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The Italian Factor and Jacob Riis

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Researching for graphic documents of life in New York's Little Italy during the last two dacades in the late 1800s, I came a ross many of the photos by Jacob August Riis, a Danish-American social reformer, "muckraking" journalist, and social documentary photographer. His images portray a densely populated neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, home to thousands of Italians who fled poverty and oppression in their homeland. Riis captured the contrast between the rich and the poor, the clean and the dirty, the healthy and the sick, and the hopeful and the hopeless. He showed how the immigrants crowded into dark, damp, and dilapidated tenements, facing disease, crime, fire, and exploitation. He also showed how they tried to preserve their culture and dignity amid the squalor by celebrating their festivals, attending their churches, and supporting their families.


Portrait of Danish-American social reformer who documented Little Italy
Jacob Riss

Riis's photographs of Little Italy were powerful journalistic tools and artistic expressions. He used various techniques, such as flash powder, lantern slides, and composite prints, to create dramatic effects and enhance the emotional impact of his images. He also wrote captions and narratives that explained the context and meaning of his pictures, often using direct quotes from the people he photographed.


The Italian Factor and Jacob Riis: With his graphic testimony of Little Italy, Riis's profoundly influenced public opinion and social policy. His book attracted the attention of influential figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, who became a friend and ally of Riis in his crusade for social reform. Riis's work also inspired many, and they are now a powerful inspiration and a formidable source of graphic evidence for The Italian Factor, a documentary film in progress.


Jacob Riss poignant images of Little Italy.
Homeless Children

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