THE OTHER HALF – Jacob Riis Activist Photography at FOAM, Amsterdam

FOAM, the Amsterdam museum of photography, consists of two Amsterdam canal houses. Behind the original facades, the houses are now connected. This makes for a sprawling museum, able to host several concurrent photo exhibitions. Among these this first exhibition of work by Jacob Riis in the Netherlands.

Jacob Riis left Denmark for America in 1870. Like all migrants, he arrived in the country dreaming of a better life. Like so many, stories about migrants rising from rags to riches, may have enticed him.

Once in New York, reality kicked in. Like many immigrants, Jacob Riis ended up living among the poorest of the poor, in New York’s slums. Rags to riches proved to be an exception, a dream. The majority of people were forced to live and die in these slums, under appalling conditions. Life was short, brutal and spent in dismal poverty.

After doing odd jobs and barely surviving, Riis finally managed to land a job as a trainee reporter. He worked for various papers, finally landing a job as police reporter. His office was in New York’s Lower East Side slums.

Witnessing horrors on a daily basis, Riis decided to try improve living conditions of the poor. By then, newspapers started to employ photographers and Riis paid two to accompany him. He became a socially engaged journalist; his photographers quit. So Jacob Riis taught himself to take photos.

Bent on improving living conditions in the slums, he started giving lectures, using his photos to show better-off New Yorkers what they could not, would not see. These lectures became a success. Riis ended up befriending influential, wealthy people like Carnegie and Roosevelt.

Soon, Jacob Riis started writing books which included his photos. One of his successful books was called ‘How the other half lives’. It is this exhibition’s title. As the exhibition shows, ups and downs followed. Yet in the end, Riis realized a dream. He became one of the exceptions who made it, from rags to riches.

At FOAM, in rooms containing period details and where once wealthy owners dwelt, visitors are introduced to a selection of Riis photos. Copies of his books and even a recorded lecture, presented to visitors the way Riis used to do, complete this small, moving exhibition.

The rooms are crowded. The photos small. A few have been enlarged, decorating a hallway. Some are clearly deteriorating or not sharp.

Yet they record horrors and most visitors file past these in silence. Here are people, actually having to pay to sleep sitting in rickety chairs, slumped with heads resting on tables. Imagine having to pay, for laying your weary head down on a table for a few hours of sleep.

There are crowds of orphans, kids working, children captured huddling together trying to remain warm while sleeping on metro vents. Other photos capture what Dickens dubbed ‘mud larks’, scavenging under bridges. Some show mass burials taking place in New York’s Pottersfield; a lonely man dying of diphtheria in a police station.

Riis describes, he once ran to a policeman, asking to warn the fire brigade. Flash photography was still experimental and magnesium powder had set a slum dwelling on fire. The policeman simply refuses to believe the house was on fire – again. It had regularly caught fire over the past few months – what or whom could remain there?

FOAM’s other exhibitions show work by contemporary photographers who follow in Riis footsteps. So after visiting ‘The other half’; take time to visit the museum’s other exhibitions.     Kate Den    9th March 2018


FOAM, Amsterdam: ‘The Other Half – The Activist Photography of Jacob Riis’ welcomes visitors till April 15, 2018.

Photos by Jacob Riis, courtesy FOAM; collection now owned by the Museum of the City of New York.