rugged man with a bushy beard and moustache.

The rest of the image is a collection of characters who are all looking at the camera except for one woman on the left who is ghosting. This tells me that the image is a long exposure and posed.

I use the word posed instead of staged because these people where already there and the scene is real enough, he would have had to do some negotiating in order to get a good image. There might not have been as many people when he arrived, but by the time he had setup his equipment everyone in the vicinity became involved.

Jacob was street wise and had away with people even in the roughest of areas. A taste of daily life can also be experienced within the image. Laundry is strung up between the tenements and the rickety steps leading into the houses do not look very safe. The pavement is uneven with a dark mass in the middle possibly a dead animal.

Geometric lines of the architecture and the pavement pulls the viewer in, allowing the discovery of more details within the scene. Like the man hiding behind the fence, the dead animal on the ground, the hats worn by the men and the wagon at the end of the alley.

Five Cents Lodging, Bayard Street, c. 1889

Seven grown men are visible in this image but there is probably more. This is typical of the overcrowded tenements, lots of people crammed into small rooms designed for two. There is very little light, no plumbing and poor ventilation.

All the available space has been taken up, a makeshift bunk in the corner of the room increases the floor space. The lodgers hang their meagre belongings from the ceilings and walls. Dirt and grime occupy every square inch of this room, with a thick layer of dust on the floor. A stench permeates the air. This is no home just a place to rest. The image has been taken at night, all the men in the image look exhausted.

Riis gained permission from the landlord if he did not report him to the authorities. Riis used a magnesium powdered flash to illuminate this dark space. This surprised some of his subjects and was a bit of risky thing to do considering the fire risk in such a confined space.

The image is successful in conveying the overcrowded and squalid conditions that many of the inhabitants of this part of New York found themselves in.

Dens of death 1888

Unlike Riis’s other images this one has no people in it. The image demonstrates the diabolical condition of these tenements. It’s one thing to say they were poorly built but seeing them is a different story. I’m sure that some of these buildings collapsed and lives were lost.

The image has been taken during the day in hard sunlight. The foreground is filled with tenements in very poor condition. The lines are disjointed creating a mishmash pattern, electricity poles emerge from the ground with lines delivering electricity. Some washing hangs between the tenements confirming that people are living in these shacks.

Lewis Hine, his mantra was to highlight injustices and to campaign for social, political and economic reform with a special interest in child labour. Hine had a variety of jobs before becoming a photographer, mostly unskilled. He studied at night school and got a major break when he met Frank Manny, a national leader of the progressive movement of which Hine himself would later become a member of.

Lewis travelled all over the USA exposing the use of child labour during the industrial revolution. He gained access to factories, coal mines and workplaces posing as a bible salesman or an industrial machine photographer. He would get the children in the shots by telling the employer that he was using them for scale against the industrial machines.

Hine would collect as much information as possible by taking meticulous notes including names, ages, job description and heights. Hine had the buttons of his coat measured so he could easily record the children’s sizes without being noticed. The data he collected would later help to put down sceptics about the authenticity of his images.

John Howell an Indianapolis news boy August 1908

This image is unusual for Hine as it shows the man at work, his method and equipment. I’m sure this was deliberate, Hine’s attention to detail was second to none. This image was taken as part of a five-week trip to the industrial Midwest, documenting child labour for the National child labour committee, with investigator Edward Clopper. Hine used a medium format press Graflex camera on a sturdy tripod, with a cable release to avoid camera shake.

This image was taken in direct sunlight, with the sun rising or setting. The date is August 8th, 1908. Sunrise was 4.49am and sunset was 18.50pm. According to Hine’s notes the boy started work at 6.00am and he was able to make up to 75 cents a day. With this information we can determine that this is around sunset. The end of a long day for this young worker.

A shallow depth of field has been used, with the focal plane on the boy and lamppost. The tones and textures along this plane are very rich and detailed. He must have stood still for a split second as there is some motion blur from the commuters on the street.

The boy himself tilts his head slightly probably to avoid sunlight in his eyes, he wears a baseball cap with a Coca Cola advertisement, his clothes are well worn and very grubby and the newspaper is massive compared to his small size.

The background is very busy with commuters going about their business, everyone in the image is wearing a hat. The type and condition of hat worn would indicate a person’s position in society. The hat industry was huge during the 18th and 19th century. The size of the sign in the background for the Danbury Hat company illustrates its position in the hat industry.

