Jacob Riis was a crusading journalist-photographer whose exposes of the living and working conditions of the New York City poor during the late nineteenth century inspired that generation of American journalists known as the Muckrakers. He was uncompromising in his commitment to his work, regarding journalism as a noble profession in an era when few others did. One of 16 children born to a part-time reporter in Ribe, Denmark, Riis emigrated to the United States as a young man and worked for a while as a carpenter. He got a job writing for the South Brooklyn News in 1874. For the next quarter of a century, he reported on "how the other half lives" for that paper, the New York Tribune (1877--88), and the New York Evening Sun (1888--99), documenting in prose and photograph the appalling slum life of New York's poor, the dreadful tenements in which they lived, the sweatshops where they and their children labored, the brutal crimes they committed and endured, and the police corruption that helped preserve these conditions. His harrowing portrayals of poverty and crime are classic works of photojournalism that influenced younger journalists and moved a future president, Theodore Roosevelt, to vow to clean up New York when he became head of the city's police board. Riis retired from active journalism toward the end of the century, becoming a popular lecturer and book writer. In The Making of an American (1901), a book still read today, he told the tale of his emigration and Americanization.
Sam Bass Warner, noted urban historian and Visiting Professor of Urban History at MIT, is theauthor of The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City and other books.