One has often heard the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” When a person looks at a picture, it could take them back to their past or it could take them to a place they have never been. Photographs have the ability to describe scenes in a way that words cannot. One branch of photography, documentary photography, is particularly good at stepping in when words fail. Documentary photography was first introduced in the twentieth century when pictures were first used as a visual language. The two most stand-out photographers of the twentieth century were Jacob Riis and Mary Ellen Mark. Although they photographed different decades and social issues, their work brought light key historical moments of that time.
Jacob Riis was born in Denmark on May 3, 1849. He was one of fifteen children to Niels Edward Riis, a schoolteacher, and Carolina Riis. Growing up, his biggest influencer was his father who encouraged him to read and learn English. Although his father wished for him to become a teacher, Riis chose carpentry and moved to Copenhagen to pursue an apprenticeship. At the age of 19, he moved back to his hometown but was faced with a lack of work. Discouraged by this, Riis decided to immigrate to the United States.
Riis migrated to America in 1870 when he was 21. He arrived at a time where the country was facing a vast number of immigrants during a time of social turmoil after the Civil War. As more and more people immigrated to urban areas, cities became more heterogeneous due to the large ethnic enclaves. Riis lived in numerous poor houses with other immigrants. The conditions of those poor houses were so ghastly and overcrowded that Riis dedicated himself to shutting them down.
After moving to America, Riis held numerous careers. Although he came to America wanting to be a carpenter, he became a police reporter in 1873 for the New York Evening Sun newspaper. After that job, he became a police reporter for various other newspapers in the area. As a police reporter, he worked in impoverished slums of the city. Through his own experiences in poor-houses and witnessing the scenes in the slums, he decided to make a difference for those who had no voice. Pioneering the concept of an investigator journalist, he went undercover working at a meat packing factory. There, he noted the poor working conditions of the employees.
Riis began taking photographs in 1888 after magnesium flash powder was invented. Using this invention, he was able to take pictures of scenes with little light. He was able to capture the hardships of the poor and bring to light the difficulties they faced everyday. He first began showing his work as lantern slides as part of lectures that were presented as entertainment, however, he also published his work in a book called How the Other Half Lives. The book was published in 1890 and it became an international sensation. His writing coupled with his photographs made a powerful statement of...