Saturday, January 28, 2012
Riis, Jacob A.
How the Other Half Lives
Purchased at the late, lamented Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Bookstore for $2.50. This is exactly the kind of book I miss buying at that long gone bookstore. I probably would never have bought this book at full price without some purpose, like taking a course or doing some research, but seeing it on the shelf for $2.50, brand new, it was easy to just toss it in my shopping cart and bring it home to peruse at my leisure.
I have a memory of lending this book out to someone for a very long period of time. It may have been to Isabelle Pellisier, but I am not sure.
I have another memory of reading about the iconic photo on the cover of this edition, the one with the three street urchins asleep on a heating grate in bare feet. I read that although the children in the photo were the genuine article, the photo itself was posed. Riis gathered the children into the alcove, posed them just so, and told them to pretend they were sleeping while he took his photo. It begs the question, I think, of documentary truth.
The picture is certainly representative of a societal problem Riis wishes to articulate. On the other hand, he is constructing an image that, while true to the concept, is misleading as a representation of factual or documentary evidence.
Erroll Morris has been writing all kinds of interesting essays on just these subjects over at the New York Times over the past few years, and I don't really have anything useful to add to the discussion other than to say that my discovery that this picture was posed certainly complicated my understanding of it.
I think I may have snuck this idea into a poem somewhere, but I don't remember which one. Hmmm....