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Media History of New York: Social Photography

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                                     Social Photography in New York in the 19th century

Photograph symbolizes message (Mustaffa Halabi, 2011), which helps to unveil messages with alternate definitions that must be wholly comprehended and acknowledged by the community. A phrase that asserts, “A photograph is worth a thousand words,” must be cautiously learned and evaluated. Although it is a straightforward proverb, comprehension and digesting the message, which got viewed in believable or explanatory form (Mustaffa Halabi, 2011), have connections in its perspective and knowledge in different ethnicities and social structures is required. As a result, visual images arent intended to get viewed as a leisure activity by some individuals but as a role and purpose on an equal level with any other communication medium. We got encircled by multitudes of photographs from when we wake up in the early hours until we go to bed at night. Photograph images can be found just about everywhere: in print media, on door frames, in magazine articles, advertisements, banners, on the bodies of public transport, shopping centers, and in purchases. Each image displayed has its own set of meanings and motives.

Whether the message is one of negotiation, consciousness, or relevant data, it is known and documented that the image has a specific meaning, whether expressed or insinuated. It is well established in image antiquity that there was an element of visual dialogue as early as the Paleolithic Era, the Stone Age, and years later, towards the eighteenth to 19th century. The center of this emergence of photography has its roots in New York City. New York during these years got known to be the prototype of image presentation. This essay, however, seeks to analyze how social photography.

In 1839, a new medium of visual representation and communication got introduced and immediately embraced by the public. Photography was a new invention that startled the world; “From cheaply manufactured daguerreotype portraits to photographic publications and Kodak cameras, nineteenth-century photography truly became a mass medium. With the rise of this new form of media, photographs started to offer the viewers insight into the relationships between the viewer’s perspectives and the social issues and what got beyond the photos taken. Creating and reproducing images became inexpensive as it reached the mid to late 19th century. While photography got largely embraced as art and documentation, the photographs emerged to carry more profound meanings. (Mayor, 2016) During this time, photography was much more prevalent and played a considerable role during social reform. These changes sent huge waves through the photography of New York and gave many photographers the tools to go out and create a visual record of the multitude of social problems in the city.

In the United States, at the end of the nineteenth century, two photographers, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine became engaged in favor of the individuals on the fringes of society. For them, the lens was a tool for accusing injustice and inequality. In 1890, Jacob Riis published ‘How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, which has been among the first significant coherent bodies of work of social photojournalism in New York. Riis, an immigrant himself, started his profession as a law enforcement journalist for the New York Herald and soon began utilizing cameras to add quality to and demonstrate the integrity of his publications. He was also concerned about the fate of immigrant groups, many of whom resided in abject economic hardship in New York’s slums.

Riis takes factions for the individuals he photographs and panders to society’s moral conscience. Hine, a sociology lecturer who championed photography as an education tool, was hired by the National Child Labor Committee in 1908 to report the child labor force in the United States economy. Hine would release thousands of photographs engineered to tug at the nation’s emotional core .in the early twentieth century,  child labor was common in the United States. Hine also drew awareness of the plight of immigrant groups. Riis and Hine’s work had political ramifications. Riis’ dedication to the Mulberry Bend community resulted in its dismantling. Riis is also responsible for the construction of schools and other educational initiatives. Hine’s efforts resulted in the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which got revoked after the United States entered World War I.

Riis wanted to highlight the deplorable living standards on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He examined the city’s gloomy and spooky zones that could not be captured on the camera using the newly invented flash photography. With that, he set out to tell the world a perspective of the shacks that had not previously been seen or discussed. Riis’ photos are part of a much larger reform program launched during the Progressive Era. This reform got made to tackle rapid urbanization and industrialization concerns. Progressives labored on the assertion that by studying and documenting an issue and proposing and testing alternatives, problems could eventually be rectified, thereby enhancing the welfare of the people as a whole. Progressive reformers such as Riis, Lewis Hine, and Jessie Tarbox Beals established the documentary photography heritage, using the medium to document and publicly announce working and accommodation constraints, as well as a rejuvenated call for transformation.

Throughout the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, photography got increasingly used as a method of documentary evidence. The viewers of the photographer evolved into the widespread readers of daily newspapers, magazines, and journals. Line drawings created from photographs and halftone photography allowed people to see and read about their surrounding environment. The media became a buffer between the wealthy and the middle class, forming events such that the middle management class and advantaged crowds could maintain their detachment and choose their level of incorporation in contemporary affairs. (Yochelson & Czitrom, 2021).  In the 1880s, the invention of the gelatin dry-plate process, the introduction of roll cinema and the hand-held camera, and fresh simulation model light innovations catapulted many photographers. The Photo-Secessionists, led by Alfred Stieglitz, promoted photography as an art form. Photo-Secessionists advocated for intricate lighting and subdued scenes, similar to abstract expressionist artistry.

Riis ultimately found his stride in the freewheeling, dramatic environment of late-nineteenth-century print newspapers, where excellence relied on the ability to convey a compelling story efficiently rather than academic qualifications or social stature. Riis ended up landing a reporting career at the New York Tribune by 1877.his office that was directly next to police headquarters provided a perfect panoramic view for investigating the city’s geology, ethnic communities, political conflicts, and social ills. . How the Other Half Lives brought Riis and New York’s social issues to a worldwide audience. (Weinstein, 2002) .The story’s genuineness got lauded by reviewers. During such a time when “slumming” was considered an accurate recreation, as well as prevalent travel publications, the exhibitionism essence of Riis’ work was what drove revenues. He had also penned a straightforward, unfiltered story, and still, the occurrences were indeed exhilarating.

While Riis did not describe the identities of the individuals he pictured, he structured his book into ethnocultural segments, classifying the features based on ethnic and racial prejudices prevalent at the time. Riis has been chastised for his bias and limiting those imaged to unnamed affected people in this context. (Hug, 2010).These so-called social photographs depicting the other perspective of the globe would act as a medium for people on the other side of the globe to view the actual situation of New York thru the perspective that the photojournalists established. This move would later have more significant ramifications in terms of social reform proposals, but there is a vast significance in recording New York’s neighborhoods. For the time being, the photos themselves provide audiences with insight into the connections between social justice issues and motions. Bill Biggart’s 1995 pictures of a cop’s armored vehicle that has got used to force tenants out of three buildings on 13th Street alluded to the case of police overuse of force.

In conclusion, social photography has been one of the significant news projections or media in New York. It has created awareness in the political and social sphere and led to various reforms since time immemorial. It brought about change in an environment where hope got lost. The media has been one of the most potent entities in creating awareness since then, and its genesis got attributed in New York. Since then, New York birthed various news outlets and communication systems, and they have all evolved into being influential organizations to date.









Mustaffa Halabi Azahari (2011). Photography: Its Significance Strands and Values in Education. Shah Alam: UiTM Press, xii


Mayor, J., 2016. History of New York Photography: Documenting the Social Scene. [online] New York Fine Art Photography Portrait & Events, Workshops. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 May 2021].


Yochelson, B., & Czitrom, D. (2021). Rediscovering Jacob Riis. University of Chicago Press.


Weinstein, C. (2002). How Many Others Are There in the Other Half? Jacob Riis and the Tenement Population. Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 24(2), 195-216.


Hug, B. (2010). Jacob Riis and double consciousness: The documentary/ethnic “I” in how the other half lives. Ethnic Studies Review, 33(1), 130-157.






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