If you've taken an art-history class in school, the name Jacob Riis, a forefather of modern photojournalism, probably rings a few bells.
Riis was a Danish immigrant who worked as an early "muckraking" newspaper reporter in turn-of-the-century New York City. He got his start as a police reporter in 1873, accompanying law-enforcement officials into slums in the Lower East Side filled with immigrants and poor and working-class people. Documenting the unsuitable and oppressive living conditions, Riis used his photos and articles to advocate for better housing and social reforms to benefit immigrants and the working class during his lifetime.
The traveling exhibition that's up at the National Nordic Museum in Ballard shares its name with Riis's popular 1890 book How the Other Half Lives, an extension of his photojournalistic work. In one half of the exhibition space, reproductions of Riis's most well-known images are coupled with artifacts and other material from the era.
There is a lot of didactic material in this show. A lot. Too much. While the charge of the Nordic Museum isn't limited to the display and preservation of art—they also educate on Nordic heritage—the quantity of explanatory wall text overwhelms the photography.
The legacy of Riis's work is rather sticky, and it's necessary to engage it correctly, so it's good to have detail and context. But the reproductions of his famous images are essentially obscured by verbiage. The design of the wall text doesn't help: The words are printed in white letters over a black background, and they are illuminated from a rather harsh angle. The exhibition's design means visitors are encountering these images in a manner completely divorced from their original context. In a book or a newspaper, the connection between text and image is a bit more stable, more controlled. In a busy gallery, it's easy for your eyes to skim and not linger on the work.
And then there are the issues of Riis's work itself. As the show is quick to acknowledge, Riis's methods and attitudes toward immigrants and poor people weren't always ethical or nuanced. A lot of Riis's photographs were revolutionary because he used—unusually for the time period—magnesium flash powder, which when ignited provided a flash big enough to illuminate the dark, squalid spaces people were occupying at the time. However, the flash set off tons of smoke, and many of his subjects weren't expecting (and hadn't even asked) to be photographed.
So in pictures like Five Cents a Spot, the men in the picture have their eyes half closed, reacting to the brightness of light and smoke. In Lower Eastside Tailor Shop, some of the subjects appear blurry, either turning around to look at the spectacle or ducking, attempting to hide from the camera. He'd often ask people for their names and stories only after invading their privacy. It was only in his later career that he learned to get to know his subjects' stories and then to ask for their consent to have their portrait taken.
But Riis's influence is not to be disputed, and How the Other Half Lives gives us a glimpse into his legacy. The Riis exhibition is paired with Legacy: Social Justice in Contemporary Danish Photojournalism, a show of three contemporary Danish photographers—Lasse Bak Mejlvang, Sofie Amalie Klougart, and Magnus Cederlund—who are doing similar work in the photojournalism field across the world.