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American Experience - Woodrow Wilson
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Special FeaturesExposing Poverty

Jacob Riis headshotAn immigrant himself, Riis left Denmark at 21 to come to America where he wandered for three years before taking a job with the New York Tribune

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The Photographs and Words of Jacob Riis

Published in 1890, Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives profoundly influenced many Americans, including then-Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson.

Considered one of the great works of American photojournalism, the book chronicled, in both vignettes and photographs, the brutal life in New York City's largest slum. How the Other Half Lives was the creation of a reformer who had spent twelve years as a police reporter on Manhattan's Lower East Side; his work was to become one of the touchstones of the Progressive movement.

Riis' writing, deeply influenced by the novels of Charles Dickens, evocatively described the people of the tenements and the streets whose life intersected with his own. As a photographer, he pioneered the use of the newly developed flash-gun - in his case, because the lighting in the tenements was so poor. Because of the challenging conditions in which he took pictures, Riis posed many of his subjects, but this did not diminish their truth -- or their impact.

A series of lantern-slide lectures after the publication of his book took Riis to Princeton. Woodrow Wilson was in the audience, and like many, deeply moved by what he saw.

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