Jacob August Riis (//; May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914) was a Danish-American social reformer, "muckraking" journalist and social documentary photographer. He contributed significantly to the cause of urban reform in America at the turn of the twentieth century. He is known for using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the impoverished in New York City; those impoverished New Yorkers were the subject of most of his prolific writings and photography. He endorsed the implementation of "model tenements" in New York with the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller. Additionally, as one of the most famous proponents of the newly practicable casual photography, he is considered one of the fathers of photography due to his very early adoption of flash in photography.
While living in New York, Riis experienced poverty and became a police reporter writing about the quality of life in the slums. He attempted to alleviate the bad living conditions of poor people by exposing their living conditions to the middle and upper classes.
The story resulted in the purchase by New York City of areas around the New Croton Reservoir, and may well have saved New Yorkers from an epidemic of cholera.
Riis tried hard to have the slums around Five Points demolished and replaced with a park. His writings resulted in the Drexel Committee investigation of unsafe tenements; this resulted in the Small Park Act of 1887. Riis was not invited to the eventual opening of the park on June 15, 1897, but went all the same, together with Lincoln Steffens. In the last speech, the street cleaning commissioner credited Riis for the park and led the public in giving him three cheers of "Hooray, Jacob Riis!" Other parks also were created, and Riis was popularly credited with them as well.
Riis wrote his autobiography, The Making of an American, in 1901. His daughter, Clara C. Riis, married Dr. William Clarence Fiske. His son, John Riis (1882–1946), served in Gifford Pinchot's new United States Forest Service from 1907 to 1913 as a ranger and forest supervisor on national forests in Utah, California and Oregon. He chronicled his time in the Forest Service in his 1937 book, Ranger Trails. Another son, Edward V. Riis, was appointed US Director of Public Information in Copenhagen toward the end of World War I; he spoke against antisemitism. A third son, Roger Williams Riis (1894–1953), was also a reporter and activist. In 1905, Jacob Riis's wife Elisabeth became ill and died. Riis remarried in 1907, and with his new wife, Mary Phillips, relocated to a farm in Barre, Massachusetts. Riis died at the farm on May 26, 1914. His second wife lived until 1967, continuing work on the farm, working on Wall Street and teaching classes at Columbia University. Riis's grave is marked by an unmarked granite boulder in Riverside Cemetery, in Barre, Massachusetts.
Riis's sincerity for social reform has seldom been questioned, but critics have questioned his right to interfere with the lives and choices of others. His audience comprised middle-class reformers, and critics say that he had no love for the traditional lifestyles of the people he portrayed. Stange (1989) argues that Riis "recoiled from workers and scientific racism.
Riis's sincerity for social reform has seldom been questioned, but critics have questioned his right to interfere with the lives and choices of others. His audience comprised middle-class reformers, and critics say that he had no love for the traditional lifestyles of the people he portrayed. Stange (1989) argues that Riis "recoiled from workers and working-class culture" and appealed primarily to the anxieties and fears of his middle-class audience. Swienty (2008) says, "Riis was quite impatient with most of his fellow immigrants; he was quick to judge and condemn those who failed to assimilate, and he did not refrain from expressing his contempt." Gurock (1981) says Riis was insensitive to the needs and fears of East European Jewish immigrants who flooded into New York at this time.
Libertarian economist Thomas Sowell (2001) argues that immigrants during Riis's time were typically willing to live in cramped, unpleasant circumstances as a deliberate short-term strategy that allowed them to save more than half their earnings t
Libertarian economist Thomas Sowell (2001) argues that immigrants during Riis's time were typically willing to live in cramped, unpleasant circumstances as a deliberate short-term strategy that allowed them to save more than half their earnings to help family members come to America, with every intention of relocating to more comfortable lodgings eventually. Many tenement renters physically resisted the well-intentioned relocation efforts of reformers like Riis, states Sowell, because other lodgings were too costly to allow for the high rate of savings possible in the tenements. Moreover, according to Sowell, Riis's own personal experiences were the rule rather than the exception during his era: like most immigrants and low-income persons, he lived in the tenements only temporarily before gradually earning more income and relocating to different lodgings.
Riis's depictions of various ethnic groups can be harsh. In Riis's books, according to some historians, "The Jews are nervous and inquisitive, the Orientals are sinister, the Italians are unsanitary."
Riis was also criticized for his depiction of African Americans. He was said to portray them as falsely happy with their lives in the "slums" of New York City. This criticism didn't come until much later after Riis had died. His writing was overlooked because his photography was so revolutionary in his early books.
Riis is honored together with Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on July 2.