Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half

Merit Award 2016

Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the 20th century. His then-novel idea of using photographs of the city’s slums to illustrate the plight of impoverished residents established Riis as a forerunner of modern photojournalism.

The Museum of the City of New mounted the first major retrospective of Riis’s photographic work in the United States since World War II. His reportage and photos—while somewhat flawed by personal and political biases—still resonate today.

The challenge presented to Studio Joseph was to create an immersive environment in which visitors could understand the context and impact of Riis’ work. Riis images and slides themselves are quite small in scale, which presented challenges to the design team. In addition, the amount of text required for the visitor to understand the many complex social issues involved was daunting. 

To surmount these challenges, Studio Joseph divided the installation into four distinct areas with the first (introductory) chapter located outside the gallery in an anteroom. Another challenge was to maintain very low lighting levels (3-5 footcandles) for conservation requirements while maintaining good legibility and visitor engagement.

In addition to these logistical considerations, the curator set up three challenges for the design concept:

  • Portray Riis not as a photographer but as a social reformer, notwithstanding the large number of photographs in the show.
  • Despite limited space in the gallery, give each of the narratives a discrete space integrating a separate theater for a portrayal of an authentic lanternslide lecture and a period projector.
  • Focus visitor attention on the places in New York City where Riis focused his work.

The design team’s strategy was to incorporate the photos and other artifacts into casework designed with a flexible area for labeling that did not distract from the overall interpretation of the objects. By creating vitrines instead of framing the photos, we presented them for what they really are, not works of art, but careful documents of the human condition. The poignancy of these small images comes through as they are held forward individually on mounts instead of being rarified in framing. In addition, the sepia tones of the photos made them feel very distant to today’s visitor. We used black backgrounds and a rich dark wood color that worked together to give the photos more contrast and less yellow.

The installation concept portrays the Jacob Riis photos not as artworks but artifacts in themselves that require study. Therefore, there are literally no hung art objects on the walls. Instead, large-scale cabinets and vitrines house mounted photos and artifacts. 

The architectural vocabulary of the materials depicts simplicity, but the forms are dynamic. Therefore, powerful imagery made from a clear and consistent, though very modest, set of materials creates the overriding message. Visitor engagement is higher due to the use of a dark backdrop to the monochrome photos and books, which make them seem more colorful, bright and engaging.

By dividing the space into distinct sections, the visitor is lead through a very large quantity of artifacts (over 400) in a way that can be independently explored, while allowing the curatorial message of the enormities of the problem to come through.

The exhibition has received a strong public reaction. Riis’ name is familiar to New Yorkers, but his work beyond the photos themselves, some of which are ubiquitous, is less understood. In this exhibition, surprising new scholarship about aspects of his work is being put forth for the first time. Visitors react in favor of the design aesthetic and its simple wood frames as a clear metaphoric connection to the spaces where Riis often photographed.

The exhibition was also reviewed twice in The New York Times as well as numerous other venues, and catalogue sales were higher than expected. Show attendance exceeded expectations, as did exposure in popular and professional press.

Jury Comments: 

"Content and form juxtaposed leads one through a compelling story."

"I found the sophistication of the exhibition design juxtaposed with the imagery and overall content framework of the exhibit an exquisite way to visualize Riis's attempts to illustrate the unseen plight of the disadvantaged to a broader and more high-powered New York society. The setting is so well mannered, refined and handsome that the objects on display, representations of the impoverished, become precious and "seen." The story and design is beautifully holistic and consistently provocative. The fact that this was implemented with a restricted budget is impressive."

Design Firm: 

Studio Joseph

Client: 

The Museum of the City of New York

Project Area: 

2,600 sq. ft.

Open Date: 

October 2015

Project Budget: 

Unavailable

Photo Credits: 

Thomas Loof

Design Team: 

Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA (principal in charge), Hannah Pavlovich (project manager)

Consultants: 

Thumb Projects (graphic design), Anita Jorgensen Lighting Design (lighting)

Fabricator: 

Southside Design & Building (primary fabricator)

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