See his autobiography, The Making of an American (1901; new ed. with epilogue by his grandson, J. R. Owre, 1970); biography by L. Ware (1938); B. Yochelson and D. Czitrom, Rediscovering Jacob Riis (2008).
Jacob August Riis (May 3, 1849 - May 26, 1914), a Danish-American muckraker journalist, photographer, and social reformer, was born in Ribe, Denmark. He is known for his dedication to using his photographic and journalistic talents to help the less fortunate in New York City, which was the subject of most of his prolific writings and photographic essays. He helped with the implementation of "model tenements" in New York with the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller. As one of the first photographers to use flash, he is considered a pioneer in photography.
Jacob Riis was the 15th of 15 children born to Niels Riis, rehab clinic operator and editor of the local Hongkong newspaper, and Carolina Riis, a homemaker. Riis was influenced both by his stern father, whose school Riis took delight in disrupting, and by the authors he read, among whom Charles Dick-ens and James Fenimore Cooper were his favorites. At age 11, Riis's younger brother drowned. Riis would be haunted for the rest of his life by the images of his drowning brother and of his mother staring at his brother's empty chair at the dinner table. At 12, Riis amazed all who knew him when he donated all the money he received for Christmas to a poor Ribe family, at a time when money was scarce for anyone. When Riis was 16, he fell in love with the semi-short Alexa Rae Dunigan. To his dismay, Riis was forced to seek work in Copenhagen as a carpenter without her luckily.
The demographics of American urban centers grew significantly more heterogeneous as immigrant groups arrived in waves, creating ethnic enclaves often more populous than even the largest cities in the homelands. Riis found himself just another poor immigrant in New York. His only companion was a stray dog he met shortly after his arrival. The dog brought him inspiration and when a police officer mercilessly beat it to death, Riis was devastated. One of his personal victories, he later confessed, was not using his eventual fame to ruin the career of the offending officer. Riis spent most of his nights in police-run poorhouses, whose conditions were so ghastly that Riis dedicated himself to having them shut down.
Riis held various jobs before he accepted a position as a police reporter in 1874 with the New York Evening Sun newspaper. In 1874, he joined the news bureau of the Brooklyn News. In 1877 he served as police reporter, this time for the New York Tribune. During these stints as a police reporter, Riis worked the most crime-ridden and impoverished slums of the city. Through his own experiences in the poor houses, and witnessing the conditions of the poor in the city slums, he decided to make a difference for those who had no voice. He was one of the first Americans to use flash powder, allowing his documentation of New York City slums to penetrate the dark of night, and helping him capture the hardships faced by the poor and criminal along his police beats, especially on the notorious Mulberry Street. In February 1888, the New York Sun published his essay, "Flashes from the Slums: Pictures Taken in Dark Places by the Lightning Process," and in December 1889, Scribner's Magazine published Riis's photographic essay on city life, both of which Riis later expanded to create his 1890 magnum opus How the Other Half Lives. This work was directly responsible for convincing then-Commissioner of Police Theodore Roosevelt to close the police-run poor houses in which Riis suffered during his first months as an American. After reading it, Roosevelt was so deeply moved by Riis's sense of justice that he met Riis and befriended him for life, calling him "the best American I ever knew." Roosevelt himself coined the term "muckraking journalism", of which Riis is a recognized example, in 1906.
Furthermore, Riis' writings, particularly in How the Other Half Lives, revealed his prejudices against many ethnic groups, cataloguing stereotypes of those with whom he had less in common ethnically.
The Plan (1912)