Thursday, April 10, 2008

Flashes from the Slums

With the advent of the camera, man could now take a scene and freeze it forever in a frame. But the camera could only take photos of objects that were visible in day light. Photos of landscapes and people dressed in their Sunday bests began to circulate. However seldom, if ever, did photographers travel into the dark underbelly of our cities and capture those couldn't even afford a new shirt let alone a "Sunday best". But with the invention of the flash, photographers could now dive down into the very pit of the slums and emerge with photos that captured the despair and squalor of the lower-class.
"What they saw was three or four figures in the gloom, a ghostly tripod, some weird and uncanny movements, the blinding flash, and then they heard the patter of retreating footsteps, and the mysterious visitors were gone before they could collect their scattered thoughts and try to find out what it was all about." (Jacob A. Riis, Flashes from the Slums, pg 155)
Riis describes how the photographers went about their business in the slums. They didn't politely knock on these folks doors and kindly ask to photograph them. Jacob Riis and other muckrakers of his time would burst into vermin infested lodging houses and snap shots of the poor man that happens to be sleeping there. You can see there's no smiles on their faces, the subjects were given no time to prepare for the surprise visit. Most looks as though they had been sleeping moments before the shot. Flash photography illuminated more then just poorly lit areas, it helped muckrakers expose the truth in our cities. It made the rich and well-fed of the city take notice of the most impoverished citizens and illuminated places that weren't assessable to most.


At 3:46 PM, Blogger A. Mattson said...

A great post. You did a wonderful job describing how Riis began to use the camera as a tool of political persuasion.

Some of Riis's photos were staged for effect. The flash of the day was very powerful in a dark city, and that did lead to looks of surprise and shock as the flash powder ignited.


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