Comparing Hine’s work to Riis, Hine seems to have more artistic intent with composure, exposure and fine detail.

Girl in a Mill 1908

This is an image of a very young girl working in a textile factory. Hine is using the natural soft light from a large window as his main light source. This is a technique that he often uses. The shadows on her face are creating a Rembrandt pattern, with a small triangle on the girls’ face. The camera is low and parallel with the girl helping the viewer connect with her. A shallow depth of field is in effect with the focal plane on the subject. The girl fills the frame, the position of her arms and body forms a triangle.

Her dress is very pretty and is out of place in a factory setting, it looks more like a Sunday dress out of little house on the prairie. The dress is grubby, well-worn and tattered with some buttons missing. Her sleeves are rolled up, a platted ponytail is swept to the side with a pretty bow tied.

Her deadpan expression is timeless conveying her emotion of being a prisoner of a system that robs children of their childhood.

Breaker boys 1911

The three main subjects in this image where known as breaker boys. Their main task was to sit on a wooden grid over the top of fast-moving shoots filled with coal, they would separate slate and rock from the coal as it made its way from the shafts. This was a highly dangerous job paying eight cents an hour, death and loss of limbs where a common occurrence. The children were not allowed to wear gloves when sorting the coal. By the end of the day the tips of their fingers would be bleeding and raw. For these kids it was a living nightmare with bosses who did not care whether they lived or died.

The image looks like it has been taken at the entrance to the mine, with the main door opened. Natural light is flooding the foreground. The camera is low and parallel with the main subjects. A shallow depth of field is used focusing attention on the kids. This seems to be Hine’s style when photographing child labour. Adults are present in the image, only one of them can be seen the rest are standing. I’m not sure whether they were meant to be in the image or if it was cropped. I am guessing it’s not cropped. The details, tones, textures are very high, and the focus is pin sharp.

All the children in the image have very striking gazes. The child in the middle looks very proud of himself. He sits upright looking directly at the viewer with no expression on his face, but he has the eyes of a young movie star. The boy to his right also sits upright, his chin is up. He also is looking proud of himself, but his eyes have an element of sadness. The other boy in the image is very guarded with his arms folded, and a gaze that cuts to the heart of his emotions. I feel very sorry for him. I almost feel responsible for some reason and want to pluck him out of there. The work that these kids were subjected to makes the other child labour look very easy.

Child labour ended with the great depression, American adults were forced to take on low paid jobs that children did out of desperation. This era would herald a new era of social documentary photographers inspired by the work of Riis and Hine.

Hine would continue creating images around the working environment. These portraits would have a positive theme and would define his career.

Mechanic at Steam pump in electric powerhouse, Lewis Hine, 1920

This image shows Hine’s change in direction, with more of a creative intention. Man verses the machine, but the machine still needs the man to function. This type of image would come to define his style. Hine would create work portraits mostly male, with large scale industrial machines serving as a backdrop.

The subject in this image is posed, a spanner held at that angle would slip causing an injury. The spanner needs to be as parallel as possible to achieve maximum torque. Most people will be unaware of this and will accept the image as is. The position that Hine has put the subject in does imply motion.

There is a very strong hard light source at use here. I’m not sure whether its ambient or a strobe, I think it’s the latter. The exposure is perfect with deep blacks in the shadows and white highlights, and a whole range of greys in-between. They show the form and textures of the subject and the pump that he is working on. The depth of field is deeper than his work with child labour. This deeper depth of field gives the details a richer feel. Even the texture of the outer casing of the pump is visible. The focus does fall off at the far back, but it does not matter as there is not much detail there.

The composition of this image does follow a Golden spiral configuration showing his mastery of the craft. Hine himself called this ‘Interpretative Photography’ and would later refer to it as ‘Industrial design.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange was a successful portrait photographer in her own right. Her first taste of social documentary photography began when she started photographing native American Indians, and the labour strikes in her own area of San Francisco. She would go on to Document the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl for the FSA (Farm Security Administration) capturing images of the hardships that Americans of the mid-west found themselves in.

