Riis was born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1849, into a large family headed by his father, a school teacher. He became apprenticed as a carpenter, but in 1870, having been disappointed in love, and frustrated by local job opportunities, he emigrated to the United States. Life for Riis as an immigrant was tough. He moved around from place to place, often without money, looking for work. For a while, he achieved some stability jobbing as a carpenter among the Scandinavian communities in Western Philadelphia. He also had a successful turn as a salesman selling flatirons and fluting irons, but then found himself cheated out of his savings. Eventually, he chanced on a trainee position for the New York News Association which led to him being made editor of a weekly newspaper.
In 1876, Riis lost his job; and he went back to Denmark where he married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth, before returning to New York. They would have three children. Riis tried out several jobs before being offered a position as police reporter on the New York Tribune, work which took him into the most crime-ridden and impoverished streets of the city, particularly the infamous Mulberry Bend area. He became appalled by the abject living conditions, those which he saw around him, and which he himself had experienced. He worked at the Tribune until 1888, reporting often on the slum conditions; and although, subsequently, he took a position with the Evening Sun, he soon left journalism to become more of a full-time campaigner for social reform, to improve the lives of the poor.
As a police reporter, Riis had started to use camera images, taken by himself or by others under his supervision, to prove the truth of his words, to provide incontrovertible evidence of the existence of, for example, vagrant children, squalid housing and the disgraceful conditions in the tenements. But in the late 1880s, he began to experiment with the use of flashlight powder - a technique that was still very much in its infancy - which allowed him to take pictures of the interiors of shoddy housing, and of extreme poverty. These photographs shocked the New York middle and upper classes.
In 1890, Riis wrote the first and most influential of his published works: How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. This consisted of 25 chapters of reportage based on his own personal investigation, and 40 plates, 17 of which were direct halftone reproductions of photographs - which, despite their poor quality, proved more persuasive than any illustrations that had gone before. How the Other Half Lives has its own Wikipedia page, and the full text and photographs are widely available online, at Internet Archive, Bartleby and Authentic History.
Naomi Rosenblum, in her impressive tome A World History of Photography, explains Riis’s importance: ‘Before 1890, tracts on social problems in the United States had been largely religious in nature, stressing “redemption of the erring and sinful.” Such works usually were illustrated with engravings that at times acknowledged a photographic source and at others gave the artistic imagination free reign. After the appearance of How The Other Half Lives, however, photographic “evidence” became the rule for publications dealing with social problems even though the texts might still consider poverty to be the result of moral inadequacy rather than economic laws.’
The New York Public Library holds an extensive archive of Riis’s papers, which, it says, includes diaries that ‘cover Riis’s early years in the U.S. as well as his later business and personal affairs’. It gives further details, as follows: ‘Riis’s pocket diaries (2 volumes) for the years 1871-1875 were written almost exclusively in Danish and document his early years in the United States and his search for employment. One English entry in August of 1875 records Riis’s purchase of the South Brooklyn News for six hundred dollars. Six memorandum books kept by Riis in 1882-1902 include research notes, lecture schedules, business and personal expenses, and travel notes from a trip to England in 1893.’
A slightly earlier biography in Danish by Tom Buk-Swienty was first published in Denmark in 2005. This was then translated into English by Tom’s wife Annette Buk-Swienty for publication in the US by W W Norton in 2007 as The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America. For informative reviews of this book see Barnes and Noble, Kirkus, and Robert Siegel’s article on the NPR website.
In the latter, Siegel says: ‘Buk-Swienty studied Riis’ diaries and says he found the moment when the Danish carpenter, not yet a reporter, became an American, mentally. He says it happened when Riis learned that the girl back home, the one he had been pining for, had gotten engaged to a Danish military hero. “He was shocked,” Buk-Swienty says. “That came for him as a total surprise, and his world, you could say, went dark for a few days.” Riis wrote about his sorrow in Danish, but a few days later, he began to write his diary in English. “It’s very remarkable,” Buk-Swienty says. “You can see that something is changing in this man.”