Photograh Comparison: Living Conditions, ca. 1910


Family in room in tenement house, 1910
Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York.

Turn-of the century social reformers relied upon a variety of methods to draw attention to the problems of poverty in the United States. Jane Adams and Ellen Gates Starr of Hull House in Chicago, Illinois helped collect data that documented the living and working conditions for immigrants in the city; and Father John A. Ryan used facts and figures to illustrate the economic disparity between classes and what he saw as the moral harm wrought by materialism and consumerism. In the late nineteenth century Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, introduced another very effective way of fostering concern for the immigrants in New York City. He presented the problem of poverty in stark black and white photography and wood engravings made from photographs. In 1887 he began publishing photographs of the conditions in the tenements and slums in order to awaken middle-class Americans to the need for social reform. Then in 1890, he received national attention for his work in the tenements and slums of New York City when he published How the Other Half Lives. Through text and illustrations, engravings and photographs, he brought the plight of the poor to the attention of middle- and upper-class Americans.



"Cornelia Stewart's Bedroom" Courtesy of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

Riis's concern with the poor stemmed, in part, from his own experiences. After immigrating to the United States in 1870, at the age of 21, he lived in the tenements and slums as he struggled for seven years to earn a living in New York City. In 1877, he began working as a police reporter for a local newspaper. His work often took him back into the filthy streets and dark and overcrowded tenements of the city. He began using his position as a reporter to draw attention to the problems of the poor and stress the need for change. Although an effective writer, he understood the power of images to awaken people to the stark reality of the lives of the poor and of the need for social reform. After leaving the newspaper, he devoted his time to writing, lecturing, and giving slide presentations of life in the slums.

The juxtaposing of these two contrasting images is patterned after Riis's work. To the right is Riis's photograph, "The Tenement," and beneath it is the bedroom of Cornelia Stewart, the wife of A.T. Stewart of Stewart's Department Store. While these images demonstrate the disparity between the classes, like Ryan and Adams, Riis's objective was to motivate people to work for change. His style was to lay, side by side photographs of filthy alleyways (the problem) and children's playgrounds (the solution).

As you study the photographs, consider the following questions:



  • How do these photographs affect you? How does looking at these photographs affect you? Were they current, would they move you to action?
  • Does either bedroom meet Fr. Ryan's definition of "reasonable and frugal comfort"?
  • How might either room hinder the living of a Christian life?