New York

Jacob Riis

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

There’s a poem by Robert Frost that goes, in its entirety,

We dance around in a ring and


But the Secret sits in the middle

and knows.

Jacob Riis’ photographs occupy the middle position in modern photography, though there’s a question about how knowing Riis himself was. The central place his work holds is that not of the secret, but the paradox. No photographs embody the quirky, zany modern esthetic better than his do, or earlier. And no photographer could have been more oblivious to esthetic issues in photography. If Riis was aware of art in photography at all, it was in a purely negative way. He made his photographs as he did in order to avoid having artfulness of any kind attributed to them. Art in his day, at least in photography, meant to romanticize, to sentimentalize, to fantasize; what he wanted was the opposite of all that. His background was as a police reporter, a muckraker,

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