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Jacob Riis
Jacob Riis in 1906
Born (1849-05-03)May 3, 1849
Ribe, Denmark
Died May 26, 1914(1914-05-26) (aged 65)
Barre, Massachusetts, US
Nationality American
Field Social reform, journalism, photography

Jacob August Riis (May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914) was a Danish-American social reformer, journalist and social documentary photographer. He is known for using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the impoverished in New York City; those impoverished New Yorkers were the subject of most of his prolific writings and photography.

Riis’ work was instrumental in bringing about New York State’s landmark Tenement House Act of 1901, which improved conditions for the poor.

Additionally, as one of the most famous proponents of the newly practicable casual photography, he is considered one of the fathers of photography due to his very early adoption of flash in photography.

While living in New York, Riis experienced became a police reporter writing about the quality of life in the slums. He attempted to alleviate the bad living conditions of poor people by exposing their living conditions to the middle and upper classes.

Theodore Roosevelt

Tr - nyc police commissioner 1894 - jacob riis bio - the making of an american - illustration named one was sitting asleep on a buttertub
Riis walks the beat in New York City behind his friend and fellow reformer, NYC Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (1894—Illustration from Riis's autobiography)

Theodore Roosevelt introduced himself to Riis, offering to help his efforts somehow. Upon his 1895 appointment to the presidency of the Board of Commissioners of the New York City Police Department, Roosevelt asked Riis to show him nighttime police work.

After reading the exposés, Roosevelt closed the police-managed lodging rooms in New York. Roosevelt was so deeply affected by Riis's sense of justice that he befriended Riis for life, later remarking, "Jacob Riis, whom I am tempted to call the best American I ever knew, although he was already a young man when he came hither from Denmark".

After Roosevelt became president, he wrote a tribute to Riis that started:

Recently a man, well qualified to pass judgment, alluded to Mr. Jacob A. Riis as "the most useful citizen of New York". Those fellow citizens of Mr. Riis who best know his work will be most apt to agree with this statement. The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent ever encountered by them in New York City.

A particularly important effort by Riis was his exposure of the condition of New York's water supply. His five-column story "Some Things We Drink," in the 21 August 1891 edition of the New York Evening Sun, included six photographs (later lost). The story resulted in the purchase by New York City of areas around the New Croton Reservoir, and may well have saved New Yorkers from an epidemic of cholera.

Riis died on May 26, 1914. Riis's grave is marked by an unmarked granite boulder in Riverside Cemetery, in Barre, Massachusetts.

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