I have a soft spot for Jacob Riis photos: those that seem to startle basement drunks from their sleep and those that seem a little too artfully staged. Of the latter, the one above is my favorite. “Bandit’s Roost, 59 1/2 Mulberry Street” was shot by Riis or one of his associates in 1887. It aims to depict one of the most notorious parts of the neighborhood just north of the Five Points.
Of this address, and the infamous Mulberry Bend more generally, Riis wrote in his most famous book, How the Other Half Lives (1890):
Abuse is the normal condition of “the Bend,” murder its everyday crop, with the tenants not always the criminals. In this block between Bayard, Park, Mulberry, and Baxter Streets, “the Bend” proper, the late Tenement House Commission counted 155 deaths of children in a specimen year (1882). Their per centage of the total mortality in the block was 68.28, while for the whole city the proportion was only 46.20. The infant mortality in any city or place as compared with the whole number of deaths is justly considered a good barometer of its general sanitary condition. Here, in this tenement, No. 59 1/2, next to Bandits’ Roost, fourteen persons died that year, and eleven of them were children; in No. 61 eleven, and eight of them not yet five years old. According to the records in the Bureau of Vital Statistics only thirty-nine people lived in No. 59 1/2 in the year 1888, nine of them little children. There were five baby funerals in that house the same year. Out of the alley itself, No. 59, nine dead were carried in 1888, five in baby coffins.
A pathetic sight to be sure. Almost none of that comes across in the actual photo, though. Instead we get a band of toughs and a couple menacing on-lookers. Even the old lady poking her head out the window looks like she’d pop you one if she could get at you. A “History Matters” website at George Mason University uses this photo to teach some healthy skepticism about “documentary” photography. Students need to know a little bit about Riis’s methods, including his occasional practice of paying subjects in cigarettes to portray a street scene he could photograph:
At first glance, the foreground figures in the photograph underscore the aura of menace created by Riis’ caption. Two men appear to guard the alley entrance. Perched on the railing of the right-hand staircase is a third man who has assumed a casual, yet commanding, pose. Perhaps he is the ringleader of this gang. But what of the other ten figures in the image, the women leaning out the windows, the young child in the right background, the three figures on the opposite porch? There is nothing in their demeanor that suggests criminal behavior. If they were indeed part of a notorious gang, why would they be so willing to pose for the camera, especially since members of the police force often accompanied Riis on his photographic forays? How did Riis secure the cooperation of all these individuals? Certainly not by telling them that he wanted a picture of notorious criminals. Is this really a den of iniquity, as Riis would have us believe? In the background of the image, long lines of laundry stretch between the buildings. Riis was fond of saying that “the true line to be drawn between pauperism and honest poverty is the clothesline. With it begins the effort to be clean that is the first and best evidence of a desire to be honest.”
Riis apparently didn’t think much of himself as a photographer, but the evidence is against him. Check out this slideshow from the New York Times to see what I mean. Which ones seem staged? Which candid? How can you tell? Does it matter to what you think of these images as photos? Or to how you read them as documentary evidence? We’re reading some excerpts from Riis in our Writing New York class alongside Stephen Crane’s terrific 1893 Bowery novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
This piece from the Times‘ City Room blog in 2008 deals with the complexities of Riis’s attitudes toward the immigrant poor. It ends by acknowledging how lucky we are that we have many of his photographs at all:
It was not until the 1940s that a photographer, determined to find the original photographs, tracked down Riis’s youngest son and persuaded him to search an attic in the Riis family’s Long Island home, where 415 glass negatives, 326 glass lantern slides and 192 paper prints were found. Those materials now form the Jacob A. Riis Collection at the Museum of the City of New York.
My favorite take on “Bandit’s Roost” comes from the excellent Queens-based photographer, blogger, and urban adventurer Mitch Waxman, who set out last summer to find 59 1/2 Mulberry St. Here’s what he found:
Read about his search for the site–and the long history of the Bend–here.