New York

Jacob Riis

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, and his only purpose as a photographer was to reveal what was then called “the unvarnished truth.”

The fact is that he only took up photography reluctantly, because a professional he’d hired to do the work cheated him. Nor did he continue making pictures any longer than absolutely necessary. He quit photographing as soon as he felt he had all the material he needed to illustrate his lectures and writing. It was to the latter activities that he wanted to devote himself exclusively. He never did develop any interest in photography for its own sake. When he made a photograph, as long as he captured the pitiful condition of his subject and the squalor of the immediate surroundings, he didn’t care what else got into the camera. He could always cut out when he published the picture whatever he saw as irrelevant, as he did when he removed from one of his most famous photographs the errant hand of an assistant in the right foreground. Yet that hand represents precisely the kind of disjointed composition for which Riis has been appreciated in recent years. The full frame, for instance, appeared in John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs, one of the places in modern photography where Riis’ work sits in the middle and knows.

The paradox of Riis’ posthumous reputation is that photographers now make art by doing what he did in order not to make art. It’s a paradox that clung to the recent show at ICP. On the one hand, it was satisfying to see the big new prints done by photographer and Riis biographer Alexander Alland. His prints give Riis’ imagery the presence and luxury of detail that Riis’ reputation merits. On the other hand, though, two small crude prints made by Riis that were right at the beginning of the exhibition stand almost as an admonishment to us. They leave us a bit embarrassed to be making such a fuss over these photographs. How dismayed and even indignant Riis would be if he knew that while his achievements as a reformer are fading into history, his memory as a photographer, a vocation for which he cared little, lives on.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.