Lighting Up The Slums With Flash Photography

By Bill Dobbins

The 19th century was a period of mass immigration to the United States.  There were no immigration laws as we have today, only medical exams to screen out diseases like tuberculosis.  (See young Vito Corelone’s experience in Godfather II.)  Many new arrivals left the east coast for other geographic areas of the US, but a majority settled in major cities like New York and Boston.  The result was over-crowding, poverty, slums, tenements, child labor and other problems.

The slums could be particularly hard on children.  Photo by Jacob Riis

Recognizing these problems, there were a few reformers who undertook to make the public and lawmakers aware of the fact that changes needed to be made.  One of them was Jacob Riis – a Danish-American social reformer, “muckraking” journalist and social documentary photographer.

Riis used his abilities as a journalist and photographer to improve the lot of the most impoverished of New York City inhabitants.  He made the pubic aware of the horrific environments of crowded tenements and the large number of those forced to live on the street – particularly children.  He was one of the first to devote himself to street and documentary photography and was a pioneer in the use of the flash.

Photo by Jacob Riis
Photo by Jacob Riis
In the tenements entire families would live in one room. Sometimes more than one. Photo by Jacob Riis

Riis himself was an immigrant from Denmark who came to America on June 5, 1870, when he was 21 years old, with only $40 in his pocket.  He was one of a huge number who immigrated to the US after the Civil War and who ended up making New York City one of the most densely populated places on the planet.  Recent immigrants at the time came into conflict with earlier immigrants (See Gangs of New York for more of this), were preyed upon by corrupt police, politicians, criminals and employers intent on exploiting their labor at as low a cost as possible.  Tenement owners provided barely habitable, vermin invested and often unsafe buildings where tenants could not depend for certain on the availability of gas, electricity or water.

“In the 1880s 334,000 people were crammed into a single square mile of the Lower East Side, making it the most densely populated place on earth. They were packed into filthy, disease-ridden tenements, 10 or 15 to a room, and the well-off knew nothing about them and cared less.” – Wikipedia

Photo by Jacob Riis

Riis himself experienced poverty when living in New York City.  After several tries he landed a job at the New York New Association.  Eventually, he got a break – a neighbor of his was the city editor of the New-York Tribune, and he recommended Riis for a short-term contract with the paper. Riis did well and was offered a job as a police reporter – which allowed him to pursue his interest in the plight of the poor.  Riis’s biographer Alexander Alland writes, “It was here, where the street crooks its elbow at the Five Points, that the streets and numerous alleys radiated in all directions, forming the foul core of the New York slums.

Five Points was the location featured in Gangs of New York.

Over time Riis became increasingly convinced that words alone were not enough to convey the reality of the squalor he witnesses in the slums.  He tried drawing illustrations but found his skills inadequate for the task.   Photography would be a much better alternative but the lenses and emulsions of the time were much too slow to capture images in dark alleys and tenement rooms.

According to Wikipedia: “In early 1887, however, Riis was startled to read that “a way had been discovered to take pictures by flashlight. The darkest corner might be photographed that way.”[30] The German innovation, by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke, flash powder was a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate and some antimony sulfide for added stability;[31] the powder was used in a pistol-like device that fired cartridges. This was the introduction of flash photography.”

Before the flashbulb light was provided for slow lenses and emulsions by magnisium flash powder.
Equipment for use of magnesium flash powder.


“Pistol lamps were dangerous and looked threatening, and would soon be replaced by another method for which Riis lit magnesium powder on a frying pan. The process involved removing the lens cap, igniting the flash powder and replacing the lens cap; the time taken to ignite the flash powder sometimes allowed a visible image blurring created by the flash.”

Realizing the potential of flash photography, Riis recruited a team of amateur photographers with the same interest in social justice that he had.  They published a report in The Sun newspaper in February of 1888, describing the misery, poverty and crime associated with the slums, illustrated by line drawing based on the group’s photographs

Jacob Riis was an immigrant himself, experienced poverty after his arrival in the US so was ideally qualified to document the horrific conditions in New York City slums.


Riis published a book in 1890 called How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among The Tenements of New York featuring his writing and his documentary photographs.

Jacob Riis wrote and created his photographs at a time of huge social change and in what is called The Gilded Age in which the gulf between the privileged rich and the desperately poor was even greater than it is today.  But this was a time in history in which most of society had no way of knowing what poverty in the slums was like and what it looked like.  Magazines and newspapers were just beginning to be able to publish photographs and the movies were in their earliest infancy. Reading about slum life is not the same as looking at it.  Riis did photographs that had an impact on the general awareness regarding these conditions, although the progressive legislation that was needed did not come for some time afterwards.

But he is an important figure in demonstrating the power of photography to record and communicate important aspects of life and social reality.



Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com
How The Other Half lives, written by Jacob Riis and illustrated with his photographs, was on important document in helping to bring awareness to slum conditions and the plight of the poor.
Photo by Jacob Riis
Slum poverty can be hardest on the children, who tended to have much shorter lifespans in this kind of environment. Photo by Jacob Riis