March 3, 2016 Exhibition on Jacob Riis, Pioneering Photographer, Journalist and Social Reformer, Opens April 14

Press Contact: Donna Urschel (202) 707-1639
Public Contact: Cheryl Regan (202) 707-3610; Barbara Bair (202) 707-1097
Website: Jacob Riis: Revealing "How the Other Half Lives"

The life of Jacob Riis, a late-19th/early-20th century newspaper reporter and writer, whose stories and photographs of the squalid conditions in New York City’s tenements led to social reform, will be explored in a new Library of Congress exhibition.

“Jacob Riis: Revealing ‘How the Other Half Lives’” will open on Thursday, April 14 in the South Gallery on the second level of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C. The exhibition is free and open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It closes on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016.

The exhibition is a co-presentation of the Library of Congress and the Museum of the City of New York. It combines items from the Library’s Jacob A. Riis Papers and the museum’s Jacob A. Riis Collection of photographs. Currently, the exhibition, under the title “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half,” is on display until March 20 at the Museum of the City of New York.

Riis is one of the first to use innovations in documentary photography to great effect. He experimented with new techniques of flash photography and created rare images of tenement interiors, as well as outdoor photos of street and city life. He used these pictures as a compelling complement to his written words. Although he was well aware of the power of photography, he did not consider himself a photographer.

The Library’s exhibition repositions Riis as he saw himself—a highly skilled communicator who devoted his life to writing articles and books, delivering lectures nationwide and doggedly advocating for social change. He brought attention to the crises in housing, education, crime and poverty that arose at the height of European immigration to New York City in the late-19th century. His crusading journalism led to safer water, better housing, the creation of parks in New York City and other reforms.

On display will be correspondence, including three letters from Theodore Roosevelt and one to Booker T. Washington; photographs; fire insurance maps that help show the locations of Riis’ photographs; drafts and published works; lecture notes; reviews of his lectures; family correspondence and family photographs; appointment books; and journal entries. The exhibition also will feature a lantern-slide projector and camera equipment similar to those Riis used—a Blair Hawkeye Detective camera (7 inches by 17 inches by 13 inches), a glass-plate holder and a flash pan. An online version of the exhibition will be available on the opening date at

Jacob August Riis was born May 3, 1849 in Ribe, Denmark. The son of a schoolmaster, he was educated locally, leaving school for work at age 15. He immigrated to the United States in 1870. The New York Tribune hired him as a police reporter in 1877, and he wrote about crime and disease, documenting life in the tenements. In 1888, he started working for the New York Evening Sun and started taking photographs, using a new German innovation, flash photography. It was a novel idea at the time to use photographs to substantiate words. The wretched living and working conditions of New York’s immigrant communities were made vivid by the harrowing images, which were meant to spur his audiences to act. His career as a reformer took shape. He worked at the Sun until 1899. From the 1890s to 1910, he wrote many magazine articles and nine books and lectured nationwide. He died on May 26, 1914.

The exhibition has a companion volume, “Jacob Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half,” written by Bonnie Yochelson, who spent more than two decades researching Riis and assembling materials. The 336-page hardcover book, published by Yale University Press in association with the Library of Congress and the Museum of the City of New York, is the first comprehensive study and complete catalogue of Riis’ images. The book contains more than 600 images and is available for $65 in the Library of Congress Shop in the Thomas Jefferson Building. Credit-card orders are taken at (888) 682-3557 or

The exhibition and its programming at the Library of Congress are made possible through the generous support from the Library of Congress Third Century Fund; Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrik’s Foundation; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Danish Ministry of Culture, and the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces; the Royal Danish Embassy; and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Later this year, other versions of the exhibition—combining Library of Congress and Museum of the City of New York resources with additional Riis-related objects—will be presented in Denmark. The first will be at the Kunstforeningen GL Strand museum in Copenhagen from Oct. 1, 2016 to Jan. 8, 2017, and the second at the Ribe Kunstmuseum in Riis’s home town of Ribe, Denmark, from Jan. 21, 2017 to May 14, 2017.

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress acquired the Jacob A. Riis Papers in the early 1950s as a gift of Riis’ second wife and widow, Mary Phillips Riis (1877-1967), who was a longtime social welfare advocate and board member of the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement in New York. Additions have been made by generations of the Riis family, including Jacob Riis Owre, Ruth Riis Jones, Oscar T. Owre and Martha Riis Moore. The Manuscript Division also holds the papers of Jacob Riis’s son, Roger William Riis (1894-1953), an author and editor. That collection contains family correspondence and other materials gifted by Riis family members Jacob Riis Owre and Martha Riis Moore.

The Library’s Manuscript Division holds more than 70 million items, including the papers of 23 U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. For more information about the collections and holdings of the Manuscript Division, visit

The Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, holds more than 162 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. The Library serves the U.S. Congress and the nation both on-site in its reading rooms on Capitol Hill and through its website at


PR 16-048
ISSN 0731-3527