Friday, February 24, 2012

Images by Riis and Gericault Reveal Visual Clues to the Past

The Tenement Museum derives much of its information from sources that might seem less than glamorous--census data, public records and aging household objects, for example--but visual art also plays a critical role in our research. Here, Development Associate Hilary Whitham explores some images that are relevant to the Museum's work.

Writing about the subjects of photographer and activist Jacob Riis (1849-1914), Ansel Adams once said, “Their comrades in poverty and suppression live here today, in this city – in all the cities of the world." Riis’s pivotal 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives paired documentary photographs with text in an attempt to reveal the living conditions of working class immigrants residing in the tenements of the Lower East Side.  For more than a century, Riis’s images have been a rich source of information for historians, sociologists and anthropologists.

Of course, the Tenement Museum believes that images, objects, and literature can tell us a great deal about the past —so it’s not surprising that our educators regularly employ photographs from Riis’s book in tours of our landmark tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. (For more information about material culture theories and studies, please see Jules Prown’s essay, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method” in Winterthur Portfolio.)

Bandits' Roost, Jacob A. Riis, 1888

Although they weren’t originally intended to be aesthetically pleasing, Riis’s photographs have also been studied by art historians. As eminent art historian Linda Nochlin has observed, a comparison of one of Riis’s documentary photographs with a print by the French artist Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) reveals how both commercial and fine art were used in the service of public education in the 19th century.  Géricault, like Riis, was astounded at the poverty and degradation of industrializing cities in Britain in the 19th century. Both men drew on shared visual culture to educate the middle and upper classes about the plight of the poor.

 Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Old Man, Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault, 1821

Géricault's Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Old Man from 1821 is a print from the artist’s series of lithographs "Various Subjects Drawn from Life and On Stone", created during his time in London. (For more information on the series and Géricault, see Suzanne Lodge’s essay, “Gericault in England” in The Burlington Magazine.)

Géricault’s images in the series can be characterized as recreations of everyday life, simply because of the process of their creation. Lithographs are printed artworks made by using a press to transfer an image from a stone or metal plate to paper. Similarly, Riis’s photograph entitled Street Arabs in Night Quarters is a recreation of nocturnal activities of tenement residents. Scholars have shown that Riis staged some of the scenes during the day because of the limitations of flash technology at that time. (Bonnie Yochelson discusses 19th century flash technology in the book Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-century New York.)

Street Arabs in Night Quarters, Jacob A. Riis, c. 1880's

In both images, the old man and the young children are positioned outside of buildings and away from other figures, indicating how the city's everyday life goes on without regard to their plight. The slumped or horizontal postures of the children and the old man are associated with abjection and dejection. For Nochlin, the image of the kneeling or leaning figure has antecedents in religious imagery beginning in the Renaissance, such as Filippo Lippi’s Madonna of Humility (1420s). While the figure of the Virgin Mary or Madonna low to the ground suggests humility and piety, the image of the slumped man and boys suggests degradation and poverty. Both images draw on an iconography meant to elicit an emotional reaction, specifically pity.

Madonna of Humility, Filippo Lippi, c.1420

Another recurring theme in both Riis’ photographs and Géricault's lithographs is the brick of the cobblestoned streets and new multi-family buildings. In this instance, brick serves as a visual signifier for the urban environment and specifically the tenements which housed the urban poor and recent immigrants. While these sights would have been part of everyday life for the residents of 97 Orchard Street, these images were intended for a more affluent audience that lived further uptown, far away from the tenements.

Drawing on popular knowledge as well as artistic traditions, Riis and Géricault utilized print media to disseminate images meant to educate the 19th century public. More than a century later, their work continues to yield new insights for historians of art and others. Here at the Tenement Museum, we still refer to the rich catalogue of images created by fine and commercial artists to tell the stories of the immigrants who made their lives on the Lower East Side.

--Development Associate Hilary Whitham

More reading on this subject:

Adams, Ansel. Preface in Jacob Riis: Photographer and Citizen. New York: Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1993.

Alland, Alexander ed. Jacob A. Riis: Photographer & Citizen. New York: Aperture Foundation Inc., 1993.

Lodge, Suzanne. “Géricault in England” in The Burlington Magazine Vol. 107, No. 753 (Dec., 1965), pp. 616-627

Nochlin, Linda. “Géricault, Goya and Misery” lecture given at the School of Visual Arts. 8 December 2011.

Prown, Jules David. Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method. Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 1-19

Riis, Jacob.  How The Other Half Lives. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971.

Yochelson, Bonnie. “Jacob A. Riis, Photographer ‘After a Fashion’” in Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-century New York. New York: The New Press, 2007.

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