Helen Levitt and Jacob Riis: Two Documentary Photographers

Helen Levitt and Jacob Riis: Two Documentary Photographers

Helen Levitt and Jacob Riis, two 20th century documentary photographers, captured photographs of the living conditions and everyday life struggles of immigrants and lower class families in New York City. Living in New York, they became fascinated with the everyday lifestyles of people around them, both having similar but different objectives.

Jacob Riis was born on May 3, 1849, to Niels Edward, a Latin teacher in Ribe, Denmark. [1] Riis was best known as a journalist and social reformer. He immigrated to the United States from Denmark in 1870, and arrived in America at the age of 21 with only $40 in his pocket. Born into poverty, Riis strived to improve the lives of those less fortunate. He knew what it was like to be homeless, hungry, and out of work. Riis became immersed in the crime-infested world, sleeping on cold filthy floors, and more than once he considered committing suicide. Riis also slept in railroad cars and graveyards with Danish immigrants. He struggled with poverty and homelessness. After years of extreme poverty and hardship he finally found employment as a police reporter for the New York Tribune in 1877. [6]

Riis spent the next ten years exploring the slums of the lower East Side. He was eager for fresh news in the slums, and saw how difficult life was for the people, so he exposed it to the rest of New York. Riis began by publishing magazine articles to inform the world of what he had seen, but they made no impression. In the 1880s his work gravitated towards reform and he worked with other New York reformers, fighting for better living conditions for the thousands of immigrants flocking to New York in search of new opportunities. [1] His first article was published in the New York newspaper, The Sun on February 12, 1888. He had a unique view of New York City that he wanted everyone to see. So, he started using the method of photography, hoping that it would make more of an impact than his articles did. [6] He was an immigrant, so he self identified himself with people in poverty at the time and knew no other way to reveal it other than photography.

(Figure 1)

Through his photography, he raised awareness and made a call to reform living conditions in the tenements. He wanted to take pictures of the living conditions inside of the tenements, but it was too dark inside the buildings to make successful photos. A few years later, magnesium flash powder was invented, which enabled him to capture details in any lighting condition. [6] The images Riis took, brought wealthy and middle class New Yorkers face to face with the reality most citizens tried to avoid. He went everywhere with his camera, capturing pictures of and revealing the dark, painful exterior of the lower east side such the people laying in the hallways in (figure 3). He was especially moved emotionally by the conditions of the young, who sold newspapers by day and slept in alleys by night as pictured below in (figure 2). Riis’ narrative work inspired many other photographers to explore documentary photography. His photography revealed the everyday horror and hardships the immigrants faced. [1]

(Figure 2)

(Figure 3)

Riis’ 1890 photograph titled, A Little Mother, (Figure 4), depicts a small girl sitting in the doorway of an old tenement building, holding a sleeping female toddler. The small girl, who appears to be 8 or 9 years of age, is grasping tightly onto the toddler, as she lays her head on her young sister’s. The older girl who is holding the baby, is making eye contact with the viewer, which allows the viewer to develop an idea of the stressful hopelessness and experience of the children. The use of eye contact forcefully draws the viewer deeper into the composition, revealing small hints of what the children’s lives may have consisted of, and the hardships faced everyday. The older girl has parted dark hair down the center, formed into two ponytails with white ribbons.

(A Little Mother, Figure 4)

She is also wearing a dress, white stockings, and black-laced boots. The toddler who is resting on her lap, in an upright position, is also wearing a plaid dress, with a white apron. The toddler’s arm is slouched over her sister’s arm, which is grasping her. The title suggests that the two children may be orphans, and the older girl may be raising her sister as her own. The photograph appears to be sentimental and disturbing. However, there seems to be part of a woman’s arm in the photograph, wearing a white dress. Judging by the dirty building and doors, and the fact that she is sitting on the cement, portrays the idea of poverty as well. Riis emphasizes the emotions of the children by allowing the light source to shine directly on them, defining their facial features and details in their clothing.

There are also other emotional photographs that Riis captured, such as his 1890 “In the Home of an Italian Rag-picker, Jersey Street” (figure 5). The photograph portrays a middle aged Italian woman holding her baby, which is wrapped in a blanket on her lap. The mother is sitting against a wall in her tenement house, wearing a white dress, surrounded by sacks, barrels, and buckets, assumed to belong to other families living there. Her head is slightly tilted to the right, as she stares off into space. The blank expression on her face, reveals that she may be fatigued and stressed as a single mother. The filthiness on the floor and walls makes the photograph disturbing and depressing, revealing evidence of the health hazards in their everyday living environment.

