The Extraordinary Photos of Jacob Riis

Jacob A. Riis, 1849 - 1914, an immigrant to New York of Danish origin, had experienced personally the hardships of poverty and spent a long period of wandering in the State of Pennsylvania, before returning to New York in 1877.  There he found work as a crime reporter for the Tribune daily and the Associated Press news agency.  He is the first photographer to have photographed the misery and degradation of immigrants living forcibly on the Lower East Side of New York, where they were victims of the most unscrupulous speculators in building construction and greedy. corrupt politicians.  With photographic equipment, a tripod and a magnesium lamp (he was one of the first to use it) he traversed the length and breadth of the Five Points district, photographing places and persons, convinced that the strength of the images would have been able to give birth to a protest movement throughout the country.

In 1890, he published in one volume the photos of "How the Other Half Lives", and in 1892 he published "The Children of the Poor", again with Scribner as publisher.  But only in 1947, thanks to the prints created by Alexander Alland for the Museum of the City of New York, did Americans discover the importance and the actual beauty of his photos.  Beaumont Newhall, in his "History of Photography" writes in regard to the work of Riis: "...the blinding light reveals with pitiless detail the sordid interiors, but illumines with tenderness the faces of persons condemned to live in them"

—from "Storia della Fotografia" ("History of Photography") by Maurizio Bellincioni, in FOTOREPORTER <>

Click on the photo to enlarge

The Immigrant

Charlie Chaplin, 1917

Written, interpreted and directed by Charlie Chaplin, The Immigrant was projected for the first time in USA movie houses on June 17, 1917.   In this somewhat autobiographical rendition (as Chaplin himself was an immigrant), the film immediately created controversy due to its strong critique of the treatment of immigrants of every nationality who arrived in New York hoping for a better future.  In the scene that follows the frame of the Statue of Liberty envisioned at the end of an ocean crossing, with the titles  indicating arrival in the land of liberty, Chaplin shows the brutality of employees who prod the men and women crowded on the bridge like cattle.

In 1998, a copy of the film, in 35mm, was chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

The Immigrant, 25', b/w, silent.  Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin.  Produced by the Lone Star Corporation.  With Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin.

The Streets of New York


The Newsies Strike

Summer 1899

They were from five to 13 years old; many were children of extremely poor immigrants from Sicily and from the south of Italy.  They sold newspapers on the street bought by the pack from the publishers.  They were, in practice, the distributors, with difficult shifts and only a few pennies in earnings.  In the summer of 1899, 5000 of them struck, blocking even the Brooklyn Bridge.  They caused the downfall of the New York World and of the New York Morning Journal (inspiring the film "The Fourth Estate"), though the publishers, Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst had set armed men and dogs on them.

The Newsies photos of Lewis Hine, 1874-1940, the greatest American photographer who denounced labor conditions during the first half of the 20th century, are deposited in the US National Archives.

State Archives of Palermo

1890 - 1920

Vittorio de Seta (Palermo 1923 - Sellia Marina, Catanzaro, 2011). Director, scriptwriter, and documentarist, is considered the most important Italian author of ethnographic and anthropolical cinema.  Set primarily in Sicily, Calabria, and Sardinia, his documentaries describe with powerful expression the hard living and working conditions of peasants, sulfur miners, fishermen, shepherds, in their socio-anthropological and psychological/existential context through portraits done with sharp, analytical observation and a rigorous sense of composition.  He invented an extraordinary documentary style in his use of color, in his almost total elimination of the external voice and especially in his use of directly recorded sound (while Italian cinema practiced post sychronization almost exclusively).

His documentary "Isole di Fuoco" (Islands of Fire), set in the Eolian Islands, received the Best Documentary prize at the Festival of Cannes in 1955.

"La parabola d'oro" (The Golden Parabola), 10', direction, photography, and montage by Vittorio de Seta.  Shot in 1955 in Sicily, the documentary describes the hard work of grain harvesting by peasants in the vast fields of central Sicily, still the same as one hundred years before.

"Articolo 23",  (Article 23) 6'20, direction and screenplay by Vittorio de Seta, photography by Antonio Scappatura, montage by Roberta Cruciali.  In a deserted town in Aspromonte, the destinies of immigrants and emigrants cross; a young local peasant teaches his occupation to a Senegalese worker;  the next day he must emigrate north to find work.  He participates in the project All Human Rights For All.  The Italian cinema looks at human rights, 2008.

Bibliography:  "Il cinema di Vittorio de Seta" (The cinema of Vittorio de Seta), by Alessandro Rais, Catania 1995.

ARTICOLO 23, Aspromonte 2008



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