One has often heard the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” When a person looks at a picture, it could take them back to their past or it could take them to a place they have never been. Photographs have the ability to describe scenes in a way that words cannot. One branch of photography, documentary photography, is particularly good at stepping in when words fail. Documentary photography was first introduced in the twentieth century when pictures were first used as a visual language. The two most stand-out photographers of the twentieth century were Jacob Riis and Mary Ellen Mark. Although they photographed different decades and social issues, their work brought light key historical moments of that time.
Jacob Riis was born in Denmark on May 3, 1849. He was one of fifteen children to Niels Edward Riis, a schoolteacher, and Carolina Riis. Growing up, his biggest influencer was his father who encouraged him to read and learn English. Although his father wished for him to become a teacher, Riis chose carpentry and moved to Copenhagen to pursue an apprenticeship. At the age of 19, he moved back to his hometown but was faced with a lack of work. Discouraged by this, Riis decided to immigrate to the United States.
Riis migrated to America in 1870 when he was 21. He arrived at a time where the country was facing a vast number of immigrants during a time of social turmoil after the Civil War. As more and more people immigrated to urban areas, cities became more heterogeneous due to the large ethnic enclaves. Riis lived in numerous poor houses with other immigrants. The conditions of those poor houses were so ghastly and overcrowded that Riis dedicated himself to shutting them down.
After moving ...
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