(Figure 5)

Riis’ photographs reveal the realistic side of society, capturing the imperfections of everyday life. Riis believed that moral citizens, regardless of their economic status, should be given a chance to improve their lives. Like Riis himself, given that chance, many could rise out of poverty and into the position of the middle class. In his photographs, Riis portrayed that every detail and subject should be captured, their abodes were dirty, and neighborhood streets had an increase in crime. [6] He searched for images that had a strong effect on his viewers, such as dirty children on the streets (figure 6) and men living in dumps and cellars. Riis's photographs also challenged Victorian notions of mothers and children. [6]

(Figure 6) (Figure 7)

Riis’ “On the Roof of the Mott Street Barracks”, depicts a mother with her five young children standing on a rooftop of a tenement. The woman is standing to the far left side of the photo, as her left arm leans against the wall. She is holding her young nude son on her right hip, as an older male child is standing nude in front of her. The child standing in front of her has his hands behind his back as he provides the viewer with a mannerly gesture. The mother’s other three children are standing on the far right side, dressed in clothing. The eldest son is standing with his hands down in front of him, dressed in overalls and a collar shirt. The remaining two daughters are standing behind the eldest, as the youngest daughter focuses her attention on the mother. None of the children are wearing shoes. The fact that two of the children are nude, and the other three are dressed, suggests an idea of division.

In others, children played out on the streets unattended as pictured below in (figure 8). Riis's photographs also challenged lifestyle within the home. In one photograph, a tenement family makes cigars at the table. In another, a man sits down to a solitary meal in a coal cellar. Riis often de-emphasized the individual in favor of the total setting. Accordingly, he photographed many of his subjects at a distance to show them in their squalid surroundings. It was not Riis's custom to provide the names of his subjects. Such commentary revealed Riis's own ambivalence to his subject matter. Riis's lack of experience as a photographer sometimes worked to his advantage. His blurred, half-lit images, such as figure 10, both fascinated and frightened his audiences. [1]

(Figure 8)

(Figure 9)

(Figure 10)

New York City, one of the wealthiest in the world, had become home to more than a million over worked and under nourished people, living in unspeakable conditions of horror. According to Riis, “one half of the world did not know how the other half lived. It didn’t want to know because it didn’t care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those underneath.” He believed that the system stripped the immigrants of their rights and tried to make prices of food and living higher, in order to keep them in the lower class. The economically challenging beginning of the 19th century caused an increase of three fourths of New York’s people to live in tenements. The 15,000 tenement houses that were the despair of the sanitarian, increased to 37,000. More than 1,200,000 people called them home. [6]

(Figure 11)

In addition to the living conditions, workers were held captive by poverty, and New York wage earners had nowhere else to live. There was no way out, and the system was the cause of public neglect. The government was greedy, and gave the immigrants no chance at striving in life. They had nothing, and were forced to make the best out of a bad bargain. The tenements were very old buildings, with crowded rooms, filthy yards, dark damp basements, leaking garrets, out houses, and stables converted into dwellings. A tenement is defined as a house occupied by three or more families living independently and doing their cooking on the premises. A picture of the tenements is displayed below in (figure 12). There were more than two families on a floor, so living and cooking were common in halls, stairways, yards, etc. There were also liquor stores and bars inside of the tenements, which had side doors for inmates to easily come and go. [6]

(Figure 12)

Usually, at least four families occupied each floor, and privacy consisted of two dark closets used as bedrooms. The living rooms were 10x12. Staircases were also dark in the center of the house, with no direct ventilation or sunlight. Each family was separated from others by partitions. There was also dirt and rain in the hallways. There were dark alleys shut in by high brick walls, and remained as cheerless as the lives they sheltered shown below in figure 13. [6] It was often cold in the winter, and children slept in boxes. Riis stated, “I took my camera and went up in the watershed photographing my evidence wherever I found it. Populous towns’ garbage sewered directly into our drinking water. I went to the doctors and asked how many days a vigorous cholera bacillus may live and multiply in running water. About seven, said they. My case was made.” [1]

(Figure 13)

In the summer, the heat was unbearable because they had no air. People were crowded into one room, as depicted below in (figure 15). There were houses in which eight children died in five months, mothers walked around in the streets attempting to give their children air. There was improper nutrition, and children along with their families worked at home sewing, or making cigars shown above in (figure 9). Child laborers worked seven days a week in factories and sweatshops. There were thousands of abandoned orphan children left to fend for themselves. There were no laws governing the tenement housing conditions. Tenements were life threatening, and there weren’t many bathrooms or plumbing, which made people more prone to diseases, sickness, and death. The gap between rich and poor increased. Inspired by the social distance between rich and poor, he started movements that changed living requirements, such as the New York State Tenement House Act of 1901 (86). [6]

(Figure 14)

(Figure 15)

The New York State Tenement House Act banned the construction of dark, poorly ventilated tenement buildings in the state of New York. The law required that new buildings must be built with outward-facing windows in every room, an open courtyard, indoor toilets and fire safeguards, as presented in figure 14 (Riis). His book, How the other Half Lives, depicted many needed reforms and made him famous. Jacob Riis's photography helped him document the lifestyle of the poor, and made him an important figure in the history of documentary photography. He truly showed how the other half lied and died. [6]