Three families 14 children, November 1938, San Joaquin Valley, Doretha Lange

This image is very poignant, a make ship camp has been made underneath a billboard. These families are using the billboards struts to put up their shelter, a temporary stop as they try to make their way to greener pastures. The advertisement on the billboard represents the American dream. The people below travel through a drought ridden failed state, an American nightmare for them. The juxtaposition could not be starker. ­

The main focal point of the image is the boy’s face on the advertisement. The caption reads ‘travel while you sleep’. It is very ironic here, as these migrants won’t get much sleep when they are travelling. The ground is dry and barren, some tuffs of grass here and there but that’s it. One kid plays on as kids do, even in the toughest of environments. At least they have some food, adults seem to be setting a table, and another prepares a meal. Two of the children are directly below the boy’s cartoon head, they stare directly at the viewer. I think the image is more about these two kids and the environment around them.

White angel breadline 1933

This was Dorothea’s first taste of documentary photography. She was used to taking portraits of wealthy clients and felt that it was a stark contrast to the reality outside her studio. The image shows an old man who has turned his back on the rest of the hungry men. They are eagerly waiting to be fed at a soup kitchen.

The old man wears his well-trimmed white beard with some dignity. His old ragged hat has seen better days, but it still serves a purpose. He looks sad and without hope. He might be pretending to himself that he’s at a saloon waiting to be served a cool Beer or some Bourbon.

The image has been taken at an elevated height with the subject off centre. A shadow from his hat hides his eyes. His hat and face provide some contrast to the mostly dark tones in the image. The wood at the bottom zig zags to the old man’s clasping hands as he huddles his empty soup cup. Dorothea’s first stint into this realm was very successful. I’m sure that it played a big part in her decision to leave her portrait work behind in favour of social documentary photography.

Migrant Mother 1936

When documenting the great depression for the FSA (Farm Security Administration) Dorothea had driven past this camp before deciding to turn back and investigate, her good instincts would pay off. She was attracted to one mother (Florence Owens Thompson) and her six children. They were starving eating frozen peas and dead birds that the children had killed. Florence had already sold the tyres of her car to feed the kids. The pea crops had failed, they had no work, no food and no hope.

The image itself is posed, Dorothea said that they were very cooperative. Almost like they knew that this would result in some sort of help. Even though its posed, the look of desperation on Florence’s face is real enough. Her gaze looks away worried and wondering where their next meal would come from. The children seek comfort from their mother as they rest their small heads on mums’ shoulder. A small baby at the bottom of the image is almost lost in the scene.

The light is very diffused, a deep depth of field is used. The whole image is sharp from the foreground to the stitching at the back of the tent. Framing is tight with Florence’s face being the main focal point.

Dorothea’s ability to capture raw emotion even after posing a subject is uncanny, her hard work here resulted in the delivery of twenty thousand pounds of food aid for the camp. The camp must have been a lot bigger. Dorothea did not feel the need to photograph anyone else as she felt she had completed her assignment. This is probably her best-known image and one of the most iconic images of the Great depression and the Dust Bowl.

Mochida Family 8th May 1942

The Mochida family await a bus that will take them to an internment camp. After the Japanese attack on Perl Harbour the American government felt the need to remove all Japanese Americans from sensitive areas. President Roosevelt issued Executive order 9066 enabling them to incarcerate whole families of Japanese origin, many of them American citizens by birth. In the land of the free and home of the brave, the American Government socially and physically removed these people from society. Many of whom lost their jobs, homes and businesses.

The image itself is a formal portrait, constructed with the smallest members at the front and the children nested between the mother and father. The natural light is diffused with no hard shadows and the trees in the background gives some contrast to the group. The focal plane is on the family with all members in focus and sharp.

The father of the family stands tall and proud of his large family, who are well dressed and don’t look poor. The children seem to be a lot more worried and sensitive to what is taking place. This would be their last taste of freedom for three years. An identity tag hangs around their necks as they have been reduced to human luggage just like their bags.

This was an assignment that Dorothea did not enjoy, she did treat these people with respect and dignity. At the end of the war they were given twenty-five dollars and a bus ticket. In 1988 President Ronald Regan sign the Civil Liberties Act, apologizing for their treatment and issued the survivors with Twenty Thousand Dollars as compensation.

An interesting footnote George Takei, Sulu from Star Trek was among the internees.


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Stamp, J. (2014). Pioneering Social Reformer Jacob Riis Revealed “How The Other Half Lives” in America. [online] Smithsonian. Available at:

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Lange, D. (2010). Daring to look : Dorothea Lange’s photographs & reports from the fields. Chicago: Chicago Unviversity Press.

Panzer, M. and Lewis Wickes Hine (2002). Lewis Hine. London: Phaidon.

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Why I love a country that once betrayed me | George Takei. (2014). YouTube. Available at:

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