Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives

Jacob Riis (1849–1914) was a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. His then-novel idea of using photographs of the city’s slums to illustrate the plight of impoverished residents established Riis as forerunner of modern photojournalism. Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives features photographs by Riis and his contemporaries, as well as his handwritten journals and personal correspondence.

New York City was the epicenter of America’s thriving economy, but spawned the worst slums on earth. The Danish-born Riis emigrated to America at the age of twenty, and after four years of living in poverty, he started a successful career as a newspaper journalist for the New York Tribune and the Evening Star. Riis worked at night as a police reporter, often seeing the less polished side of New York City, the new home to many immigrants from throughout Europe.

By taking photographs to accompany his newspaper articles, Riis first began documenting the lives of the impoverished and the places they lived and took refuge. With the development of flash powder, he was able to illuminate nighttime images of those living and working in alleyways, tenements, and sweat shops, among other squalid places in the city. His interests in writing about “how the other half lived” grew, and over his lifetime Riis wrote many books about the urban poor that included his photographs.

Feeling that more could be done, Riis gave his first lantern slide lecture (a precursor to today’s digital presentations) featuring his photographs in 1888. He captivated audiences with stories of his experiences and began to tour the country delivering lectures, often  in a crusade to advocate and bring about changes for the marginalized.

Through his lectures, many books, and even his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt (former Police Commissioner of New York), Riis advanced social reform in early twentieth-century America. His efforts led to increased awareness about the city’s underbelly and improved living conditions for children and adults. Riis considered himself a writer first, and his powerful images were not appreciated fully until a large trove of his glass negatives, lantern slides, and other photographs were pulled from the attic of his former home on Long Island in the 1940s, long after his death in 1914.

Visitors to the exhibition will experience a Riis presentation–immersive life-size photographs, as well as artifacts and personal documentation. The exhibition is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives is adapted from the exhibition Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half, organized by the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition was curated by Bonnie Yochelson and co-presented by the Library of Congress. It was made possible with major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Terra Foundation for American Arts, as well as support from D. Euan and Merete Baird, The Malkin Fund, Ronay and Richard L. Menschel, Queen Margrethe and Prince Henrick’s Foundation, C. Flemming and Judy Heilmann, Kan and Lotte Leschly, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and the John L. Loeb Jr. Foundation. It was adapted and toured for NEH on the Road by Mid-America Arts Alliance.

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Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives tours April 2018 through March 2023. The dates below reflect seven-week exhibition periods. Dates are subject to change; please contact us for current availability.

  • April 6–May 25, 2018 Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museum
    Fremont, OH
  • June 16–August 11, 2018 Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
    Wichita, KS
  • September 1–October 20, 2018 Tarrant County College
    Fort Worth, TX
  • November 10, 2018–January 7, 2019 Desoto County Museum
    Hernando, MS
  • January 28–March 16, 2019 Panola College
    Carthage, TX
  • April 6–May 25, 2019 Museum of Danish America
    Elk Horn, IA
  • June 16–August 11, 2019 Wood County Historical Society
    Bowling Green, OH
  • September 1–October 20, 2019 Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission partnering with Quincy Mine Hoist Association
    Calumet, MI
  • November 10, 2019–January 7, 2020 Muscatine Art Center
    Muscatine, IA
  • January 28–March 16, 2020 Nordic Heritage Museum
    Seattle, WA
  • April 6–May 25, 2020
  • June 16–August 11, 2020 Refurbishment
    Kansas City, MO
  • September 1–October 20, 2020 Chippewa Valley Museum
    Eau Claire, WI
  • November 10, 2020–January 7, 2021 Park City Museum
    Park City, UT
  • January 28–March 16, 2021 Louisiana's Old State Capitol
    Baton Rouge, LA
  • April 6–May 25, 2021
  • June 16–August 11, 2021
  • September 1–October 20, 2021
  • November 10, 2021–January 7, 2022
  • January 28–March 16, 2022
  • April 6–May 25, 2022
  • June 16–August 11, 2022
  • September 1–October 20, 2022 Upcountry History Museum, Furman University
    Greenville, SC
  • November 10, 2022–January 7, 2023
  • January 28–March 16, 2023

Exhibition Details & Specifications

  • Curated By

    Bonnie Yochelson, former curator of prints and photographs, The Museum of the City of New York

  • Organized By

    The Museum of the City of New York
  • Content

    The exhibition features several freestanding units focused on the thematic areas incorporating a selection of objects, artifacts, photographs, and paper ephemera; audio/video features; interactive stations; and wall mounted graphics.

  • Duration

    seven-week display

  • Rental Fee


  • Grant


  • Support

    On-site support is free to the opening venue for every new NEH on the Road exhibition and to first-time hosting venues on a limited basis

  • Shipping:


  • Security


  • Square Feet

    Approximately 2,000 square feet

  • Number of Crates/Total Weight


  • Insurance

    The exhibition is fully insured by NEH on the Road at no additional expense to you, both while installed and during transit.