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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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Top Customer Reviews
At age 21, Riis migrated to America where his struggle to survive in the streets of New York City motivated his lifelong efforts at reforming that city's tenement slums and helping those who lived in them.
The Riis photographs that are included in the book capture the plight of the tenement dweller but are also works of art. Riis is the father of photojournalism, and the photographs are a wonderful record of his work. I particularly enjoyed the chapter that described Riis searching through the slums at midnight for photography subjects and using primitive flash equipment to get candid shots of the tenement dwellers.
Tom Buk-Swienty, the author, apparently wrote this book in Danish. Some translations are an awkward chore to read. This translation by Annette Buk-Swienty is a wonderfully crafted English rendering.
I highly recommend this biography of Jacob Riis.
Riis has unusual drive. He survives unemployment, hunger, cold, loneliness and unrequited love. There is background about his childhood that predicts that he will be a sensitive adult, so it is not surprising that he relates to the poor and can tell their stories.
Riis has tenacity not only in work (he is diligent in all his careers from planing doors to selling irons to practicing journalism in English, (a foreign language to him) but also love. He carries a torch for his first love in Denmark for 12 years.
One interesting aspect of his life was his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt. It would be strange in these times to have a Police Commissioner so reliant on a reporter for advice. Another is the character of Elizabeth who must have been very flexible in spirit. Her pictures show her retaining her youthful appearance, which was rare for the times. She was raised in a castle, hardly preparation for the adult life she chose.
Most of the life and actions are presented with some analysis but a few need more treatment. There is a good discussion of whether or not its fair to accuse Riis of ethnic prejudice. There isn't much known about why Riis' hometown more or less snubbed him, but author explores possibilities. The author says nothing, however, about relocating the Mulberry Bend tenants (landlords were paid $1.5 million). If they were left to fend for themselves, it should have been noted. Similarly the author says nothing about why Riis seemed to separate from his grown children.
Pertinant photos introduce the chapters, but the reader needs to flip forward to see what they are about. There are two sections of glossies, and they are labeled.
Overall, the book succeeds in telling the story of Jacob Riis.