During the time of the Gilded Age, there was a huge disparity of wealth, and far more had less than those who had. Riis explored the lives of New York leagues during the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age seemed lovely and successful, but there were many problems of infrastructure, poverty, and politics within society. He was very successful in raising awareness of the Gilded Age and the problem of poverty through his photographs and writing techniques. His book, How The Other Half Lives, inspired him to discontinue his career as a police reporter and pursue a life consisted of writing and lecturing. [1] There was a relationship between poverty, living conditions, and social behavior. He took a stand against social norms, and exposed the problem. Unlike Riis’s intention to expose the treatment and living conditions of children and their families, Levitt exposed another side of society.

Helen Levitt was an American documentary photographer, born on August 31,1913 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Ray, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant, and her mother, May, was a bookkeeper. Levitt decided to drop out of high school in her senior year, to pursue art. At the time, she was indecisive as to what she wanted to pursue specifically, considering that she wasn’t very skilled in drawing. After weighing her options, she turned to photography as an alternative. Her first experiences with photography arose as she began to work for J. Florian Mitchell, a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx, who was also an associate of her mother’s. [5]

(Henri Cartier-Bresson, Figure 16)

(Walker Evans, Figure 17)

(Ben Shahn, Figure 18)

While Levitt worked for Mitchell, assisting with darkroom printing and development for six dollars a week, she acquired a serious interest for photography. Levitt first discovered her subject interest when she used a Voigtlander camera to photograph her mother’s friends. [5] Working for Mitchell also exposed to her to a variety of documentary photographers of the Film and Photo League, Henri Cartier-Bresson (Father of street photography), Walker Evans and Ben Shahn (Shown in figures 16-18). In 1935, Cartier-Bresson visited New York, and Levitt had the opportunity to meet him personally. From there, she began studying composition in paintings when visiting museums and galleries. In 1936, she bought a secondhand Leica, the same camera used by Cartier-Bresson. Two years after exploring with the Leica camera, she decided to show Evans her photographs of children playing in the streets and creating graffiti. [4]

(Figure 19)

(Figure 20)

After sharing her photographs with Evans, she assisted him with making prints for his exhibition and book, “American Photographs”. Evans and Cartier-Bresson both inspired Levitt, and their work contributed to her interest in capturing everyday life and action within the familiar environment of New York. Her work was first published by Fortune Magazine in July 1939. In 1940, her Halloween picture was accepted in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s department. In 1943, she also had her first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. A few years after working as a film editor, she was then hired to edit Luis Bunuel’s pro-American propaganda films. By 1949, Levitt was a full-time film editor and director. [5]

(Figure 21)

(Figure 22)

Levitt, along with her friends Edward Agee and Ms. Loeb, began filming “In The Street” in the mid 40s, which was released in 1952. “In The Street” was a 14-minute documentary about Spanish Harlem, related to her photographs of the everyday lives of children. In 1959, Levitt became known as one of the first photographers to work with color photography. However, in the 1960s, her apartment was burglarized, which resulted in a significant loss of her color photographs. After the burglary, Levitt decided to return to black and white photography. She returned to black and white photography after discovering that prints made at labs didn’t reveal the same quality as the previous ones. In the 1990s, Levitt discontinued producing her own black and white prints, due to sciatica, a condition caused by injury or pressure on the sciatic nerve in the leg. [4]

(Figure 23)

(Figure 24)

Sciatica made it difficult for Helen to stand for long periods of time and carry the Leica camera. As a result of being unable to carry her Leica, Levitt began working with a small automatic Contax. The Contax enabled easy transporting and allowed her to take photos of her subjects from a variety of different angles. The gradual change of lifestyle in New York neighborhoods impacted her photographs, and she often depicted subjects performing everyday activities. Levitt spent a majority of her career, photographing children who occupied the streets of Harlem and the Lower East Side during World War II. Even though her images were still, the interaction between the models created a sense of movement and drama. [5]

(Figure 25)

(Figure 26)

Helen Levitt’s photographs were not meant to tell a story. She took pictures in poor neighborhoods because the people in the streets were fully sociable and visually interesting. Levitt's photos did not consist of bizarre events. Most of them revealed the games and excitement of children, the everyday conversations of the working class, and the observant waiting of elders. Levitt also focused on the roles each group played in society. In addition to the roles, Levitt also photographed the inner lifestyle of children, and how they played a role in society and interacted. [3] Levitt wanted to also expose the society as a whole, and how people of all nationalities and social classes could come together as one, portrayed in (figure 21). What is extraordinary about the photographs is that the events that were being captured, were normal activities.