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The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America Hardcover
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From The New Yorker
Jacob Riis, an ambitious carpenter from a rural town in Denmark who became famous for his photojournalistic expos� of the squalor of Manhattan�s tenements, abandoned his homeland after being spurned by a local beauty, and spent several years as a tramp and itinerant worker in Buffalo and western Pennsylvania. This biography vividly captures that time, during which Riis was constantly on the verge of exhaustion and destitution. His experience of poverty shaped his later attempts to humanize it, in the stark images and text of his seminal book �How the Other Half Lives.� Buk-Swienty esteems his subject without idolizing him, noting that Riis sought to improve the living conditions of the poor in part to stave off anarchy and a Communist revolution.
Beyond his famous photographs of slums, Jacob Riis (1849–1914) may be a cipher to students of American social reform. They aren’t responsible: no Riis biography has been published for decades, and never one as thorough as this. Written by a Danish journalist, the biography capitalizes on Riis’ extensive writings as well as on the background of the book that made Riis famous, How the Other Half Lives (1890). Before the publication of that book, however, Riis’ life was a descent from a middle-class household to hand-to-mouth vagrancy, lacerated by unrequited love from which he fled by immigrating to America. From Riis’ nadir of a contemplated suicide, Buk-Swienty chronicles Riis’ perseverance and luck, which placed him on a journalistic road to success as well as a fairy tale–like return to his one true love, Elisabeth Giørtz. Following the now-established Riis on his prowls around New York City as a police reporter, Buk-Swienty imparts the squalor of streets and tenements that Riis eventually exposed in his photographs. Many of the latter illustrate this much-needed portrait. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Author and journalist Tom Buk-Swienty provides a much needed and updated biography of this once well-known crusading "social" photographer. A fellow Dane, the author currently resides in Ribe, the small Danish town in which Riis himself was born and grew to manhood. Fittingly, Buk-Swienty begins his biography in this quaint medieval town, exploring how its timeless village life and mores shaped the man Riis was later to become. In this setting, too, he examines the principal reason why Riis immigrated to America: to escape a failed romance with the woman of his dreams.
In the US, Riis struggled to earn a living. He worked a variety of odd jobs, lived in homeless shelters, and even reached a point of near starvation. Buk-Swienty highlights how this precarious existence led Riis to a lifetime of social activism on behalf of his fellow poor and marginalized immigrants in late nineteenth-century New York City. The turning-point in Riis's life came in 1870, when he landed a job as a low-paid journalist at one of the city's daily newspapers. Riis went on to earn a name for himself (and a handsome salary) as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. He even married the woman who had spurned his earlier romantic overtures!
Nevertheless, Riis spent much of his free time exploring the new medium of photography and how it could be use for the "social uplift" (i.e., the socioeconomic improvement) of the lives of the million or so immigrants who crowded New York City's dilapidated and over-crowded tenements. Armed with the newly developed "flash" unit, Riis was able to penetrate the darkest corners of New York City's wretched slums, especially that of Mulberry Street, and thus chronicle the lives of the urban poor. In the late 1880s, Riis began his famous "magic lantern" slide show to horrified middle-class audiences, who in turn demanded sweeping urban renewal from complacent and often corrupt politicians. Beginning in 1890, moreover, Riis wrote a series of books, replete with powerful photographs, depicting "how the other half" of America lives. These works created a decades-long "fire storm" of urban renewal and reform across America. This notoriety also transformed the crusading photo-journalist into an instant celebrity. Nonetheless, Riis never lost sight of his ultimate "American Dream": the dramatic improvement in the daily lives, working conditions, and living standards of America's urban poor. In fact, Riis fell ill from heart complications while on the lecture circuit and died shortly thereafter at only age 65. Tom Buk-Swienty's biography, complete with some of Riis's most famous photographs, is a fitting tribute to this selfless and tireless social activist, who, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, was truly the "ideal American."