New attention being paid to Jacob Riis

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Today one of the last Bowery flophouses leans up against the futuristic steel facade of the New Museum, and a bed at the Bowery Hotel can run $750 a night. After such gentrification, it can be difficult to conjure up the squalid New York that Jacob Riis documented in his groundbreaking 1889 work of photojournalism, “How the Other Half Lives.” Riis was well aware that the “other half” in New York City had become the other three-quarters, with 1.2 million impoverished New Yorkers living in slums, 19th-century tenements that were a public health catastrophe, rife with typhus, diarrhea, cholera and tuberculosis. Employing unsentimental storytelling, reportage, social statistics and the latest advances in flash photography, Riis shed a stark light on the horrific living conditions of New York’s vast population of poor immigrants.

In “Rediscovering Jacob Riis,” Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom have undertaken a rigorous, scholarly re-examination of Riis’s life and work. While Czitrom, a historian at Mount Holyoke College, places Riis in the context of other 19th-century social crusaders, Yochelson, a former photo curator at the Museum of the City of New York, offers a more critical assessment; she re-evaluates Riis’s photography and questions the mythos that surrounds him.

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