Jacob Riis is considered to be one of the founders of social documentary photography. His work “How The Other Half Lives” (1890) documented living conditions in the tenements of Manhattan. He along with Lewis Hine have set a standard that is hard to duplicate. Riis’ photograph “Peddler Who Slept in the Cellar of 11 Ludlow Street” (1892) is shown below. It is one of the most famous images taken by Riis. We believe that our photo “Woman Asleep on the Floor“; Alabama c.1951 closely represents Riis’ style. We hope that he would approve.
At first glance you may not realize the significance of this image. We see a man on a staircase overlooking a railing. Only when we discover that the location is San Sebastián, Spain does the picture become clearer. This is Basque Country and the Basques are treated like second class citizens. Recently, the Basques have voted for independence only to be denied once again by the ruling Spanish government. When we observe the poverty surrounding the man in this image, “The Basques” c.1933, we begin to understand the reason for the Basque separatist movement.
The scenes of poverty presented here could have come from any number of cities in the United States. One might suspect Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia or Los Angeles at first glance, but the locale for this essay was Norfolk, Virginia. It would be easy to say that the situation in the inner cities has improved, but the truth of the matter is that the conditions causing this poverty remain mostly unchanged throughout the decades before and after these images were taken. This “Inner City” essay is now included in our Americana collection.
Immigration reform? Let’s get serious. As long as conditions of poverty exist as illustrated in these photos taken in Honduras and Haiti c.1939 what would you do if you had to live under these conditions? The worldwide refugee problem is another issue involving civil wars and forcing people to flee by land and sea to safety.
A photograph needs to have something to say beyond the obvious in order to have some significance. It should almost border on the subliminal in that it communicates an unconscious social statement to some symbolic degree. Such images are difficult to find. I believe that “Hell’s Kitchen” is such an image.
“Migrant Mother” (1936) by Dorothea Lange is probably the most well recognized photo taken by the Farm Security Administration photographers that symbolizes the Great Depression. Several hundred thousand images both in black and white and in color were shot during this period.