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Remembering Jacob Riis

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The 'old town' recalled in Jacob Riis’s memoirs is Ribe in Denmark, seen here in early autumn (photo © hidden europe).


The social reformer and documentary photography Jacob Riis, author of 'How the Other Half Lives' (1890), was born in the town of Ribe in Danish Jutland. Understanding Ribe is the key to understanding Jacob Riis. We take a look at how Riis described his home town in his 1909 book 'The Old Town'.

Walk up by the dyke, the one that leads out to the dark moor, and there is a line of hazel trees — it’s a good spot to rummage for nuts on autumn days like this. From there, take time to look back to the old town, a compact community set in water meadows. Come winter, rough rime will give a grey-white sheen to the scene. Fast forward to spring and the storks will return, followed soon after by the swallows and starlings. Come back in May to see the gardens full of flowers. This is a place worth seeing at any season. In summer, one can stroll along grassgrown lanes from the water meadows into the middle of town, where the bustle of commerce is offset by the quiet hum of mill wheels. This is Ribe, not just any old town, but the Danish settlement memorialised in Jacob Riis’ book The Old Town.

The name Jacob Riis may not strike any chords for many readers of hidden europe. But you’ll surely be hearing more about Riis in the year ahead, for 2014 marks the centenary of Jacob Riis’ death in the USA. A plaque set into an old brick wall in the heart of Ribe records the essential facts about Riis, to wit that he was born in Ribe in 1849, that he remained ever-loyal to the town of his birth, and that President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of Riis as “the best American I ever knew.”

Riis was an accomplished journalist and committed social reformer. He was an early pioneer of documentary photography, focusing in particular on the appalling conditions endured by poor New Yorkers.

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