riis - Joby Martin Research Paper 11/15/06 Jake Riiiizy...

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Joby Martin Research Paper 11/15/06 Jake Riiiizy Jacob August Riis, despite his role in reforming America, was not a naturalized American himself. Riis was born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1849. At the age of 21, Riis boarded a ship to Ellis Island, a typical journey for many of the poor European immigrants whose lives Riis would later indirectly influence. Upon his arrival, Riis was faced with the same reality as most other immigrants of the time: little available work, poor housing conditions, and a grossly subpar standard of living. He was an experience carpenter in Copenhagen, but was unable to find carpentry work in the US. He worked as a miner in Pennsylvania, and held several temporary jobs. Still, Riis oftentimes found himself homeless and hungry, living in crowded public lodges run by the NYPD. Riis briefly returned to Denmark in 1876, where he married a childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Nielsen. His second trip to NYC brought with it a hard-earned opportunity: a stable job at the New York Tribune . The Tribune would pay him $25/week as a police reporter, assigned to Mulberry Street- the dark heart of New York’s tenement district. It was during this time on Mulberry Street that the seeds of reform which had been sewn over the years as a poor immigrant began to sprout. Riis carried his camera with him everywhere, capturing appalling images of abject living conditions, millions
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living in neglect, fear, and darkness. This provided inspiration to pursue what he felt was his calling: the use of organized charity as an effective tool to help cure social ills. Aside from Riis’ seemingly humanitarian drive, another factor was present: the advent of flash photography. In some ways, Riis embodied what Sontag depicts as the passive non-participant. He benefited much from circumstance- right place, right time. He was at Mulberry street on assignment. He was there in an era where many technologies were developing rapidly. Flash photography was one invention which, in many ways, gave birth to the field of photojournalism. Previously, no flash meant no picture taking at night. But a little magnesium solved that problem. In the late 1880’s, it was discovered that mixing magnesium powder with an oxidizing agent (usually potassium chlorate), would create a luminous chemical reaction when ignited. The mixture was spread on a metal dish, then ignited. Riis could now carry him camera with him everywhere, although he was forced to also carry a frying pan filled with magnesium and a revolver to provide an igniting spark. This innovative new tool was also quite dangerous, and the relatively inexperienced Riis set two buildings on fire and nearly blinded himself on one occasion. His pictures could not have hit front pages quickly enough. In a darkly ironic way,
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riis - Joby Martin Research Paper 11/15/06 Jake Riiiizy...

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