Category Archives: Jacob Riis

Progressive Era (1890-1920) 05 October 2010

“The longer we captivate someone and make them think about what they are seeing, the better chance we have of them understanding what it is we’re trying to say with the photography.” (Nighswander qtd. in Horton 223)

Figure 1: Kidnapping scene. The Black Hand (1906). 2011.

Early American films, photography and immigration from the Progressive era were the topics of discussion in today’s class. One of the silent films from what is known as the “primitive era” or “early cinema period” we examined is The Black Hand (1906). It is classed as the first gangster film and this is apparent from its titular connotations. The signing of the appellation “Black Hand” to a letter is associated with the Italian mafia’s means of communicating the significance of a threat, which will only conclude with death if requests are not fulfilled. The threat anxiety gangsters inflicted on society is symptomatic of a national xenophobia concerning the then-present mistrust of foreigners in the US. America’s treatment of white European immigrants in comparison to the treatment of blacks and Native Americans is a topic I am interested in because it exposes the racial inequalities of America’s race relations.

The film also differentiates between America’s perception of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrant by juxtaposing the non-assimilated, gang affiliated criminal with the hard-working, partially assimilated, butcher.

The moral bifurcation of immigrants is also evident from Jacob Riis’s photography. Riis was one of the first photojournalists of America who later became known as “the great Emancipator of the slums” (qtd. in Quirke 561). Photography was the most important propagandist tool of the Progressive era because it could be utilised to reinforce social ideologies.

Figure 2: Jacob Riis’s “Bandits’ Roost” (1888). Web. 2011

The title of this photograph is “Bandit’s Roost” (1888) (see figure 2) which is the name of an alleyway in Manhattan’s Five Points neighbourhood, which is also the setting of the Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York (2002).
The criminality of the immigrants is conveyed through their body language, the light and dark contrasts of the background and the weaponry in the foreground of the photograph. Riis is particularly interested in the concept of illumination, which conveys connotations of revelation and religion. His photography is illuminating their situation, while the photographic usage of light and its absence suggests the divine intervention he intends from social reformation.

There is also a sense of community apparent from the tight knit, proximity of the immigrants’ residency, which is sustained by the loyalty-at-all-costs ethos cementing their social unity. Martin Scorsese’s films emphasize the importance of group morality and intergroup loyalty in his microcosmic depiction of the mafia ethos.

Consequently, early American film and photography capture the social issues concerning immigrants, occupying America’s social consciousness.

Works Cited

Horton, Brian. Associated Press Guide to Photojournalism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Print.

Quirke, Carol. “Picturing the Poor: Jacob Riis Reform Photography.” Reviews in American History 36.4 (2008): 557-565. Project Muse. Web. 05 Oct. 2010.

 


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